OK, I did a pretty interesting kitchen experiment last night for my Molecular Gastronomy class. Here’s what I did:

  1. Made three 4-ounce patties (one each) of extra-lean (less than 9% fat), lean (16% fat) and regular (20% fat) ground beef and pan-fried them (without added oil) until they were medium done (155 degrees internal temperature).
  2. Made three more patties, browned them on each side, then added 1/4 cup water (to braise them) until they reached 155 degrees internal temperature.

Once that was done, I taste tested them (Jeff helped so I had a second opinion). After that, we ate the remains of the pan-fried experiment with sides of braised greens, beet salad Jeff’s home-canned dill pickles.

I was shocked at how mouth-moisture-suckingly dry the extra-lean ground beef patties were (fried AND braised). And how little flavor they had (no seasonings were added to any of the patties). And to think that, back in the day, we used to buy extra-lean ground beef almost exclusively! Of course, now I know that meat flavor comes from both amino acids (from proteins) and aromatic molecules found in fat. Less fat = less inherent meat flavor.

Our taste-test winner was the lean ground beef. It was moist, tender, and had really good savory, beefy flavor. The regular ground beef was similarly tender, but it had an oilier mouthfeel. It was equally beefy, but had an extra element of flavor that seemed to be simply “fat.”

So in the interest of getting maximum pleasure from food while still eating for good health, I would suggest going for moderate fat in your burger and maybe eating them less often (if you’ve been an extra-lean sort of person). I bought my extra-lean and lean ground beef from Whole Foods, my regular from Trader Joe’s (because Whole Foods didn’t carry it!). I didn’t use the ground beef from our 1/4 steer share because I don’t know the exact fat content (I’m sure it falls in the “regular” range, though).

We never pan fry burgers, we always grill them. I sort of suspect that this reduces the fat content (via drippage) enough that our “regular fat” beef ends up tasting more like the lean beef. But that’s an independent experiment for another day!

As always, I recommend seeking out quality beef (small herds from a local small farm is idea, organic from a larger producer is next best). Fat can really absorb toxins, pesticides and the like, so when allocating your grocery shopping dollar, going for quality meat and dairy (if you eat them at all) is money well spent.