When I was a latchkey kid, most of the dinners I helped out with after school started with browning a pound of ground beef. For years, I assumed that all those pounds of ground beef were the same, end of story.
Now that I’m the working parent doing the shopping, I know there’s more to it. A trip to the meat case bombards me with choices. There are so many kinds of ground beef! And the main difference is in the percentage of lean meat to fat. To see how that plays out in cooking, I talked to butchers and beef industry experts.
The Difference Between Lean Meat and Fat in Ground Beef
Percentages of lean meat and fat are often shown as a ratio. For example, 80:20 ground beef (also written as 80/20) is 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat. “The deep red that you see is the lean meat, the actual muscle, and the white is the fat,” says Sonny Ingui, executive chef of Urban Farmer Philadelphia, a steakhouse with an in-house butcher shop. “The three most common ratios sold are 80:20, 85:15, and 90:10.”
Why Does Lean Ground Beef Cost More?
You may have noticed that lean ground beef costs more per pound. Why? “You are essentially paying for a higher proportion of lean meat,” says Dana Ehrlich, CEO and founder of Verde Farms, a distributor of grass-feed beef. “In the meat market, prices are often based on the lean meat content of the product.”
Because lean ground beef and fattier ground beef perform differently in recipes, it’s best to buy for use rather than value. If you get a less expensive, higher fat ratio ground beef to brown for, say, sloppy joes, you’ll likely be draining off a lot of the fat anyway.
Which Is Better, 90:10 or 80:20?
There’s not one ground beef to rule them all. Buy beef not because of what you’ll wind up with in the end, but because it’s the right fit for the recipe. Jessica Lancaster, a meat scientist for Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner, says “A mid-range lean-to-fat ratio is a nice option for dishes like meatloaf and meatballs, where you’ll be forming a ball or loaf but you’ll be cooking in a pan or skillet,” she says.
If you’re draining the fat, lean beef might be the best choice, because it’ll ultimately save you the hassle. “93 percent ground beef works well in dishes that require crumbles, like meat sauce, tacos, stuffed peppers or casseroles where draining fat might be difficult,” says Lancaster.
Many chefs and burger aficionados prefer 80:20 for burgers, but Ray Rastelli Jr., butcher and president of the Rastelli Foods Group, likes to use 85:15 “because the higher lean ratio allows the burger to cook on high heat without as much flare ups as the excess fat melts.”
If you only have one type of ground beef on hand and it’s not what your recipe calls for, don’t sweat it. I’ve made recipes with every kind of ground beef under the sun. Sometimes you just need a satisfying dinner on the table, not a transcendent experience.