Meat is expensive. Legumes, like beans and lentils, tend to be much cheaper. And maybe you’re not ready to give up meat entirely to save cash (me neither), but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Any time a recipe calls for ground meat, just reduce the amount by half and swap in a similar amount of cooked legumes (add a bit of texture with a vegetable like cauliflower, mushrooms, or onions too, if you’d like).
Take this burger. The recipe, which serves four, calls for 1¼ lb. (20 oz.) ground beef. While the price depends on a number of factors (fat content, specific grocery stores, whether or not it’s organic, to name a few), the national average of ground beef is about $5 per pound, but is closer to $6 in my neck of the woods. Considering that, the cost of 1¼ lb. meat needed for this recipe is $7.50.
A 15.5-oz. can of black beans, on the other hand, is usually about $1.50, and an 8-oz. yellow onion is about 50 cents. If you bought these items and half the ground beef called for in the recipe, you could in fact make five burgers for almost $2 less than the original price tag.
How to make a budget burger:
Drain and rinse a 15.5-oz. can black beans, place in a bowl, and smash with a fork until they’re crushed (but not smooth like bean dip). Finely chop 1 medium onion and transfer to the bowl with the beans along with 10 oz. ground beef. Evenly divide the mixture into 5 or 6 balls. Follow the recipe as directed from the end of step 1.
Unlike homemade veggie burgers, which are sometimes extremely delicate, budget burgers still have enough meat to bind together. For this technique, I prefer to oil the pan, not the burgers, and while a stainless-steel skillet will work, I have more success in cast iron: The burgers get a good char, and the pan is more forgiving when it comes to stickage. You may need to shape them a bit more after flattening the balls into patties, but as long as the onion and beans are chopped finely, you should be good to go. If you decide to grill the burgers, I recommend cooking this on a grill pan or a cast-iron skillet plunked on top, instead of directly on the grate.
More recipes that hold up to the budget treatment:
When swapping out half the ground meat for legumes and vegetables in other recipes, it’s important to note the fat content. Legumes and vegetables are inherently lower in fat, so swapping them in can change the structure and flavor of the dish. What to do? Well, you could do nothing. The meat you are using will contribute plenty of fat, and in the case of a burger, if you’re adding on cheese and sauces, no one will be complaining when it comes to flavor. But if you want, you can add a splash of neutral oil to your burger mixture to amp up the richness.
On that note, you may find as you try this budget concept with other non-burger recipes, that the pan is a bit drier, since there’s less fat rendering. If this happens, just add a bit more fat (butter, olive oil—whatever you already have on hand) and everything will be fine. Here are a few recipes to play around with:
Spicy-Sweet Sambal Pork Noodles
2 lb. ground pork → 1 cup brown lentils + 2 cups chopped mushrooms + 1 lb. ground pork