So you’re craving a burger and want to cook some so dang delicious you’ll have your neighbors grabbing a step ladder just to peek over the fence to take a big ol’ whiff?
Or maybe you’ve got the grilling and toppings down, but you know there’s one thing stopping you from the next level: choosing and making your own meat blends.
Well, you’d be right. Meat choice and blend matter, and we’re going to give you everything you need to know because there are some definite tricks of the trade here.
Fast facts about the best meat for burgers
- If you aren’t building your own blend, 80/20 chuck is the standard to opt for.
- The more rare you cook something, the less fat is optimal, and vice versa.
- The quality of the beef, a.k.a. grass-fed and grass-finished, plays a huge role.
Understanding ground beef labels
First off — what do we think of when we think about burger meat? Ground beef, right? But that term is as informative as “ground vegetables” and a testament, really, to how far removed we are from the animals and cuts we enjoy from them.
There is power in naming, and knowing, what meat you’re eating and why, and I am going to show you what I mean.
You’ll see two main types in grocery stores: “hamburger” and “ground beef”.
Before we get into the types of meat used in those, let’s talk about ratios.
According to the USDA, “Beef fat may be added to “hamburger,” but not “ground beef.” And a maximum of 30% fat is allowed in either hamburger or ground beef. Both hamburger and ground beef can have seasonings, but no water, phosphates, extenders, or binders added.”
So if we take that, and we look at the typical lean-to-fat splits we see:
- 80/20 = ground beef that contains 80% lean meat and 20% fat
- 85/15 = ground beef that contains 85% lean meat and 15% fat
- 90/10 = ground beef that contains 90% lean meat and 10% fat
And they usually label those as:
- Regular: 25%-30% fat
- Lean: 15-20% fat or 80/20, 85/15
- Extra lean: 90/10
A serving of 90% extra-lean ground beef has less fat, more protein, and fewer calories per serving than 80% lean ground beef, but the amount of iron and zinc is slightly higher in leaner ground beef [*].
The point? We can see:
- Evidence of that 30% fat rule in action.
- That packages labeled “hamburger” often have additional fat added. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could be compensating for tough trimmings.
What is ground beef made of?
Ground beef is usually a combination of chuck and sirloin, and you’ll usually see that on the packaging. Extra-lean ground beef is usually all or mostly sirloin, and higher fat cuts usually have more chuck in them.
And unless you are buying pre-packaged ground beef, ground beef from a meat department won’t be super accurate with its fat labels. It’s not that they are out to get you, it’s just that using a fat analyzer is more work, and butchers often estimate based on the cuts they use.
And again, “hamburger” means everything we just said but they are allowed to add straight fat into the blend, instead of having to rely on fat from the meat trimmings themselves.
Understanding the role of fat in burgers
Fat, apart from keeping burgers moist, serves as a vehicle for holding and delivering flavor. Lean ground beef, like 85/15 and up, is usually too dry for a good burger. You have to have fat!
The right choice also depends on how you cook the burger, though.
Getting really nice beef that you plan on cooking medium rare? You don’t need as much fat to keep them juicy because you won’t be cooking them as long. Plus unrendered fat isn’t a pleasant texture. An 80/20 or 85/15 with some extra fat in the pan would be great here.
Going for medium-well or fully cooked, rapid-fire smash burgers at a grill out? You probably want to up that fat content to compensate for the liquid and fat you’ll lose from smashing them down. Maybe a 70/30 is the right call or an 80/20 with extra fat mixed in.
Cooking medium matters too. Grills lose fat and water to the flames. That’s what all that hissing is! You probably want more fat when grilling.
Pan-frying? The fat and water stay in the pan, and therefore still can absorb back into the hamburger. You probably don’t need as much.
The perfect meat for a burger
The best and most conventional meat for a classic, affordable burger night is an 80/20 ground chuck. But the greater truth is that there is no perfect meat for a burger. Some chefs swear by 70-30 [*], others think that is too fatty. It depends on preferences, cooking methods, and desired taste, but you can’t go wrong with 80/20 when opting for pre-packaged or prepared meat from the butcher.
Why 80/20 is a good choice for burgers
80/20 ground chuck is a classic for a reason. It’s tasty, meaty, and binds well with the fat for a moist but sturdy burger. You can cook it most ways and get a good result, making it a versatile option for bigger parties.
Pro Tip: Make sure that it says ground chuck, not ground beef, which is ambiguous and inconsistent. Even ground chuck has its inconsistencies, but it should be close to full chuck.
Building your own blend is where the magic happens
If you love burgers, like really love burgers. The next step is creating your own blends.
Once you understand fat ratios, the next step is to begin thinking about the individual tastes of each cut, how you will cook them, and how you can combine different lean meats and fattier cuts to enable your desired result.
You don’t need a grinder, either! Your butcher is there to serve you, and they are usually more than happy to grind up whatever meat you need and nerd out about burgers.
For example, you may love the taste of good sirloin but realize that ground sirloin is pretty lean. Usually 90/10. Pairing that with bacon trimmings will up the fat content and bring it closer to a usable blend.
Here are some go-to cuts to use for your custom burger blend [*].
Lean muscle choices:
- Chuck: As we’ve mentioned, chuck is a standard for a reason. It’s like a tender steak and has a nice blend of fat throughout the meat. Plus since the chuck is so active over a cow’s life, it has a lot of myoglobin, which is that signature protein that gives meat its flavor and redness.
