How to Build a Better Burger

Try these lean and luscious versions of America's favorite sandwich.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Is there anything better than a burger during grilling season?

Burgers sizzling on the grill are as American as apple pie. But with so many Americans overweight, it's clear we need to find a way to enjoy this tradition without so many calories. A typical burger starts with high-fat ground beef and is then dressed with toppings that push the fat meter even higher.

We tend to think of hamburgers as being inherently bad for us. But that's not necessarily the case.

"Burgers can be part of a heart-healthy diet," says Penn State University researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD. "The key is portion control -- and the use of lean beef."

So just how do you go about making a burger that not only tastes good but is good for you?

The right ingredients, proper cooking, and flavorful toppings are the keys to a perfect burger, says Chef Richard Chamberlain, co-author of The Healthy Beef Cookbook.

"The juiciest burgers tend to be high in fat, but you can still make a delicious burger that is low in fat and nutritious," he says.

Choosing the Meat

To make a healthy burger, you can start with lean beef, poultry, even bison. Even if you don't eat meat, you can enjoy a burger. Aside from the standard veggie burgers, try a marinated and grilled portobello mushroom cap in a bun.

But for purists, beef reigns supreme.

"There is simply no substitute for the beef patty," says Chamberlain, owner of Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House in Dallas.

Some people prefer turkey burgers, and are perfectly willing to forego the traditional burger taste for a lower-calorie alternative. But they might be surprised to learn that most ground turkey is a combination of light and dark meat, and thus can be higher in fat than lean beef, says Mary Young, RD, nutrition director for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

She points out that much of the fat from the beef drips out during cooking, thus the end product may be even lower in fat than the food label indicates. Lean beef is also rich in essential nutrients, including high quality protein, zinc, vitamin B-12, selenium, phosphorus, niacin, iron and more.

The Definition of Lean

For a lean beef burger, grind any of the 29 cuts that qualify as lean under U. S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. Those cuts include eye round, sirloin tip, top round, bottom round, top sirloin, brisket, round tip, round steak, tri tip, strip steak, flank, tenderloin, T-bone, ranch steak, and top loin.

The USDA defines "lean" as meat that has less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100-gram (3-ounce) cooked serving. "Extra lean" is defined as meat that has less than 5 grams of total fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol per 100-gram cooked serving.

Either the extra lean (also known as 5% or 95/5) or the lean (also known as 10% or 90/10) is a healthful option, says Kris-Etherton.

"The advantage of choosing the 5% (extra lean) is, it is lower in saturated fat, which is beneficial to lowering risk of coronary heart disease," she says.

Cooking Tips

Outdoor grilling is one of the best methods for searing juicy flavor into a burger, although "flat iron grills, griddle pans, and the broiler can also produce nicely browned and delicious burgers," says Chamberlain.

Higher-fat burgers are easy to cook. The fat not only holds the burger together, it helps sear and cook the meat over a high heat, resulting in a crunchy exterior and juicy interior. Leaner meats, on the other hand, require a lower cooking temperature and benefit from added ingredients to increase moisture.

Chamberlain suggests using a 90/10 lean ground beef, cooking it over medium heat for even browning, and finding creative ways to add moisture without extra calories.

"Cooking leaner burgers over medium heat produces a juicier, evenly browned burger with an added health benefit of a lower risk from carcinogens that are formed at higher heats," he says.

For the leanest burger, Dietitian Kris-Etherton recommends not only cooking with a method that lets some of the fat escape (such as grilling or broiling), but also cooking the burgers until they're well-done.