How to Make a Guilt-Free Hamburger

by Ann Taylor Pittman

OK, so you love burgers, but sometimes want to go a little lighter. After all, if you’re starting with fattier meat (like ground chuck) and then stuffing cheese, mayo, and other caloric toppings into an oversized bun, calories and fat add up shockingly fast—not to mention sodium. Sometimes leaner burgers (made with ground turkey or lean ground beef) don’t give you the satisfaction you’re looking for; without the right techniques, they can be dry and bland. Here are some tips to help you grill up the juiciest, most flavorful lean burgers.

The Meat

First, let’s talk a little about what meat to use. My top pick for a leaner burger is lean ground turkey (not turkey breast); this choice is about 7% fat by weight. Ground turkey breast, on the other hand, is about 1% fat by weight—so it’s extremely lean. If you want to go for the latter, that’s fine; just use the tips below to prevent it from being too dry. As for ground beef, ground sirloin (10% fat) or lean ground beef (7% fat) are great choices, and grass-fed beef will have richer flavor.

The Portions

One way a burger gets out of control is simply by including too much of all those good things that make burgers so delicious. For the meat, stick to a 4-ounce patty (so four burgers per 1 pound of meat). If that seems skimpy to you, think of it this way: That’s a quarter pounder! And try to choose an appropriately sized bun. One that’s 1.5 to 1.75 ounces is ideal for your 4-ounce patty.

The Moisture and Flavor Enhancer

The secret to a juicier, more savory lean burger lies in one simple ingredient: mushrooms. They add and hold onto moisture in the burger and lend more umami depth to the patty. You’ll need to cook them first, which is a quick process. Opt for cremini/baby bella mushrooms if you can; shiitake are too strong in flavor and button may be too mild. Use 8 ounces of mushrooms for each pound of meat. Pulse them in a food processor until finely chopped, and then sauté in a skillet until the liquid is released and then evaporates (about 6 to 9 minutes). Let this cool slightly, and then mix it with the meat. Add a splash of soy sauce, too, for extra savory depth.

The Shaping

Use a gentle hand when forming your burger patties. If you try to get them perfectly round, with perfectly even edges, you risk compacting the meat too much—which leads to a dense, tough texture. Leave the edges a little craggy; they pick up more smoky flavor from the grill that way anyway.

The Grilling

Leaner meat is less forgiving of overcooking than fattier cuts. So watch your burgers closely, and use a meat thermometer. For poultry burgers, you’ll need to cook to an internal temperature of 165°F—and the burgers will really suffer if you cook them beyond that. For ground beef, you should cook to 160°F for food safety (though if you trust your butcher, you can probably go a little less).

The Toppings

If you’ve taken this much care to build a leaner burger, don’t blow it with highly caloric toppings. Try some of these fun suggestions for incredible flavor, color, and texture.
Fresh vegetables: slivered red onion, tomato slices, shaved cucumber, lettuce/spinach/arugula, sliced jalapeño, fresh herbs, sliced radishes, pico de gallo
Pickled/fermented vegetables (beyond standard pickles): pickled red onion, pickled peppers, kimchi, chowchow, giardiniera, capers
Grilled vegetables/fruit: bell peppers, zucchini or yellow squash, shiitake mushroom caps, red onion slices, pineapple slices
Creamy spreads: tzatziki sauce, herbed yogurt, hummus, mashed avocado (though avocado is high in calories, it is full of heart-healthy unsaturated fat)