In the end, the kitchen was a mess. There were dirty pots, pans and strainers, splattered grease on the range and a refrigerator full of tagged plastic containers. All this disarray just because I had decided to test the recipe published earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine on how to make ground beef more healthful.

Donald Small, chairman of the biophysics department at the Boston University School of Medicine devised a cooking method that substantially reduces the amount of fat in ground beef. For people with high cholesterol levels who still crave beef in their diet, the finding is significant. Conventional cooking does nothing to reduce the proportion of saturated fats in ground beef, nor does it markedly lower the cholesterol content. Saturated fats and dietary cholesterol can raise cholesterol levels in the blood.

The ground beef is cooked in polyunsaturated or monounsaturated vegetable oils. As the oil cooks into the beef, it trades places with saturated fat in the meat and permits the partial removal of cholesterol from cell membranes. The beef is then drained, the oil is reserved and boiling water is poured over the beef to remove residual oil and water-soluble materials. The oil and water are refrigerated so the fat rises to the top and can be skimmed. The broth is then returned to the meat for flavor and the concoction can be used in recipes that call for ground beef -- spaghetti sauce, taco filling, chili con carne, stuffed peppers, casseroles or soups.

It took two tries -- and two messy kitchens -- to get the recipe right. The first time, a quart of oil was added to about two pounds of beef (the recipe called for between 1/2 quart and one quart). But when the oil and water were mixed together and refrigerated, the oil didn't rise to the top.

Small said that one quart of oil was probably too much; while the saturated fat had probably been leached out of the beef, there was too much polyunsaturated oil left for the mixture to solidify. He suggested 1 1/2 cups of oil instead. The second time around, the results were far more promising. The cooking and draining took about 20 minutes; still, the oil and water were refrigerated overnight -- rather than the one hour suggested in the recipe -- so that the fat could solidify and be skimmed.

As for taste, the meat had a surprisingly good beefy flavor. Tasted plain, without any broth, it was somewhat dry and sticky. With the broth, it was juicy and flavorful. In spaghetti sauce, even a meat-and-potatoes aficionado would be hard-pressed to know the difference.

As for whether it was worth the effort, it's probably not very useful for making tonight's dinner. And it is important to have the proper equipment -- a good thermometer and strainer are a must. But for those who like to cook in bulk and stockpile food in the freezer, it wouldn't be particularly cumbersome.

Still, some nutritionists are skeptical. "I don't have anything against this method. I question the practicality and how much significant {dietary} difference it really makes," said Neva Cochran of the American Dietetic Association.

Small uses the procedure when he cooks ground beef at home. The university has a patent on the process, and Small says he has gotten a few calls from food processors.

Ground Beef a` la New England Journal of Medicine

Makes about 5 cups

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

2 pounds ground beef

2 cups boiling water

Place vegetable oil in a Dutch oven and add ground beef. Heat mixture to 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Break up mixture and stir until the temperature reaches 176 to 195 degrees. Heat for five more minutes, stirring occasionally. Continue to heat mixture to 212 to 230 degrees for five minutes to brown the meat. Pour meat and oil through a fine strainer, collecting the meat and allowing the oil and broth to pass through to a container. Pour 2 cups of boiling water over the meat in the strainer, draining it over the container with the oil and broth.

Separate oil and broth by refrigerating bowl overnight or by skimming with a gravy skimmer. After refrigeration, the fat should solidify, so it can be lifted off as a cake. Return flavored broth to the meat or reduce it by boiling some water off. Use meat in recipes for ground or finely chopped beef.

Eating Right appears on alternate Tuesdays.