The Lean Burger

Is a good Lean Burger the ‘holy grail’ of eating healthy? Everyone eats grass-finished lean beef for their own reasons, but many hope to take in less fat. It is easy to work with grass-finished lean beef for incorporation to recipes like chili, spaghetti, and taco meat. But–let’s be honest–working with grass-finished lean ground beef presents some challenges in pursuit of an juicy, tender burger.

Lean ground beef doesn’t have much fat to shed on the grill, and what does cook out, falls through the cracks, yielding a less than ideal burger. Cooking burgers in the oven also yields a dense burger. Some places say, just add more fat into your meat before you cook. Well, doesn’t that kind of take away from the benefit you hoped to have with lean beef? You can do that, of course, but I wanted to find a way to preserve the lean aspect but have a juicy, tender burger.

So, after some experimentation, you may be surprised to hear me say, “Take out your skillet, please!” Yes, skillet-cooking your ultra-lean burger is the way to go. Here is what to do:

  • Prepare your burgers.  Begin by allowing your beef to come to room temperature, so set it out for about 10 minutes or so before handling.
  • It is recommended that you shape your burger loosely in as much as possible without over-compacting it.
    • For my example, I divided 2 pounds of ground beef into 6 burgers of 1/3-lb each and made them a little shy of 1/2″ thick.
  • Season to your preference on both sides, and don’t don’t be stingy.  I used McCormick Grill Mates Montreal Steak Seasoning.
  • Grab a large glass full of water and keep it handy for cooking.
  • Use a skillet of your choosing.  I used a ceramic coated non-stick skillet.  You can try it in stainless steel or cast-iron but I cannot vouch for results.
  • Use just 1 tbsp of your favorite healthy oil and rub it all around the pan so it is very lightly coated.  This is just to keep the burger from sticking initially.
  • Turn the temp up to medium-high or just shy of high, and let the oil get just good and warm.  
    Seasoned meat going to hot ,oiled pan.
  • Put your burgers in.  Let them sear on the bottom about 2-3 minutes before you loosen them from the pan with a spatula.  Allow them to remain and cook.
    Juices browning in pan.
  • As you see the bottom of your pan begin to darken with cooked on juice (there won’t be much), pour a little water onto the exposed pan areas.  This will bubble and steam off, and keep doing this periodically.
    With water added.
  • After about 6-10 minutes of doing this, your burger should be nicely browned on the  bottom changing color on the sides and over the edge of the side facing up.  You can flip them over.
  • Cook in the same manner on the second side for about 7-10 minutes, or until desired doneness is reached.
  • In almost every other instance you would not want to poke all your burgers with a fork, but I’m going to suggest that you do when you think your burger is nearly done.   (You can also cut one in half if you prefer.)
    • If you see bright red juice run out, it is not quite cooked through and needs a little more time.
    • If your juices are running clear, you are good to go!
  • As your burgers finish, continue to cook the pan just dry and adding another tablespoon or two of water as needed.  
  • Remove with you’re happy with the level of doneness.
The finished burger.

I was surprised to find that the burger did not shrink, in fact, it sort of swelled a bit with the water and it’s own juice it kept reabsorbing. So this is how I recommend cooking a lean burger without any extra fat.

Now, go make that burger and top it the way you like it!



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