The Great American Hamburger: How To Make It Healthier

How to Make a Great American Hamburger

The history of the hamburger makes fascinating reading. There are so many different stories about who made the first one, and how it came to be an iconic fast food.

Whichever way the story goes, the hamburger is America’s favourite and most famous sandwich. At its most basic, it’s a beef patty, grilled or fried, tucked between two halves of a bun. At its most elaborate, anything goes!

two hamburgers with basil on themThere are some incredibly weird burger toppings out there, and we all have our own favourites. But there’s one thing upon which, I think, we can all agree: A really great hamburger begins with great meat.

You can buy ground beef and, with a good recipe, make it taste pretty good. But if you buy quality meat and grind it yourself, or have your butcher grind it, you can have a great tasting burger every time.

Can Red Meat Be Part of a Healthy Diet?

Red meat used to be considered the ultimate health food. Packed with protein, vitamin B12 and iron, it contributes to muscle growth and helps to keep red blood cells and the immune system healthy.

The connection between red meat and cardiovascular diseases has been disproven, however, in recent years, red meat has been linked to some cancers. Consequently, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends  eating no more than 85 grams or 3 ounces three times per week. The American Cancer Society simply suggests that we limit the amount of red meat we eat and eat lean cuts.

Personally, I know from experience (I have experimented with many different diets, including vegetarian and veganism) that I am healthier when I eat a varied diet which includes red meat. I have more energy and fend off viruses better. The meat I choose tends to be lean, because I like it better than the really fatty cuts, and because I suspect it is better for my health.

What Do Ground Meat Labels Mean?

A bowl of ground beef and other ingreadientsAccording to the Canadian Government:

“The Food and Drugs Act in conjunction with the Meat Inspection Act prescribes the following common names and standards for ground meat. In this respect, it is imperative that a product labelled with a given common name contain only that which is allowed by the corresponding standard:

Extra Lean Ground shall be boneless, skinless meat of the species indicated that has been ground and shall not contain more than 10% fat

Lean Ground shall be boneless, skinless meat of the species indicated that has been ground and shall not contain more than 17% fat

Medium Ground shall be boneless, skinless meat of the species indicated that has been ground and shall not contain more than 23% fat

Regular Ground shall be boneless, skinless meat of the species indicated that has been ground and shall not contain more than 30% fat”

Is Fat the Secret to a Great Tasting Burger?

Most burger aficionados and restaurateurs insist that fat adds flavour, so they choose medium or regular ground beef for their patties. If they to grind their own meat, they choose boneless beef chuck, with 20 to 30 percent fat.

Fat does boost flavour but it comes at a cost. All those extra calories and saturated fat aren’t good for your waistline or your general health.

Low-fat Red Meat is Healthier

Fats are essential to good health, and the dietary guidelines from the World Health Organization recommend a total fat intake between 20 and 35% of total calories. However, only 8 to 10% should come from saturated fat.

So, extra lean ground beef is the healthy choice, if you’re buying it prepackaged. And if you’re grinding your own then it’s sensible to choose lean cuts. The USDA suggests:

  • Eye of round roast and steak
  • Sirloin tip side steak
  • Top round roast and steak
  • Bottom round roast and steak
  • Top sirloin steak

pieces of meat ready for grinding My personal favourite is top sirloin. I buy a roast, cut it into cubes, trimming any obvious fat, and put the cubes into the freezer for 30 minutes, (that makes the meat easier to grind). Then, I put the cubes through my KitchenAid mixer’s meat grinding attachment.

Adding Flavour and Moisture to Lean Ground Beef

Some people say, “Burgers aren’t diet food: Make ’em ‘right’ or make something else.” And if ever you’ve had a lean beef patty that was tough and dry you might agree.

But what if you don’t want to give up the occasional burger, and yet you’re not keen to consume the fat that tradition demands? How do you achieve the juicy texture your crave? How do you make it taste good?

One of the best ways to improve the texture of your burger is not to overwork it. Don’t over-chop or massage your ground meat. That causes the proteins to break down and stiffen, which makes your burger tough. This is why I put my meat through the meat grinding attachement of my KitchenAid mixer only once, instead of twice, as some people recommend.

