Guide to Barbecue and Burgers

by Charles Platkin, PhD

And all those different types and cuts of meat ­ they’re quite confusing. There’s ground round, ground chuck, ground sirloin; which do you choose? The less fat (especially the “bad” saturated fat) in a piece of meat, the healthier it is said to be (although recently we’ve been learning about other issues with beef, specifically L-Carnitine, a nutrient in red meat that has been linked to heart disease). In addition, there’s the question of calories. For instance, extra-lean ground beef (96 percent lean) has 195 calories for 6 ounces, while 85 percent lean ground beef has 360 calories, and 80 percent lean has 435 calories. And keep in mind, your home-barbecued are usually much bigger than 6 ounces ­ plus many people typically eat more than one. So why not just go with the lowest-calorie meat? The problem is, leaner meats tend to dry out more during cooking and have less flavor. But it doesn’t have to be like that. 
-Use less meat and give your burger additional texture and flavor by mixing the meat with finely chopped mushrooms, peppers and onions. You’ll have the same size burger, but it will be lower in calories ­ and you’ll also be getting the health benefits of all those vegetables. 

-Mix the meat with egg whites (two per pound), whole-wheat bread crumbs, water, salt, pepper and onion and garlic powder. 
– Add herbs and spices. To make leaner cuts of meat tastier, try a blend of fresh herbs (such as thyme, marjoram, chives and parsley) or dry ground spices (black pepper, smoked paprika, cumin and cayenne), says John Greeley, executive chef at the famed 21 Club in New York City. Herbs and spices add a lot of taste with practically no calories. Whether you use fresh or dried herbs, always crush them first to release their full aroma.
-Marinate your meat overnight in something like Lawry’s Herb & Garlic Marinade, which has only 30 calories for 3 tablespoons.
-Use cooking spray instead of oil. Spray the burger itself (NEVER spray on an open flame, which is very dangerous) so it doesn’t stick to the grill or pan. To compensate for the lower fat content of the beef, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of defatted broth, water, juice or wine to the pan. 
-Style matters. According to Paul Gayler, executive chef at The Lanesborough Hotel London and author of The Gourmet Burger (Gibbs Smith, 2005): “Meat should be coarsely ground. If it’s too finely ground, the burger is more likely to fall apart, and the texture will be less satisfying.” Also, keep the meat loose. Burgers will be less juicy if you over-pack the patties. Good burgers should be about an inch thick and have a slightly thinner center. 
-Once burgers are shaped, chill them again to firm up the meat before cooking, recommends Gayler. 
-Burgers are best cooked over medium-high heat. 
-Don’t press down on the burger with the spatula while cooking (or at all). It drains out all the juice and dries out the burger. Also, make sure you cook burgers slowly so they don’t dry out. 
-When it comes to buying your burger meat, try to go with organic, grass-fed beef. It matters for quality and health. Go to or to see what all those beef labels mean ( ), or read what The New York Times has to say about grass-fed beef ( ). One caveat, make sure to still look at the percentage of fat (e.g., 95 percent lean), and choose the leanest available. 
Chicken, Turkey, Vegetable and Other Burgers
Choosing poultry or vegetables rather than beef for your burgers could reduce the calories, saturated fat (linked to heart disease) and L-Carnitine content. But be wary
 ­ you still have to make smart choices. 
– Turkey and chicken burgers: 6 ounces of ground turkey breast have about 180 calories. But when your turkey burger contains other, fattier parts of the bird, a 6-ounce burger can run as high as 300 calories. The same goes for chicken burgers ­ ground chicken breast is the best bet. Recently Consumer Reports has found that 90 percent of the ground turkey samples they tested contained one or more of five bacteria (two of which cause foodborne illnesses). Read more here: 
-Pork burgers: Try to find lean ground pork loin (10 percent or less fat), which has approximately 240 calories for 6 ounces. However, if you get regular ground pork (20 percent or more fat), watch out: You’re looking at 450 calories. 
– Salmon burgers: These are pretty low in both calories and fat, plus you get the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3s. A 3.2-ounce patty (from Trader Joe’s) is 110 calories, so two patties, 6.4 ounces (compared to the meat burger), have 220 calories. According to Greeley, “Asian flavors such as soy, teriyaki, lime, wasabi, sesame seeds work well with salmon burgers. Fresh herbs such as cilantro, scallion and dill add good flavors. Also you can brush your burger with a tamarind paste or sauce with a squeeze of lemon. Serve medium rare to medium with sliced avocado and pickled cucumber.”
– Vegetable burgers: They’re lower in calories and fat than any other choice. For example, a Boca Burger has only 80 calories. Also you can try a Trader Joe’s or Tandoor Chef Masala Burger (a vegetable burger with spices) for about 120 calories per patty. 
-Chef Greeley says veggie burgers are the most difficult to make at home because, without the correct blend of moisture and binder, they tend to crumble or fall apart. He uses ground smoked tofu, blending it with ground cooked mushrooms, tahini and hummus, and binding it with a little wheat flour. “Form into balls and coat with a light dusting of the wheat flour, then form into patties,” suggests Greeley. “Flavors such as minced onion, garlic, black pepper, cumin, and tomato powder are fantastic. Almost any soft fresh herb will work, including basil, oregano, chervil, tarragon and chive. Brush the patties with olive oil and cook under a broiler, or lightly grill just enough to sear the outside and get the inside hot.”
Also, famed healthy chef Cary Neff’s recipe for Black-Bean Griddle Patties is a delicious low-calorie treat. The recipe is available at
Other recipes for healthy vegetable burgers can be found at (here: ) and offers Pecan and Mushroom burgers as well as Curried Cashew Burgers at http :// ) 
–       Bison burgers: They offer some savings in terms of calories and fat compared with traditional beef burgers. A 4-ounce TenderBison Bison Burger (frozen) has 220 calories and 11 grams of fat (5 saturated). 

