How to Build a Healthier Burger

Black Bean & Turkey Burgers from Chili's

Photo taken at Chili's by Thursday Review

How to Build a Healthier Burger

| published December 2, 2015 |

By Maggie Nichols, Thursday Review contributor


As Thursday Review’s frequent food and dining contributor Michael Sigler points out in his book excerpt The Great American Hamburger, the typical burger is a staple of the U.S. diet, especially when it comes to holiday cookouts, and weekends in the backyard or on the patio.

But the standard burger is also laden with all the wrong stuff: fat, for one, and lots of it. Fast food burgers are even worse than what you can prepare and grill at home, for they are often loaded with extra sodium and trans fats, depending on the way they are cooked in restaurants. For these reasons, the classic burger has earned a bad rep as a high-cholesterol health hazard, and folks with a predisposition to heart and circulation problems should avoid them altogether. And depending on how you cook your burger at home, you could end up with most of the same problems.

Let’s face it: despite being delicious and indescribably mouth-watering, burgers are just plain bad for you.

But is it possible to build a better, healthier burger? The answer is yes, and it starts with how you choose your meat, and how flexible you want to be in your definition of what constitutes a hamburger.

One obvious and easy solution is to bypass animal meat completely and make the transition to the many non-meat burgers now available to the vegan and the brave. These can be surprisingly tasty based on how they are seasoned and cooked, and they offer a nice way to substitute meats with the kinds of high protein foods easily disguised into meat-like textures and flavors. For those unfamiliar with the vegetarian alternatives, you may want to spend some time researching those options.

Most markets and grocery stores have introduced a wide range of non-meat products designed—in many cases—to be easily tossed onto the grill or into the microwave. There are several brands of pre-fabricated veggie burgers, and some taste remarkably good considering the lack of animal meat.

But what if you are one of the many millions of people not willing or ready to completely give up meat, especially when it means giving up hamburgers?

The first step is to choose the leanest beef you can buy. This may cost a bit more, but for a few additional cents per pound you can cut the fat content from the typical 15 to 20% (which is really bad) to as little as 2% (much healthier), depending on the grade of beef. Most meat department managers can help you with this, and though they will surely advise you that with all that leanness comes reduced tenderness and moisture, you can be assured that taste doesn’t have to suffer.

The next tasty solution is to make vegetables a part of your burger. That means experimenting with recipes which include veggies mixed in mouth-watering ways directly into the burger patty itself. Seem strange? Not really when you consider the way vegetable materials can be made a regular part of many meatloaf and quiche recipes. Try dicing or mincing a half dozen of your favorite veggie items, then, carefully and thoroughly mixing these into your ground beef or ground chuck. A touch of olive oil will help make sure the vegetable material stays put on the grill, but in most cases, and with a little trial-and error, you’ll find even the olive will be unnecessary.

Example: before forming your burger patties, chop finely the following items: one slice of green pepper, one slice of red pepper, one baby carrot, and a small portion of yellow squash. Add some corn, either canned or fresh. Hand-shape your burger patty (or patties) to the shape and size you prefer, making sure that it retains a solid consistency (a touch of olive oil can help with this), then, place it on the grill. Prepare to turn the burger carefully the first and second time it needs to be flipped, but once the meat starts to brown, the veggies embedded should stay intact. Better still, use an indoor grilling device, such as a George Forman grill.

With a little experimentation and practice, these hybrid burgers can be prepared to perfection, and they’ll cook in less time than an all-meat burger. It’s up to you to decide what types of veggies to add to the mix, but the greater the variety, the more rich the flavor. Another advantage of this type of hybrid burger: it provides a nice way to make the sometimes difficult transition toward a low meat diet (or even vegetarianism) by allowing you to slowly but steadily alter the meat content of your burger.

Not sure about preparing burgers laden with diced and chopped veggies? Most grocery stores now stock a diverse selection of burger patties made from products other than beef or chuck. The number of options out there using, for example, turkey—one of the leanest and least fat-laden poultry products—has grown substantial in the last few years. Again, experimentation will help you decide which versions of turkey burgers are tasty and which are duds.

All veggie burger patties can also be found in most grocery stores. They can be surprisingly inexpensive and in most cases extremely tasty. But be warned: check the nutrition panel carefully for the content of sodium and fat. Just because the package says “all vegetable” or “vegetarian” doesn’t make it necessarily free of heavy salt and fat content. Also, the vegetable content can vary wildly. From burgers made from tofu to burgers made from chickpeas, again you may need to experiment to find the combination of veggie and non-meat flavors acceptable to your taste buds.

One helpful website, Cooking Light, offers a dozen variations on homemade veggie burgers you can easily make in your kitchen. Most can be grilled indoors or out, and the page offers simple instructions on what ingredients are needed.

For the lazy vegetarian, check your grocery store for prefabricated veggie burgers, frozen and ready for the grill or oven. Among the most popular brands: Morningstar Farms, which makes a “Garden Veggie Patty" which is easy to prepare. A single serving is 110 calories, with 350 milligrams of sodium and about 5% total fat (only 2% from saturated fat). As always, adding cheese will defeat the purpose, but layering it with other traditional burger add-ons—lettuce, onion, pickles, mustard, ketchup—will do no major harm. Just go easy on the mayonnaise. Morningstar Farms also offers a wide range of other veggie patties and burgers, including some made from mushrooms and from chickpeas. (For a look at their entire selection, follow this link: Morningstar Farms, Veggie Burgers).

When it comes to restaurants, here’s a surprise: remarkable few mainstream, non-fast-food restaurants have true veggie burgers, presumably because the vegetarian clientele most likely orders salad or pasta (Burger King serves veggie burgers which use the same Morningstar Farms patties mentioned above). Chili’s, as an exception, offers both alternative meat burgers (in their case turkey) as well as a black bean burger (see the photo at the top of this article). Both can be ordered directly from the “burger” section of the menu simple by asking your waiter or waitress to substitute one or the other. They are surprisingly tasty, though in fairness we killed the health effectiveness of the turkey patty pictured above by keeping the three slices of bacon and the special Chili’s sauce.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Great American Hamburger; Michael Sigler; Thursday Review; July 4, 2014.

The Worst, and Best Fast Food ; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; July 14,2014.