Rumble in the Crumble
The question blew my mind 22 years ago as my designated food salesperson showed me his two ground beef pizza toppings; The bag of individually quick-frozen beef crumbles looked like cemetery soil ready to be thrown on a pizza like dirt on a coffin. The crumbled topping seemed so distant from beef because it contained soy, garlic powder, granulated onion and caramel color. The salesman’s marketing pitch was that it had “no shrinkage” and “No annoying beef oils” and guaranteed to reduce labor costs and be perfect for K-12 education lunches. The other option were larger frozen round pellets containing the same ingredients, (Hence the industry moniker, Rabbit turds.) “Pretty nice huh?” he said with glee. I was shocked.
These days, I use only local beef on my pizzas figuring that if you’re going to put a topping on a pizza, it better be good. This plain and simple rule brings customers back time and time again. Ground beef can either be a glorious king on a pizza or a stupid jester as a secondary flavor. Ground beef can be a wonderful deep flavor, and the ability to manipulate it into numerous variations for pizza brings the wonderful oils and juices to lollygag around with the melting cheese and crisp wheat. This is my idea of paradise.
Grinding beef goes way back into history. The Roman cook Apicius has numerous ground beef recipes dating to the 5th century AD. Pisa siva faba, or Meatballs with Fava beans, marries ground beef with garum (fish sauce), red wine, cumin, celery seeds, honey, and olive oil. The Roman Esticia omentata were a big hit as stuffed meat patties with breadcrumbs, myrtle, garum, pine nuts and bound with caul fat, (fatty intestine used for binding meat.)
Today’s use of ground beef is spectacular in so many ways. Here are a few ground beef recipes from around the world.
- Moroccan grilled beef with ground beef, onion, parsley, pepper, dry-cured olives, tomato, cumin and salt served with onion relish and pita.
- Gato di Patate Rustico blends Sicilian and Neapolitan flavors in a mashed potato pie with ground beef, breadcrumbs, egg, Prosciutto di Parma, mozzarella di buffala, Scamorza, pecorino Romano, pine nuts, currants.
- Bosnian Pljeskavica with ground beef and veal, onion, garlic, hot peppers, parsley, pepper and served with tomato and lemon.
- Mexican Picadillo Tacos is ground beef flavored with onions, almonds, cloves, allspice, cumin, oregano, garlic, onion, jalapeño, tomato, green olives, capers, and raisons. Served with arbol chili salsa and a squeeze of lime.
- Turkish yufka is a non-yeasted dough with milk, egg and wine vinegar topped with a mix of ground beef, yogurt, lemon juice, pistachio, parsley and pepper. The dough is then rolled like a long snake and then rolled up and baked in an oven and eaten hot with a pistachio yogurt.
- Greek Gozleme is cooked ground beef mix with allspice, hot pepper flakes, oregano, cumin, paprika, sugar, orange zest, parsley, feta cheese, butter and olives. These are blended and mixed inside a pita and grilled until crisp.
Leave it to Beefer
To deepen your menu options, ground beef offers a wide range of opportunities. Some chefs are going back to the classics like Steak Tartar using chopped tenderloin of beef and even meatloaf. Every way you use ground beef, there are several techniques you may want to know.
- Ratio of beef to fat. The industry standard for a lot of restaurant ground beef is 80/20. This is a good start because of cooking. The juices of the beef seem to escape onto other ingredients unless you use other partners in the mix. If you have a leaner mix, the beef may shrivel up and crack.
- Binders. In my 20 years of making meatballs, I’ve had some massive fails because of hydration or wet meat. After all, you can’t roll a meatball if it is mush. I love pre-prepared Panko, (Japanese style breadcrumbs) but I’ve had to use a quickly cooked pizza crust chopped into submission as an alternative. I like to add egg and breadcrumbs together because the egg penetrates the crumbs and sets up under heat creating a great meatball mouthfeel and taste combined with herbs and cheese.
- Cheeses. The other binders that add structure and flavor to ground beef are grated cheeses. My favorite grated binders with beef are Manchego, Asiago, Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, Kashkaval, Provola di Buffala Affumicate, and aged Gouda.
- Pizza Cheeses with Ground Beef. Because beef has such a pronounced bold taste, I’ve found that pairing it with a multitude of cheeses brings different results. My greatest hits are Gorgonzola, Feta, Chevre, Provolone, Parmigiano, Labneh, Genovese Prescinsua, Cheddar, Brie, Pepper Jack, Stilton, Emmental, and even American cheese.
Spicy Beef and Bacon Meatball Pizza
This is a fan favorite in my pizzeria because of the meaty, fatty lushness of the meat-bacon mix combined with the spice from Calabrian chilies and the herbal follow through of the basil and parsley. All these flavors play well with the cream sauce, Asiago and the spinach.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.