When Dr. Donald M. Small of Boston University published his recipe for making red meat lower in saturated fat and cholesterol in the New England Journal of Medicine, skeptics scoffed, saying the method would take too much time for busy home cooks and would produce a product that resembled sawdust more than the juicy meat we crave.
Indeed, tests of his recipe on ground beef conducted at Baltimore's International Culinary Institute and in my home kitchen showed the method is time-consuming, but results can vary from dry to delightful. Variables include how precise you are in the fat-removal technique, the recipe you use the meat in and the amount of the "defatted" broth you add back to the meat.
Dr. Small, the first researcher to publish a recipe in the New England Journal of Medicine, developed a process he says reduced cholesterol 43 percent and saturated fat 72 to 87 percent in ground beef. An avid cook who does much of the family cooking, he did the research in his Quincy, Mass., kitchen and analyzed the results at the university laboratory.
His process requires several steps, taking about 20 minutes for the initial preparation and at least two hours of refrigeration time. Ground meat (beef, pork or lamb) is heated and browned in oil. Then it is strained, washed with boiling water and the liquid is reserved in a collection jar. The jar of liquids is chilled in the refrigerator until fat forms on the top. Then the fat is skimmed off and the defatted meat stock can be added to the meat to restore flavor. Afterwards, the mixture can be added to soups, stews, chilis or spaghetti sauce, according to Dr. Small.
Although adding oil sounds like a strange way to extract fat, he says the "good" vegetable oil dissolves the "bad" fat and cholesterol, like salt dissolves in water. Then the good oil replaces the bad in the meat.
In the tests at Baltimore's International Culinary College, we compared ground top round using the general preparation guidelines of Dr. Small's extraction method with naturally low-fat ground turkey breast cooked in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. When both the defatted ground beef and the ground turkey were served with the same spaghetti sauce, the turkey came out the clear winner in texture and flavor. The "defatted" beef was dry, gritty and did not blend with the spaghetti sauce. The turkey, on the other hand, had a characteristic poultry flavor and married well with the sauce.
"I don't think people will take the time to do this for these results," said Chef Michael Baskette, director of faculty, who is working on a cookbook and nutrition guide to be published in the summer. "The turkey tastes much better and is much lower in fat to begin with."
But when I retested the recipe in my home kitchen using supermarket lean ground beef and additional suggestions from Dr. Small, the meat retained its flavor and married well with Dr. Small's recipe for homemade sauce. The moisture was back and the beefy flavor returned. But, in order to achieve these results, the cook needs to operate like a scientist -- monitoring the oil carefully with a thermometer, mixing all or most of the defatted broth with the meat and making the sauce using the beef/broth mixture rather than adding the mixture to a finished sauce.
Dr. Small says he is confident people will try his fat extraction method, but he will be satisfied even if it catches on only with those people who have a cholesterol problem.
And he stresses that he isn't suggesting we increase our consumption of red meat. His study was independent, with no funding from any special interest meat groups.
"I am not an advocate of eating more red meat," he says vehemently. "We ought to eat less red meat, but we need to make it better for us. If you prepare it this way it will be a much better, healthier product."
But what about using ground turkey breast instead?
Some people, he says, don't want to give up the taste of red meat and this method makes the two products comparable. The total fat in ground turkey breast is a little lower than in his treated beef. The total saturated fat won't be any lower in the turkey and cholesterol will be higher, he says.
To prepare his recipe you will need the following equipment:
*large frying pan or Dutch oven
*large strainer (not plastic)
*collection jar or bowl
The following recipe combines a favorite spaghetti sauce recipe of Dr. Small's with the technique he published in the medical journal. The flavor is excellent despite the few ingredients because the Spanish onions release their natural sweetness, a foil for the acidity of the sauce.
Dr. Small's lean beef spaghetti sauce Makes 6 servings.
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil, such as safflower or canola
2 pounds lean ground beef
about 2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 Spanish onions, sliced fine or chopped in food processor
1 can (12 ounces) tomato paste
2 bay leaves