Friday, April 24, 2009

How to season ground meat "to taste"

The bloody mixture kept whirling and splattering against the walls of my food processor. For some reason, I found it deeply disturbing. I am not easily disturbed in the kitchen. It doesn't bother me when bugs crawl out of zucchini blossoms, or when a branzino stares at me while I savor its cheeks, or when a worm uncoils out of a founder. I never thought that innocent little chicken livers would remind me of a horror movie. But then again, I've never pureed them raw. Normally I poach them first and then puree them into a pâté. That doesn't look disturbing to me at all. When the recipe from Gourmet told me to throw them into a food processor raw as one of the steps of making a Rustic French Meatloaf, I didn't think twice about it. But as I saw them disintegrate, all I could think was "What a bloody mess!"

Eventually, I got over the ick factor, dumped the bloody mess into a bowl, added ground pork and veal, milk soaked bread crumbs, sweated onions and garlic, and a very generous amount of chopped prunes (that was the ingredient that drew me to this recipe in the first place, and I thought there was no harm done by really going to town with it). Then came the hard part: seasoning.

The recipe called for 1/2 tsp salt. I always have to double the salt measurement to account for the fact that I use Diamond Crystal Kosher salt, not the table salt assumed by most magazines. Still, 1 tsp for 2 Lb of meat? I was sure I needed more. The question was how much more.

When you season smaller pieces of protein (steaks, fish fillets, etc), you get used to how thick a layer of salt to put on them considering their thickness. But when you are seasoning a shapeless pile of meat in a bowl, it's much harder to trust your eyes. That's when I remembered a wonderful trick I learned from chef Ruth-Anne Adams when I worked in Casablanca (the restaurant, not the city :). You cook a tiny bit and taste it. In the restaurant, we always had the grill running, so it was easy to cook a little piece on the grill before tasting. For obvious reasons, this doesn't work at home. Dirtying a skillet just to taste a teaspoon of this mixture seemed like an overkill to me too. So I put a teaspoon of the meat mixture on a plate, and popped it in the microwave for 15-20 seconds. It didn't taste good since no browning happens in the microwave and the cooking was uneven. But even in this unappetizing state, I could taste it for salt.

I kept adding more salt, cooking little pieces, and tasting until the mix was seasoned well. The final amount was somewhere between 3-4 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt. To make sure I wasn't totally off my rocker, I checked Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She normally uses 1 tsp table salt for 1 Lb of meat, which is exactly what I ended up with. Hmm, I wonder if it's not politically correct to ask for this much salt in a recipe these days. But politics aside, wouldn't it at least be helpful if Gourmet gave you instructions on how to adjust the salt to your taste? Hank Sawtelle recently mentioned in his article on blanching that following the recipes blindly can lead to disaster. I couldn't agree with him more. It's good to learn when to step in and take the matters into your own hands.

How did this meatloaf taste? The judges (that's Jason and I) couldn't agree about its merits in the warm state. Jason really liked it, I thought it was just ok. But when we tasted it the next day cold (sliced like a pâté), the raves were unanimous. This dish would make a fabulous hors d'oeuvre, so I guess I'll have to get over my fear of pureeing raw liver in a food processor.


Bernice said...

that's the way I would do it with my dumpling fillings, before wrapping them to make sure they're seasoned right.

MrOrph said...

Ahh, just taste it in tartare state. :-)

I like your way though. I usually fry up little meatballs, but that can still be deceiving if the seasoning isn't thoroughly mixed through, I found.

I do like the base scale you mention here of 1 tsp/lb. I can go up or down, since doc says I have to limit sodium intake.

Nice post.

Anna said...

Can you recommend a good meat grinder preferrebly metal? I have a kitchen aid and I can get the grinder attachment for it but it's plastic and I read some not so great reviews on it.

Helen said...

I have the kitchenaid attachment and don't really like it :( I grind meat so rarely that I never bothered buying a good one. check cook's illustrated.