The Bun 
Buns can add anywhere from 110 to 180 calories. A regular 1.5-ounce white hamburger bun has about 110 calories, but kaiser rolls are normally higher at 180 calories. For more fiber, try to get 100 percent whole-grain buns ­ but just because the package says wheat doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent whole grain. Make sure “whole grains” is the first ingredient. 
Burger Extras 
Watch out for the obvious: fries, potato chips (150 calories per handful), coleslaw (more than 250 calories per cup), pasta salad (depending on ingredients, you’re looking at 400 to 500 calories per cup), etc. All these “sides” are typically very high in calories and can turn your barbecue into a diet disaster. Instead of chips or fries, make your own grilled potatoes. ( Or try this recipe from (
Toppings and Condiments
Instead of cheese (70 to 120 calories per deli slice ­ plus cheese is high in saturated fat), add lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles or even celery to your burgers. Or try “lite” or reduced-fat cheese. Fat-free single-serving slices have about 30 calories each. Also, look for cheeses that are not reduced fat but are thinly sliced (they’re typically less than an ounce with only about 40 to 60 calories per slice). 
For great flavor and virtually no extra calories, top your burger with tomatoes marinated in red wine vinegar, fresh basil, a drop of olive oil, salt and cracked black pepper. And add some pickled red onions or pickled peppers, says Greeley.
Avoid mayo (100 calories per tablespoon) and stick to ketchup, mustard or even steak sauce. At 30 calories per tablespoon, barbecue sauce has twice as many calories as ketchup or steak sauce (15 calories). Those extra calories can add up fast if you’re not paying attention. If you dump 1/2 cup of barbecue sauce on your burger and fries, well, you’ve just eaten 240 extra calories. 
Food Safety 

Most food-safety experts agree that mad cow disease poses only a minuscule risk to U.S. consumers. However, food poisoning is another story. You can get food poisoning if you don’t handle your meats carefully. Here are a few tips: 
– Prevent cross-contamination ­ that is, don’t let raw meat, fish or poultry touch foods that won’t be cooked, such as lettuce. Never use the same knife or cutting board without washing it first. – Cook foods to the proper internal temperature (160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meats and pork; 170 for poultry breasts; 165 for leftovers, casseroles and ground poultry). – Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after handling raw meat or poultry. 

For more about food risk and E. coli, check out:

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