Lean or Fat — Which Meat Should You Buy?

Lean or Fat — Which Meat Should You Buy?

Lean vs Fatty

Have you ever run into the problem of lean vs fatty meat. You plan on making something new and delicious for dinner, but you're unsure whether to use 70-30 or 80-20 ground beef, or even go all the way and use a super lean mince like pork or chicken? Have you been faced with a delicious chicken bake but don't know whether you should use chicken breast or chicken thigh?

Maybe you haven't, because everything is cooked from a recipe and you follow recipes to a tee. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you want the freedom to conceptualise and build your own recipes that perfectly suit your family, there's some things you need to know, like whether to go for fatty or lean meat. 

Health may play a part in this decision if you're conscious of your fat intake, but health shouldn't come at the cost of delicious tasting food. We're going to talk purely food science below, but you can mix fatty and non-fatty meats together in a 50-50 split to reap the benefits of both good health and good food. For other dishes which can't be split, such as chicken thighs, steak cuts or pork belly, look to other areas of your meal or cooking process to reduce fat intake. 

If you're willing to go all the way on taste, then read on to learn how to pick the perfect meat cut for all of your favourite dishes and dish inspirations. 

There are four things you need to consider when choosing a fattier or leaner meat cut: cooking time, cooking temperature, other fats added to cooking and meal accompaniments. 

Cooking Time

Is this a cook in a flash work flow or a low and slow? The amount of time required to cook the meat directly impacts what cut of meat you should use. If your protein only needs a quick sear on the stove, a 20-minute bake or a crumb and deep fry, then leaner meats are best. The quick cooking time allows the lean meats to retain their moisture, their integrity and mouth-feel, without compromising on health or safety. 

By contrast, proteins that are required to be browned and then simmered in sauce, cooked long in a broth or stew, hanging out in a smoker, or pulled apart like pulled pork are better achieved with fatty cuts. Fattier meats can stay juicy and tender through long cook times, reduce the risk of burning and infuse the fatty flavour and help to bring out some of the brighter flavours in the dish. 

Cooking Temperature

Similar to cooking time (because they often go hand-in-hand), the cooking temperature determines whether you need a fattier or leaner cut of meat. Though fattier meats are better for simmering in sauce, if the simmer is happening at less than 100 degrees celsius for 45 minutes, a leaner blend of 80/20 would survive just fine in a moisture-rich environment like a bolognese sauce. If you're making a pork broth for Tonkatsu ramen in a pinch, and you have only 1 hour of boiling time, the higher temperature would call for fattier pork bones and bitsStrips of chicken breast can be cooked through on top of a homemade pizza in a 200 degree oven for 15 minutes (but we suggest cooking the chicken separately, tbh). 

Other temperature considerations such as needing to sear and brown the outside first means hitting a piece of chicken with quick heat: a flattened breast would work great. Needing to retain moisture without much care for a good Maillard reaction, such as chicken noodle soup, would benefit from a chicken thigh cooked well in the oven and shredded to be added to the soup. 

Added Fats

Are you going to need to cook this piece of meat in a high-heat pan with a couple tablespoons of oil to prevent sticking? It might be best to stick to a lean meat cut. If your dish has a workflow which requires cooking multiple ingredients on a pan cooked at different times (cook the onions, take the onions off the pan, put the meat on the pan, blah blah blah) and that requires multiple oil additions throughout cooking, it might be better to choose leaner beef in your stir fry. This isn't just for health reasons, but for taste, too. An overly fatty dish overwhelms flavours of the meat, of fresh vegetables, salt, spice and other delicious flavour. 


Depending on what you're looking to experience during your meal, it is important to consider the other elements and side dishes you're serving with your meal. Maybe an indulgently rich dinner is right up your alley which means you'll want to use thin slices of marbled beef with your noodles, hot sauce and sautéed vegetables, or slightly rendered pork belly with a rich broth and thick egg noodles. 

If you'd prefer something light and bouncy, but your plan is to have cheesy mashed potato, garlicky sautéed spinach, and honey-roasted carrots, then the delicious flavours of a fatty salmon will probably get lost in the richness of the rest of the dishes. A leaner fish would probably be better in this situation to bring some lightness to your meals.

However, this goes in the opposite direction, as well. A lamb loin chop is light, earthy and unique and you don't want to lose the flavour of this chop to overwhelming sides. Instead, having a spicy arugula salad with a light dressing, garlicky peas, zoodles and lightly roasted root vegetables would allow the meat to shine. 

Next time...

Next time you're playing off the cuff in the kitchen, or if a recipe's obscure meat cut isn't available, think of these four things: how long will it take to cook, what temperature am I cooking it at, how much fat is going to be added to the cooking process, and what am I serving it with? Everything in life is better in balance, that's true of lean and fat meat, too. 

Test out this method on our most recent recipe, juicy pork chops.