Ground beef is packaged and sold in a variety of leanness levels ranging from "70% lean" to "95% lean" or higher. These numbers indicate the percentages of lean meat versus fat that your grind is composed of. 80% lean meat contains 20% fat, 90% lean meat contains 10% fat, and so on. That's why you may also see this expressed as, for example, "80/20" in the case of 80% lean meat.
The fat content of meat is critically important in cooking because it can drastically alter the flavor, richness, moisture, and texture of your finished meal. A common mistake for new cooks or first-time grill owners is to simply buy the leanest ground beef available ("Higher numbers means better, right?"), but matching the right meat to the right meal will result is tastier, better food. Here's how to choose:
70 – 75% Lean
• Burgers on a griddle or stovetop
• All-beef meatloaf
The best burgers use ground beef rich in fat and seared on a smokin' hot griddle (or a flat pan). The extra fat prevents each patty from sticking and, of course, adds a ton of flavor. This is the most delicious ground beef blend widely available yet, ironically, the most affordable. By law, no pre-packaged ground beef can have more than 30% fat, but there's always custom grinds at your local butcher.
70/30 or 75/25 beef also makes a good meatloaf if you're going with all-beef. Many meatloaf recipes call for a combination of ground beef and pork, the latter of which is already sufficiently fatty.
80 – 85% Lean
• Burgers on the grill
• Stuffed peppers
80/20 is your classic grilled hamburger ratio because it has a good amount of fat, and therefore flavor, but not so much that it's going to ooze out of the lean meat and cause dangerous flame-ups. After all, you paid for that meat–it should be in your belly, not on the bottom of the grill.
You can also safely use 80/20 or especially 85/15 in chili con carne without grease rising to the top, or use this blend to make stuffed peppers a little richer.
90% – 95% Lean
• Blended meatloaf
• Sloppy Joes
Extra lean ground beef is typically ground sirloin, and it's great for recipes that call for layering lots of other flavors on top of the meat. Tacos, for example, often call for draining the fat away from browned ground beef, so why pay for all that fat in the first place? Just buy the lean stuff. Meatballs simmering in marinara sauce are another great example, same for blended meatloaf which you'll mix with fattier meat anyway.
Extra lean meat is also popular with dieters but, for our money, we'd rather have one really tasty cheeseburger than two or three just-okay ones.