Adding ingredients to ground meat can also help to improve texture and flavour. One of my favourite additions is nuts. I especially like to use chopped pecans. They add a bit of healthy fat and mild sweetness to the meat.

Some other popular additions include fresh breadcrumbs soaked in milk, egg, olive oil and sautéed vegetables such as onions, garlic, peppers, mushrooms, celery and carrots. Sauces, such as ketchup, mustard and steak sauce, normally reserved for toppings, make flavourful additions. Of course, there are many different herb and spice combinations you can try too.

By cutting back on saturated fat in your meat, you can afford to add a little cheese to your burger, if you fancy it. No need to go for rubbery low-fat cheeses. Instead, choose from cheeses which are low in saturated fat but still taste great. These include:

  • Parmesan
  • Goat
  • Feta
  • Mozzarella
  • Neufchatel
  • Camembert

The secret to enjoying these cheeses is to use them sparingly. It’s hard to say exactly how much is too much, because it depends upon what else you’re eating. Just think of cheese as a flavour morsel, and use your good judgement.

How to Safely Grind Your Own MeatKitchenAid meat grinding attachment

Fresh grinding not only allows you to control the quality and fat content of your meat, it also helps to prevent food borne illnesses, including the dreaded “hamburger disease.” The greater the surface area of meat, the more bacteria and pathogens are likely to populate it, and the more dangerous it becomes. That’s why ground meat is especially prone to pathogens: There’s so much surface area.

I have a Kitchen-Aid mixer with a food grinder attachment which makes it easy for me to make my own ground meats. It’s also possible to grind meat with a food processor. However, it’s hard on the motor, and will wear it out more quickly. In any case, the meat must be cold and stiff, so that it’s chopped rather than smeared, especially if you’re using a food processer.

Cutting your meat into one-inch cubes and putting it on a tray in the freezer for 30 minutes will prepare it for grinding. Don’t grind frozen meat, however, because it will turn out water-logged and mushy.

Over-grinding will make your meat tough. Put it through your KitchenAid grinder on the large-holed attachment once, or through your food processer just until it’s broken into large pebble-sized bits.

Keeping It Clean

Wash your hands and put on disposable gloves. If at any time during the grind you need to do something else, remove your gloves; you don’t want to touch anything when you have raw meat on your hands.

When you’re finished grinding your meat, toss out your gloves. Take your grinder apart, remove any meat residue and soak the removable parts in hot soapy water to which you’ve added bleach. To disinfect, add 1 tablespoon (15ml) of bleach per gallon (3.75 litres) of water. Not all bleaches are the same: Use one which contains at least 6% sodium hypochlorite.  

Using a clean cloth or paper towel, wipe your machine with hot soapy bleach water, and dry it before storing it. Wash the counter area with hot soapy bleach water.

Use a brush to scrub your grinder attachments. Inspect the for food particles and rinse well with hot water. You can also put your attachments in the top rack of your dishwasher after scrubbing. Dry thoroughly before storing.

Clean your brush in the hot soapy water, and soak it in bleach water (ratio 1:10) for 20 minutes before air drying. If you want, you can spray your brush, and anything else you like, with a food-safe sanitizer. As a final step, wash and brush your sink and your hands.

Now, after all that, make yourself a cup of tea and put your feet up for 15 minutes before you make your burgers.

hamburger on a bun

The Healthy Hamburger

  • Author: Heather MacDonald


Choose extra lean ground beef or grind your favourite lean meat to make these delicious burgers.


1 pound (454 g) ground beef

1 large egg

1 tbsp finely chopped pecans

2 tbsp milk

1/2 tsp garlic powder or a clove of garlic, finely minced

pinch of salt and pepper to taste


Mix together all the ingredients, except the meat. Add the mixture to the ground meat and gently combine.

Form into four equal patties.

Grill or fry according to taste. (If the meat is freshly ground, you can cook your burger rare. If it’s pre-ground, cook thoroughly, about 5 minutes each side.)


I like to eat my burger without a bun, Salisbury steak style. If you like a bun, make it whole-grain. It’s the healthier option. I am currently looking for a good nutritional label maker for my recipes. Please let me know if you’d like to see nutritional labels on my recipes. Thanks!







Leave a comment