- Round: Round tastes great but is pretty lean, so make sure you add something fatty like bacon trimmings or short ribs to balance this out.
- Brisket: Brisket’s flavor is legendary, but that comes with toughness. Be prepared to grind this a bit finer and mix it with a fattier cut.
- Navel: Navel is a cut from the plate primal and supposedly gives burgers a bit of a creamy, buttery flavor.
- Short rib: Short rib fat doesn’t render as quickly, making it great for helping burgers stay moist. Pair this with sirloin or other extra-lean meats.
- Bacon trimmings: Using pork fat or bacon trimmings is a great way to give some more depth of flavor to your blend.
The more rare you cook it, the leaner the blend should be, otherwise, you’ll have a lot of uncooked fat. If you’re going for a well-done burger, up that fat content to as high as 40% [*].
And remember: you can make chicken burgers, lamb burgers, organ meat burgers, venison — as long as you respect fat ratios, the world is your… patty?
Choosing the best burger meat from the store
If you want to know how your uncle Jack always has the best burgers during the 4th of July or how your favorite restaurant seems to nail the consistency in every one you try, then this is how.
Don’t skimp on quality
The first secret to choosing the best meat for burgers is to always opt for the best beef or meat possible.
This won’t always be an option if you’re trying to save money, but by choosing the right beef provider, you can dramatically raise the quality of your meal.
The best beef providers use 100% grass-fed beef, don’t use hormones or antibiotics, and don’t use pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers.
US Wellness Meats was founded in 2000 in Monticello, Missouri (pop. 98) by visionary farmers, who saw that big-business cattle-raising practices were taking a toll on our animals and our health.
By returning to rotational grazing practices that are good for the planet and good for our cattle, we led the way in introducing a new generation to the unmatched taste, tenderness, and healthiness of grass-fed beef.
Try the best-tasting and healthiest burger meat in America.
Don’t think brown always means bad
The red you see and associate with freshness isn’t mostly blood. It’s a color that arises from proteins (myoglobins) and water mixing together. Meat browning isn’t always a sign of spoilage, and more often than not, it isn’t [*].
Browning occurs because of two reactions: oxidation and reduction. Oxidation refers to electrons being lost in the molecules in meat due to an increase in oxygen. Reduction occurs when electrons are gained by a lack of oxygen [*].
You can actually see meat deprived of oxygen regain some of its redness if re-exposed to oxygen, and many times the browning you see can be a sign of tenderness. Enzymes, which are proteins that serve as chemical catalysts, are working and tenderizing meat all of the time [*].
The point? Do a smell test. If it smells fine, and you cook it to a reasonable temperature, your risks are very low.
Make sure it says ground chuck on the package
Ground beef isn’t the same, even if it says 80/20. It will be close but will likely include a larger variety of trimmings and meat. So if you want actual ground chuck, double-check the package or work with your butcher directly.
Best practices for cooking your burger
Salt right before grilling
It’s usually a good idea to salt early with meat. Hours, even days in advance sometimes — but not with burger meat! Salt right before you toss them on to bring out flavor while retaining a tender, crumbly texture.
Use a meat thermometer
Guessing when you aren’t a pro is a safe bet to a less-than-ideal patty. Play it smart by investing in a meat thermometer.
The typical guidelines are:
- 135 for medium-rare
- 140 for medium
- 145 for medium-well
- 150+ for well done
- 160 for USDA recommendation
Let them rest for at least 5 minutes
When meat is cooked, its protein strands constrict, squeezing out the liquid — just like wringing out a t-shirt. That’s why burgers “bleed”. If you cut or bite into them right after cooking, liquid (and flavor!) will spill everywhere.
Letting meat relax gives time for those protein strands to relax and reabsorb more of the liquid, increasing flavor, reducing messiness, and improving the texture.
Our favorite burger recipes
Now for the best part — cooking! Here are some of the best burger recipes we know of. Use their recommended blend or get your own.
Don’t take it from us — Veronica Culver breaks down her exact process for getting that melt-in-your-mouth, screaming-for-round-2 burger texture.
Not having a bun isn’t the end, you just have to get creative. This paleo burger combines parsnip fries, guac, and red onions to make a delicious weeknight meal.
Adding organ meats to your burger blend is a clever way to get a huge nutritional boost. This organ meat burger is made with homegrown lamb heart, ground venison, grass-fed ground beef, beef bacon, and beef liver.
The secret here is the chimi sauce, which is a sort of thousand island with a citrusy twist. You will love it, I guarantee it.
Elvis burgers are strange but don’t knock them until you try them. They’re like a fatty nostalgia bomb that will send you straight to burgervana.
The bottom line on choosing the best meat for burgers
In short, opt for 80/20 chuck if you’re cooking for a lot of people and want an easy, versatile option, but experimenting with your own blends is the pro move.
Also, over half the battle is won by the decisions you make before you step into the kitchen. If you buy from a beef provider who follows the most natural and healthiest raising practices and choose a ground meat blend based on the best practices mentioned above, then you’ll be well on your way to the perfect burger.
Get burger meat raised on the best grasslands in the world delivered straight to your door.
Nathan Phelps owns and writes for Crafted Copy, a boutique copywriting shop that finds the perfect words for interesting products. He is also an ethical foodie, outdoors-aficionado, and hails from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.