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August 7, 2019

Keys To The Perfect Burger

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I love almost all types of food but if I had to pick a favorite it would be the hamburger.

 

To clarify, I'm not talking about the bastardization of this iconic dish that runs rampant in retail locations everywhere (this would be one of my least favorite foods).  Rather, I'm talking about the result of a labor of love, most commonly found in backyard settings, and rarely found for sale.

 

My keys for the perfect burger are outlined below:

 

I like to grind my own beef. This is not as hard as it sounds and once you try it, you'll wonder why you didn't always do this. Most ground beef ready for sale is too wet and too finely ground to make a good burger. I generally opt for a blend chuck and sirloin tips (and/or flap, and/or skirt), coarsely ground. If you have a meat grinder, you can experiment with different setting to find that sweet spot where the patty holds well but doesn’t get too dense (like a meatloaf). If you opt to have your butcher grind for you, pick your own whole muscles first, then ask the butcher to chop and send through the grinder only once.

Burgers made from dry-aged beef can be a real treat. However, since dry-aging is generally reserved for expensive cuts (whose benefits compared to affordable cuts are greatly diminished once ground), it can be unnecessarily expensive to go this route. Enthusiasts may opt to dry-age their own. But for those who cannot, a dry-brine of the whole muscles before grinding can help reduce the water content of the final patty.

In general, I prefer the beef to be around 18-20% fat. Many shoppers tend to opt for leaner beef thinking it's healthier. Perhaps if you eat ground beef raw, or prepare it in very specific dishes, this thinking holds. However, I submit that the difference in calories from fat in a 20% fat burger and a 10% fat burger is negligible after cooking. The fat in a burger is meant to render and drip out during the cooking process. The final and key difference then is that lean patties tend to dry out, while fat ones tend to self baste and stay juicy.  

I shape my own patties by hand. Machined (and often frozen) patties are lame. Even most hand shaped patties at the grocer are less than ideal, being far too firmly packed. The best burgers are shaped and handled lightly at every stage. The minimum amount of handling that still allows the patties to hold their shape is best.

 

With the exception of a dry brine on the whole muscles in advance (which gets rinsed away before grinding anyway), I generally avoid introducing salt until just before cooking. No salt gets mixed with the ground beef. Additional seasonings can be used, but options sans salt are best. Salt will tend to accelerate the breaking down of certain proteins, resulting in a denser and undesirably homogeneous patty. I often will mix into the ground beef only minced garlic, and just a little fresh ground black pepper. Sometimes I add some herbs and/or spices. Sometimes I add nothing. Then immediately before grilling, I like to add a healthy topping of a nice salt and fresh ground pepper to both sides.

 

I prefer to cook burgers from raw while still very cold. After shaping, I like to set the burgers to chill in the coldest zone of my fridge for at least a couple hours. Then I move the patties directly from the fridge to the fire to cook. The fat in ground meat tends to render much faster that the fat in a whole muscle cut. If the patty has warmed before cooking, it will render out too quickly during the cooking process.

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I prefer to cook my burgers over a charcoal fire. Hardwood / lump charcoal is best, but briquettes will work in a pinch. Ground beef begs for a high heat sear and wood flavor that a gas flame just can't offer. When grilling isn't an option, a cast iron skillet or grill pan that holds a high even heat is the best alternative.

 

Burgers are turned only once on the grill and never smashed with your spatula. Again, delicate handling is key.

 

Although the beef is the centerpiece, the best burgers require the same level of dedication from start to finish. Why go to the trouble of grinding, shaping, and cooking the perfect patty, only to serve it up on tasteless bread with old produce and mass produced condiments? Strive to hand pick the best option for every single element of your burger.  A homemade or artisan baked brioche or challah bun, vine ripened heirloom tomatoes, fresh butter lettuce, homemade mayo, etc.

While my next point is parallel to the one above, it deserves its own special mention. American is the go to choice for cheese because it’s a classic visual and melts so smoothly and easily. However, I strongly recommend you don't cut corners here. If you let the cheese soften and melt slowly (often while the burger is covered and resting), you can successfully melt a wide array of cheese options. Skip the processed cheese and go for something like an aged extra sharp white cheddar.

 

Keep it simple. Although the best ones require a lot of dedication to prepare, burgers should be a pretty simple dish to actually assemble and eat. Burgers are a classic for a reason. Stick to the basics. It can be fun and entertaining to try all sorts of crazy combinations. But these are rarely better. Indeed, although it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely because the dish should be simple that each component deserves deliberate care. My favorite burger (listed here on the page in the same visual top to bottom order that I’d stack them on a plate) is simply:

 
  • Bun (preferably homemade, possibly brushed with a little butter and red wine and toasted)

  • Ketchup (homemade is best, but the Simply Heinz will work in a pinch)

  • Onions (sweet red onions, fresh sliced is great, but also very nice flash fried in duck fat)

  • Lettuce (fresh butter lettuce from Snuck Farm is my favorite)

  • Tomatoes (ripe heirloom tomatoes with a very light sprinkling of sea salt)

  • Cheese (aged extra sharp white cheddar - Beehive or Heber Valley is my recommendation - melted onto the patty after cooking while resting)

  • Beef Patty (chuck and sirloin shaped with roasted minced garlic and set to chill, then S&P right before grilling over charcoal to a medium / nearly medium-well).

  • Mayo (homemade with farm fresh eggs and evoo)

  • Bun (preferably homemade, possibly brushed with a little butter and red wine and toasted)

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Lastly, to make your investment into making the perfect burger really pay off, make sure you have plenty of family and friends around to enjoy it with you.

Eat well!

 

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