Which Type of Ground Beef Is The Best Buy?
All ground beef is simply beef that has been put through a grinder to chop it up into small pieces. Originally it was a way to make inexpensive, tough cuts of beef more tender, easier to chew and easier to cook. It saves time too. Tough cuts of meat such as chuck or round, must be boiled or steamed until tender. That can take a couple of hours. Ground beef can be fried in about ten minutes, and is tender enough to eat as soon as it’s done cooking.
A hundred years ago the fat content of ground beef was gauged by the trustworthiness of one’s butcher. Eventually the USDA created standards which require ground beef to have a minimum of 70% lean meat and a maximum of 30% fat. In practice, most markets in the USA have set their own standard of 73% lean and 27% fat. This is usually the most affordable ground beef you can buy. At the time of this writing (April 2015) it costs around $4 per pound in the continental USA.
Over time, health-conscious consumers have requested leaner meats, so leaner types of ground beef have become widely available. As the ratio of fat to lean diminishes, the price of ground beef increases. This is because lean meat costs more than fat. Ground chuck is 80% lean and 20% fat. It costs more than regular ground beef and is ground primarily from beef chuck. Ground round is 85% lean and 15% fat. It’s ground primarily from beef round. Ground sirloin is 90% lean and 10% fat. You can even find ground beef with as little as 5% fat, making it 95% lean. I don’t think it has a special name.
Legally speaking, any ground beef labeled Lean, must have no more than 22% fat. Ground beef labeled Extra Lean must have no more than 15% fat. At the time of this writing, extra lean ground beef costs an average of about $6 per pound in the continental USA. This is $2 (50%) more per pound than regular ground beef. Beef that is even leaner, 10% to 5% fat, averages between $6.50 and $7 per pound. At $3 (75%) more per pound, 95/5 ground beef is the leanest you can buy.
As a consumer I want to know which type of ground beef is the best use of my money. Which is the better buy? Regular ground beef has more fat, but costs less. Lean and extra lean ground beef costs more, but has more lean meat and less fat. Is the extra meat worth the higher cost? Is $2 or $3 more per pound an economy or an extravagance?
Several years ago, in an effort to answer this question, I performed a kitchen experiment. I bought several pounds of ground beef, of varying fat content. Over a period of weeks I cooked, drained and weighed each pound of beef, then recorded it’s weight. At the end of my experiment I compared the cooked, drained weight of each type of beef to determine which version provided the most amount of edible meat for the dollar.
After being cooked and drained, each pound of ground beef weighed the following.
- Ground Sirloin (93/7) weighed 12-2/3 ounces
- Ground Round (85/15) weighed 12-ounces
- Ground Chuck (80/20) weighed 11-1/2 ounces
- Ground Beef (73/27) weighed 10-2/3 ounces
The difference between the most expensive, 93% lean beef and the most affordable, 73% lean beef, was only 2-ounces! Assuming 4-servings per pound, this is merely half an ounce difference per serving. My question became, is 1/2-ounce more meat per serving worth an extra $3-per pound?
For me and my family, it most decidedly is not. Half an ounce of meat does not make or break my dinner table. I will choose the lower priced option every time when the only thing at stake is half an ounce per serving. For us regular ground beef, with 70/30 or 73/27 lean to fat ratio, is the most economical choice.
“But Miss Maggie!” You may be thinking. “What about all of that fat! You can’t expect me to feed my family all of that fat. It will give them heart disease and obesity.”
Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.
The truth is, most of us do not eat the fat that cooks out of ground beef. If we grill, the fat drains off while it cooks. If we fry it in a skillet, we routinely drain that fat off, into a handy coffee can, and dispose of it responsibly. Most of that fat does not get eaten.
Even after draining off the fat, regular cooked ground beef may still be fattier than you prefer. In this case you will want to take the time to rinse the ground beef in hot water, to remove even more of the fat. The vitamins and minerals are unaffected for the most part. Only the calories and fat content are changed.
It’s a simple process. First fry up a pound of ground beef the way you normally do. Break it up into small bits as it fries. When it’s evenly browned, pour off the excess fat into a handy can. Do not drain it into the sink or it will clog your pipes. Plumbers cost more than empty coffee cans, so dispose of your fat responsibly.
After pouring off the fat place your ground beef into a colander or strainer in your sink. Run hot water over the beef, rising off any remaining fat. Rinse out your skillet too. Allow the beef to drain briefly and then return it to the skillet. Add any onions and seasonings at this time. Continue on as you normally do.
According to the Canadian based Beef Information Centre, and their document Canadianized Ground Beef, the nutritional information for 100-grams (about 3.5-ounces) of raw ground beef that has been fried and drained is as follows.
- 90% Lean/10% Fat: 149 calories, 6.9 grams of fat
- 83% Lean/17% Fat: 168 calories, 9.9 grams of fat
- 77% Lean/23% Fat: 184 calories, 11.6 grams of fat
- 70% Lean/30% Fat: 189 calories, 13.1 grams of Fat
- 70% Lean/30% Fat which has been drained and rinsed: 155 calories, 9.4 grams of fat
As you can see from these numbers, 70/30 ground beef, after draining and rinsing, has a nutritional profile quite similar to 90/10 ground beef. Drained and rinsed ground beef has 6 more calories and 2.5 more grams of fat per serving. It’s even superior to lean ground round.
I live in southwestern Virginia, in an area often noted for it’s moderate cost of living. In my area, in April of 2015, I can buy 5 pound tubes of 73/27 ground beef for $17.67. This works out to be $3.53 per pound. According to my weight data above, an ounce of cooked regular ground beef costs me about 33¢.
Extra lean, 93/7 ground beef costs $6.19 per pound. An ounce of cooked extra lean ground beef costs me about 49¢.
Clearly, regular ground beef is the winner, providing more lean meat for the money, even with its initially higher fat content.
If you are willing to drain and rinse your ground beef, there is no reason to spend more for leaner cuts. You can purchase the most affordable ground beef and still maintain all of your dietary needs, while keeping a firm grip on your food budget.
After reading this article, take a little while to digest the information. At first it’s kind of hard to believe. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that if we want to be healthy, or lose weight that we must buy the leanest and most expensive ground beef available. If you are not willing to take the time to drain and rinse your ground beef, this may be true. True tightwads among us though, understand that doing a little bit of work ourselves, greatly reduces the cost of many consumer goods. In many cases, it improves the quality too. Ground beef is simply another tally on the long list of things we can do to save our hard earned cash, if we’re willing to put in a little extra effort. The process of rinsing ground beef, and then washing the strainer in hot soapy water, literally adds about 1-minute of prep-time to making dinner. Seeing as it saves me $2 to $3, I am more than willing to take the extra time to drain and rinse my ground beef so it can be as health-giving as possible for my family.