Burgers aren’t exactly renowned for their health benefits. That’s partly because ground beef should contain a significant amount of fat in order to make a decent burger, but mainly because of all the other ingredients and sides that tend to accompany the dish.
Are homemade burgers healthy—or at least healthier than the ones you buy at fast-food joints? The good news is that they can be, as long as you know what you’re doing.
Are Homemade Burgers Healthy?
You can make a homemade burger healthier by opting for beef with a lower fat content, or swapping it out for ground poultry instead. Adding fresh or grilled veggies instead of cheese and bacon will help, too. Keep portion sizes small, and try using a low-carb alternative to the traditional white bun.
What Makes Burgers Unhealthy?
A patty made from ground beef will contain a sizable portion of fat and calories on its own, but that’s not the whole story. In fact, if you keep the patty size under control, you’re already ahead of the game.
4 ounces of 80 percent lean ground beef contains about 285 calories and 22 grams of fat. Though that makes up nearly 1/3 of the recommended daily intake of fat, the meat also provides 19 grams of protein.
Using lean ground beef (see below) will cut the fat content in half and reduce the calorie count to just under 200. Though this doesn’t make an ideal burger, it’s a viable option for the health-conscious.
It’s traditional to use a bun as a vehicle when serving a burger, but this contributes plenty of calories as well, not to mention sodium. What’s more, these are empty calories, meaning they don’t offer much in the way of nutrients.
Then there are the toppings. Cheese and bacon are delicious accompaniments—ones that bring even more saturated fat and sodium to the party. And things like onions and mushrooms are nutritious enough on their own, but less so if they’re sautéed in butter.
How To Build a Healthy Homemade Burger
When you make burgers at home, you have control over the portion size, toppings, and other accoutrements. There’s no reason why burgers can’t be incorporated into a healthy diet. Here are a few tips.
Choose Lean Meat
As we pointed out, ground beef that has a meat-to-fat ratio of 80 to 20 makes a wonderfully juicy burger. But if you’re trying to make a more nutritious meal, there’s no reason why you can’t substitute leaner meat.
85 percent lean ground beef will turn out tasty results, but it won’t reduce the calorie count by that much. It’s better to choose 90 percent lean if you want to make a significant reduction in the fat content of the burger.
We should also note that you can substitute ground beef for something else. Ground chicken and turkey are excellent sources of protein, and they’re naturally leaner than beef. To reduce the fat content even more, select ground turkey breast, which contains all white meat and no skin.
The trouble with lean meat is that it can result in a very dry burger. To keep the burgers moist, handle the ground meat mixture as little as possible, and avoid pressing down on the patties once they’re on the grill.
You can also add moisture by sneaking in some minced or grated veggies. Onions, mushrooms, carrots, and zucchini will contribute flavor and prevent the patties from drying out too much.
Don’t want to use meat at all? Try making a burger out of quinoa or mashed chickpeas. Obviously, there will be some variations in flavor and texture, but plant-based protein sources can be delicious and satisfying in their own way.
Don’t Forget the Spices
Most of the time, salt and pepper are all you need to liven up your burger. But when you’re dealing with leaner meat, you’ll want to take things up a notch.
Toss some dried oregano, thyme, or rosemary into your ground meat or vegetable mixture before you shape it into patties. Saffron and sage also offer plenty of flavor. As a bonus, these herbs and spices provide antioxidant compounds as well.
Keep an Eye on Portion Sizes
A lot of the time, the burgers you order at restaurants will weigh 1/2 pound before hitting the grill. That’s a huge patty, even when you take shrinkage into account.
By keeping your portion sizes under control, you can keep your burger’s calorie count from making a huge dent in your daily total. Weigh the meat on a kitchen scale before forming the patties, and make sure each one clocks in at no more than 4 ounces.
You’ve probably heard that 3 to 4 ounces is considered a standard portion size for meat products. Though restaurants are known for serving oversized portions, there’s no need to follow this formula when cooking at home.
On the other hand, don’t make the patties too small. A 4-ounce portion will shrink by about 25 percent, leaving you with 3 ounces of cooked meat. That’s perfectly reasonable, especially if you’re using beef with a higher fat content.
Be Selective About Toppings
You might be surprised to learn that even basic condiments can sabotage your efforts to create a healthier burger. Mayo, for example, is a common addition, but it’s one of the more fattening ones. Even ketchup contains too much sugar to be considered healthy.
Instead of ketchup, try adding salsa to your burger. Making homemade ketchup is another option. If you miss the creamy texture of mayo, spread some guacamole on the bun instead—it’s laden with heart-healthy fats.
Homemade burgers are excellent vehicles for fresh veggies. Opt for green lettuce, sliced tomato, or red onion. Dill pickle chips pack a flavor punch without adding too many calories, but watch out—they’re also high in sodium.
Do you prefer the texture of cooked vegetables on your burger? Instead of sautéing them in oil or butter, put them on the grill instead. This works well with mushrooms, onions, and peppers, but feel free to experiment.
Swap Out The Bun
Sure, you can always “go naked” and forego the bun altogether. But there are plenty of other alternatives to the buttered white bun, and they’ll make the eating experience more enjoyable—not to mention authentic.
Low-carb bread options, such as bagel thins, are a possibility. Cloud bread is easy to make at home and offers a protein boost. Be forewarned, though, that these alternatives might not be sturdy enough to stand up to your burgers, especially if you use toppings.
Many people on low-carb diets opt to wrap their burgers in lettuce leaves instead. This is particularly appealing if you were planning to put lettuce on your burger anyway.
With their firm, meaty texture, grilled portobello mushroom caps make wonderful bun substitutes. They’re low in calories, a good source of fiber, and can be prepared while you’re grilling the burgers.
Grilled eggplant rounds will serve a similar purpose. Even slices of sweet potato can be grilled and used to hold a burger together, though this isn’t exactly a low-carb option.
Watch Out For Sides
Crisp, golden fries are a standard—and mouthwatering—accompaniment to burgers. Similarly, salty potato chips offer an irresistible crunch—so much so that some people actually use them as a burger topping instead of a side.
Obviously, though, these options won’t do you any favors nutritionally speaking. Serve carrot or celery sticks instead, or apple slices if you prefer something sweet. A side salad is another possibility, as long as you don’t drown it in creamy high-fat dressing.
The Bottom Line
There are numerous ways to boost the nutritional content of your homemade burgers. Though they’re not automatically healthy just because you’re making them at home, you’ll be able to control the fat content of the meat itself, as well as the toppings and sides.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!