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.

Here are more tips for tasty results:

  • Handle the ground meat as little as possible. Shape into flat burgers a bit larger than the buns.
  • Chill burgers at least 30 minutes after shaping to help them keep their shape during cooking.
  • Season your burgers with coarse salt, fresh-ground pepper, or seasoning blends or rubs.
  • Coat your grill or pan with cooking spray to prevent sticking.
  • Heat your grill, griddle, or pan before putting the burgers on.
  • Use a flat spatula to flip burgers. Forks pierce the meat and let juices escape.
  • Allow burgers to adequately cook on one side before turning, then flip only once.
  • To keep burgers juicy, resist the urge to press down on them while cooking.
  • For maximum juiciness, cook burgers right before you plan to eat them.

Keeping It Safe

Ground beef should be cooked to at least medium, or 160°F, to minimize the potential for food-borne illness.

"Handling and grinding the ground meat exposes it to potential contamination, which is why it requires a higher cooking temperature." says Chamberlain.

You can put yourself in control of the quality and safety of your meat by grinding it yourself in a food processor, or investing in a basic iron meat grinder. Or, get the butcher to save you beef tenderloin scraps for the ultimate burger that tastes like a filet mignon (at a fraction of the price).

To keep burgers safe during the cooking process, don't cross-contaminate. Line the burger platter with foil or plastic wrap. Discard it after putting burgers on the grill so you won't contaminate the cooked burgers with juices from the raw meat.

Flavorful Add-Ons

To increase the juiciness quotient of a burger made with lean meat, you need to add moisture with sauces, toppings, or add-ins.

"We used 95% lean in our basic burger recipe for The Healthy Beef Cookbook and found the addition of an egg white and some soft bread crumbs made up for the lower fat content and kept the burger tasting moist and delicious," says Chamberlain.

And as for the toppings? "Make your burger healthier with a thin coat of catsup, mustard and/or low fat mayonnaise. Pile on the fresh veggies; and add a slice of low-fat or fat free cheese," suggests Kris-Etherton.

You might even try making a "smothered and covered" burger, using just half a bun and replacing the top with a tower of healthy toppers.

Think of your burger as an opportunity to pile on good-for-you ingredients, the experts suggest.

"Forget about high-fat ingredients such as bacon," says Young. "Instead, load your burger with lots of vegetables and low-calorie sauces."

Low-Cal Options

You can add moisture, flavor, and nutrition with the following ingredients, either inside or on top of the burger:
  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Lettuce or dark leafy greens
  • Mushrooms
  • Salsas
  • Fruit or vegetable relishes
  • Barbeque or steak sauce
  • Pickles
  • Fruit
  • Guacamole.

To add a completely different character to your All-American burger, try some flavorful ethnic add-ons. Try a cucumber yogurt sauce or hummus for a Mediterranean-style burger; arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese for an Italian version; or teriyaki sauce and a grilled pineapple slice for an Asian burger.

Putting a "surprise" inside the burger before you cook it is another great way to add moisture, flavor and fun. Try a scoop of cheese, a grape tomato, or some sauteed onions.

Just remember that when it comes to flavor, fresh ingredients make all the difference.

"Use the freshest, bright cherry-red meat; find the plumpest, juiciest tomatoes; select flavorful lettuce and a hearty whole-grain bun for the best burgers," says Chamberlain.

Watch Your Sides

Whether you're ordering a burger at a restaurant or cooking your own, skip the French fries and other high-fat side dishes, appetizers and desserts. Complement your lean burger with fresh fruit, green salad, beans, or veggies for a nutritious meal.

"Also, watch what you drink along with your healthy burger," says Kris-Etherton. "Don't drink a super-size cola beverage."

Stay hydrated with calorie-free beverages such as sparkling water, plain water, or drinks sweetened with artificial sweeteners.

Better Burger Recipes

Read to get grilling? Here are two lean burger recipes from The Healthy Beef Cookbook.

Basic Lean Beef Burgers

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one burger as "1 serving lean meat with 1 teaspoon fat" + 1 egg

1 pound extra-lean ground beef (also called 95/5 or 5%)
1/4 cup soft bread crumbs
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 whole wheat hamburger buns, split
Toppings: lettuce leaves, tomato slices (optional)

  • Combine ground beef, bread crumbs, egg white, salt, and pepper in large bowl, mixing lightly but thoroughly. Lightly shape into four 1/2-inch thick patties.
  • Place patties on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill, uncovered, 11 to 13 minutes to medium (160°F) doneness (until no longer pink in center and juices show no pink color), turning occasionally.
  • Line bottom of each bun with lettuce and tomato, if desired; top with burger. Close sandwiches.

Yield: 4 servings.

Per serving: 272 calories; 8 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 3 g monounsaturated fat); 65 mg cholesterol; 439 mg sodium; 24 g carbohydrate; 3.6 g fiber; 27 g protein; 6.8 mg niacin; 0.4 mg vitamin B-6; 2.1 mcg vitamin B-12; 3.6 mg iron; 41.9 mcg selenium; 6.4 mg zinc.

Asian Burgers with Ginger-Lemon Mayonnaise

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one burger as "1 serving lean meat with teaspoon fat" + 1 egg + 1 teaspoon butter or margarine + 1 serving side salad without fat

America's favorite food gets an Asian spin.

Burgers:
1 pound extra-lean ground beef (also called 95/5 or 5%)
1/4 cup soft bread crumbs
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 whole wheat hamburger buns, split

Ginger-Lemon Mayonnaise:
1/4 cup light mayonnaise
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives or green onion tops
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (optional)

Toppings:
Shredded Napa cabbage or lettuce, bell pepper strips, bean sprouts

  • Combine Ginger-Lemon Mayonnaise ingredients in small bowl; refrigerate until ready to use.
  • Combine ground beef, bread crumbs, egg white, salt, and pepper in large bowl, mixing lightly but thoroughly. Lightly shape into four 1/2-inch thick patties.
  • Place patties on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill, uncovered, 11-13 minutes to medium (160°F) doneness (until no longer pink in center and juices show no pink color), turning occasionally and basting with 2 tablespoons soy sauce during last 5 minutes of grilling. About 2 minutes before burgers are done, place buns, cut sides down, on grid. Grill until lightly toasted.
  • Place burger on bottom of each bun; top with equal amount of mayonnaise and toppings, if desired. Close sandwiches.

Yield: 4 servings.

Per serving: 340 calories; 14 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 3 g monounsaturated fat); 70 mg cholesterol; 937 mg sodium; 26 g carbohydrate; 3.4 g fiber; 28 g protein; 6.8 mg niacin; 0.4 mg vitamin B-6; 2.1 mcg vitamin B-12; 3.6 mg iron; 41.9 mcg selenium; 6.4 mg zinc.

Published July 14, 2006.


Recipes from The Healthy Beef Cookbook, Wiley, 2006.

SOURCES: Richard Chamberlain, co-author, The Healthy Beef Cookbook; owner, Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House, Dallas, and envy The Steakhouse, Las Vegas. Mary Young, RD, nutrition director, National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, distinguished professor of nutrition, Pennsylvania State University. USDA website, "Beef...from Farm to Table."

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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