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Can you make tacos without draining the meat?


Making tacos is a fun and easy weeknight meal. The typical process involves browning ground beef or turkey, draining off the excess fat, and then using the cooked meat as a filling for tortillas or taco shells along with your favorite toppings like lettuce, tomato, cheese, and salsa. However, many cooks wonder if it’s really necessary to drain the fat from the meat before using it in tacos. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of draining versus not draining the meat when making tacos at home.

Should You Drain the Fat from the Meat?

Draining the excess fat from ground meat before using it in recipes serves a couple of key purposes:

  • Removes extra calories and saturated fat: Fat contains a lot of calories and the saturated fat found in meat has been linked to increased cholesterol levels. Draining the meat after browning removes some of these unwanted fats from your dish.
  • Prevents a greasy texture: Leaving all the fat in the meat can sometimes make the taco filling taste overly greasy. Draining the excess fat helps the meat have a less oily mouthfeel.

However, there are also some reasons you may want to leave a portion of the fat in the meat:

  • Adds moisture and flavor: The fat helps keep the meat juicy and moist and imparts extra meaty flavor.
  • Aids browning: Some fat helps the meat brown nicely when cooking. Overly lean meat can dry out in the pan.

So whether to drain the meat or not comes down to personal preference. Draining does remove excess grease but may also take away some moisture and flavor. Leaving some fat in adds richness but can make the tacos oily.

How to Drain Ground Meat

If you opt to drain your ground meat, here are some tips for doing it effectively:

  • Use a colander or mesh strainer. Allow the meat to cook until browned all over then transfer it from the pan to a metal colander or fine mesh strainer set over a bowl. Allow the excess grease to drain off for 1-2 minutes.
  • Use paper towels. An alternative is to transfer the cooked meat to a plate lined with paper towels which will absorb some of the grease.
  • Don’t press or crush the meat. Resist the urge to press or crush the meat, which can force out moisture and make the texture overly compacted.
  • Discard excess grease. Pour off and discard any grease that has collected in the bottom of the pan or bowl.

Draining over a colander and allowing the meat to rest for a minute or two is an easy method. Paper towels also work well for absorbing extra surface grease. Just avoid pressing on the meat too firmly.

How to Make Tacos without Draining

If you prefer to skip draining the meat, that’s easy too. Here are some tips:

  • Use leaner meat. Opt for 90-93% lean ground turkey or a 96% lean ground beef. These ultra-lean options will have less excess fat to begin with.
  • Blot away surface grease. After browning the meat, use a spoon to transfer it from the pan to a plate lined with paper towels to blot up surface grease.
  • Incorporate starch. Add a tablespoon of cornstarch to the meat while cooking. This will help absorb and thicken any excess grease.
  • Go easy on high-fat toppings. Limit using extra fatty toppings like cheese, sour cream, and guacamole to keep the tacos from becoming too oily.

Choosing a lean ground meat, absorbing surface grease, and avoiding lots of high-fat toppings helps balance the fat when skipping draining. You still get the flavorful taco meat without overdoing it on grease.

How Much Fat to Leave In

Finding the right balance when draining taco meat comes down to personal preference. Here are some general guidelines on how much fat to pour off:

  • For 85% lean meat: Drain off approximately 2-3 tablespoons of grease per pound of meat.
  • For 90% lean meat: Drain off approximately 1-2 tablespoons of grease per pound.
  • For 93-96% lean meat: Draining is optional. Blot away surface grease only.

The leaner the meat, the less draining needed. Cooks using a fattier ground beef may want to pour off a bit more. Those using extra-lean turkey or bison can likely get by with just blotting the surface.

Here is a quick table summarizing the recommend fat drainage for different types of ground meat:

Type of Ground Meat Amount of Fat to Drain
85% lean 2-3 Tbsp per lb
90% lean 1-2 Tbsp per lb
93-96% lean Optional – blot only

Use these general rules of thumb when determining how much grease to pour off after browning ground beef or turkey for tacos. Adjust to your taste preferences.

Should You Save the Drippings?

Once you drain the fat from the meat, you may be wondering whether you should save those drippings or simply discard them. There are a couple ways the drained fat can be used:

  • Add back for flavor: For moisture and meaty flavor, add back 1-2 teaspoons of drippings per pound of meat.
  • Saute aromatics: Use a bit to saute onion, garlic, peppers, etc. for extra flavor.
  • Refrigerate for later: Store larger amounts of drained fat in the fridge or freezer to use for cooking ground meat in the future.

A common practice is to pour off most of the grease but then add back a small amount (about 1-2 teaspoons per pound) to boost the flavor of the meat. The drippings can also be saved in the fridge and used to add moisture the next time you brown ground meat.

Taco Filling Without Draining

If you opt to make taco filling without draining the ground beef or turkey, here is a simple recipe:


  • 1 lb 90-96% lean ground beef or ground turkey
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-2 Tbsp water or broth


  1. Heat a skillet over medium high heat. Add the ground meat and cook, breaking it up with a spoon, until browned about 5-7 minutes.
  2. Add the diced onion and continue cooking for 2-3 more minutes until translucent.
  3. Add the minced garlic and spices and cook 1 more minute until fragrant.
  4. Optionally blot away any surface grease with paper towels. Add 1-2 Tbsp water or broth to add a little moisture.
  5. Serve taco meat warm on tortillas, taco shells, lettuce wraps, or nachos. Top as desired.

Browning a lean ground meat, cooking with aromatics like onion and garlic, and adding spices gives great tacos filling without needing to drain excess fat. Add your favorite toppings and dig in!


Is draining meat necessary?

Draining ground meat is not strictly necessary. Many cooks skip draining especially when using a 96% lean ground turkey or beef. Draining does remove excess fat and calories though.

Does draining make meat dry?

It can if you drain away too much of the fat. Retaining a small amount or adding some drippings back helps keep the meat moist. Blotting instead of heavily pressing also avoids drying it out.

What if I drain too much fat?

No worries. Simply mix 1-2 teaspoons of the drained drippings back into the cooked ground meat to return moisture and flavor.

Can you substitute vegetable oil?

Yes, adding 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil or avocado oil per pound of drained meat mimics the moisture lost from draining. But it won’t impart the same meaty flavor.


Draining taco meat is largely a personal choice. Going without draining is perfectly fine, especially if using a leaner ground meat. Draining does remove excess fat and grease but can also take away moisture. Blotting up surface grease or adding a bit of the drippings back balances getting a less oily taco filling without drying it out. Adjust the amount of fat drained to suit your taste for the ideal texture and flavor.