Well, yes, the choices are many. And bad fat? Not necessarily. It's all about lean-to-fat ratio, plus there's a little secret component, oleic acid, the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. And remember the dieter's lament: no fat, no flavor. So let's look at those choices. Ground chuck has traditionally been the go-to burger selection. Its higher fat content, about 20 percent, makes if flavorful and juicy, and it's inexpensive. Ground round is the runner-up, about five percent leaner and a bit more expensive. In third place, ground sirloin, at about 10 percent fat, and pricey. And then there are the specialties, brisket, skirt or short rib, which add unique flavor, but also add time grinding at the butcher or at home in the food processor, and money.
Which Meat Should You Use?
Most experts suggest mixing it up, the favored combination being chuck and sirloin. "Sirloin by itself is a bit too lean," says Mark Lobel, of Manhattan's venerable butcher shop Lobel's. "You want something with good fat, and that's chuck." John Tartoff, vice president of Beef at Niman Ranch, agrees: "Too lean and it gets dried out and chewy." He prefers straight ground chuck for his burgers, but occasionally likes to add brisket or skirt steak to "add depth to the flavor profile." Brisket is also the at-home burger preference for Mark Bucher, founder of the nationwide chain, The Burger Joint. "It's high-fat, about 25 percent, for the best juicy and flavorful burger, and it's high in iron from muscle for that great beefy taste," he says. But for a quick family dinner, he relies on the chuck/sirloin supermarket standby. "Fry and sear your patties, put them on a plate to rest, wipe excess fat from the pan, and toast a potato bun right in that same pan," he suggests.
Add Flavor, Not Fat.
If leaner means healthier, it doesn't have to mean blander. Think additives -- but not the negative kind. Cheese, spices, mushrooms, carrots, and onions all add flavor. Try sautéing some broccoli, cauliflower, or zucchini and mixing it in with the beef. "It's a great opportunity at home to experiment," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a leading food-industry consultancy.
Veggies and spices are one way to improve flavor. Another is the cooking method. Frying and broiling are fine, but grilling rules for both health and taste. "Grilling lets the excess fat run off," says Tristano, another fan of the at-home chuck/sirloin combo, who suggests blending in other meats, like buffalo, for a more gamy flavor. But though cooking methods range, certain rules should always be applied. Before you even start cooking, it's crucial to handle the meat correctly, meaning the less, the better. "The more you play around and mold, the tougher the burger is going to be," warns Mark Lobel. "You want to keep seeing the strands from the grinding machine." Once you're ready to cook, "make sure your pan is really hot," he advises. "And don't press down on the patty with a spatula while cooking; you're squeezing the juices out."
Whichever types of beef the experts prefer, there's one combination they agree on: burgers and kids. And it's not just the eating part. Tristano's young sons love making patties. "Using different meats is a great opportunity to create your own recipes," he says. Or go Mark Lobel's route and have the kids make a large tray of 2-ounce sliders to eat on dinner rolls. "It's a lot of fun," he promises. And since you can freeze them and throw them frozen right into the pan, they're really convenient.