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I've noticed that sometimes, I'll cook mince and providing I stir and chop the meat, it doesn't clump, but sometimes it does clump and I can't seem to work out any kind of pattern for when it does doesn't... except to maybe say that it tends to clump less the wetter it is. What causes mince to clump, and how can it be prevented?

(the really annoying thing is that when I make burgers or something and WANT it to clump - it won't)

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You answered your own question. Add cold water and break up the clumps with your hands. My Italian grandfather used this method for his meat sauce. I also see hot dog stands use the same technique to make their chili sauce. So long as you don't boil all of the liquid away the meat will not clump.

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An interesting idea, and definitely the same one used traditionally in Cincinnati style chili :-) It does not apply if browning is desired. –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 28 '13 at 0:09
    
@SAJ14SAJ: You could always drain/boil it off and then add some oil after it's cooked if you want browning; I've never had it clump after it's cooked. –  Aaronut Feb 28 '13 at 0:45
    
@Aaronut That would be an interesting experiment--what texture would you get, compared to the pure Cincinnati chili technique, or normal brown and braise? –  SAJ14SAJ Feb 28 '13 at 0:52
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I don't think there is any one factor that influences whether ground meat (as we say in the US) sticks together, or breaks apart into crumbles.

Among the variables that influence it are:

  • Binders or starches, such as breadcrumbs or a panade, or even an egg yolk -- these items help promote sticking together, although they also affecth the flavor and texture

  • Amount of salt -- Salt makes the meat want to stick together more as it cures; this is why even fresh sausage is so much more cohesive than ground meat. Of course, at the high end, it changes the texture to sausage-like, which is is more resilient and chewy (some might say rubbery, when it is not a desired charactaristic)

  • Amount of fat -- Fat, up to about 25% (give or take) helps promote sticking together; very lean meat is much harder to get to stick together

  • Pressure -- squeezing the ground meat together, as in making a hamburger patty, tends to make it more likely to stay that way, but at a price in texture, as it will also be more compact and, to some folks, less desirable

  • Mechanical action -- breaking up the clumps with your fingers, or your spoon, or whaztever, to physically separate the chunks.

So to get maximally crumbled up ground meat, as for a ground-meat based pasta sauce:

  • Crumble it as you add it to the pan
  • Don't salt until it is browned
  • Stir it early and often, breaking up clumps with your spoon (this goal is in tension with getting a nice browning)
  • Don't use added binders like egg or bread
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