The great American burger, while seemingly simple, actually requires a lot of culinary technique. Should you grill or use a cast iron pan? What’s the ideal lean-to-fat ratio for burger patties? The best buns? Condiments?
Here to help is George Motz, a hamburger expert with credentials ranging from Hamburger America, cookbook and YouTube series, Burger Scholar Sessions. While there are great versions turkey or vegetarian burgers, this article will focus exclusively on beef.
For the best patties, it’s important to obtain good quality fresh ground beef. Don’t use the pre-formed burger patties found in the freezer section. These might seem like an acceptable shortcut, but the taste of the finished product will be noticeably inferior.
There are two ways to obtain fresh ground beef — at a local butcher shop or the grocery store. While the meat section of a grocery store is a good, a great local butcher shop is the best option as most will have a custom hamburger blend. These blends are usually a combination of steak trimmings and chuck. Located on the cow’s shoulder, chuck is the most common and the best overall beef cut for burgers. Compared to leaner cuts like sirloin, chuck has the ideal blend of both lean meat and fat. The best burger ratio is 80/20 or 75/25 (lean meat to fat). Too little fat and the burger tends to dry out and too much fat produces excess grease and shrinkage.
In recent years, it’s become trendy for burger blends to feature nontraditional cuts like brisket or short rib. The effect of adding these cuts is largely negligible according to George. Most of these cuts are meant to be slow-cooked and any natural “sweetness” imparted from them will be indiscernible when blended together.
Finally, while grinding your own meat can be a great experience, it’s also a time consuming and tricky process. An experienced butcher will instinctively know the right ratio of fat and meat by sight and experience. But for the home cook, it can be difficult achieving that ideal ratio without those years of practice.
For burger buns, simple is best. For instance, although delicious, brioche buns contain too much sugar, which can easily overpower the flavor of the meat. While some ambitious home cooks choose to make their own hamburger buns, common supermarket brands like Arnold’s produce a good quality product. For most cases, the humble white burger buns are great.
Perhaps the best overall bun is Martin’s potato roll. The potato roll has a great flavor that’s sturdier and less sweet than classic white buns. This sturdiness also allows the potato roll to maintain its structural integrity without being too hard.
For George, there’s no burger cheese quite like the humble yet delicious American cheese. While other types of cheese might taste great, they don’t melt and coat a burger as flawlessly as American cheese. This melt factor is also an issue with cheddar or swiss as the patty can overcook waiting for them to melt properly.
Grilling burgers, while great for imparting charcoal flavor, can be quite difficult to master. While grilling, a cook has to consider both temperature as well as flame conditions. If not properly maintained, burgers on a grill can easily become burnt hockey pucks. For the best results, use charcoal grills, not propane, for that flame broiled flavor.
In most cases, cooking burgers on a griddle/flattop or pan is the best option. Its much easier to achieve the right crust and doneness on a flattop than a grill. But it’s important to remember some key points. For that great burger crust, make sure the pan (preferably a cast-iron skillet) is hot before placing in the patty. Also, if there’s too much fat in your burger grind, grease fires are a potential issue.
For burgers condiments, there’s one straightforward rule — keep it simple. No need for truffle oil or fancy salts. No need for ten different sauces. Instead, stick to two to three condiments per burger. In many cases, the more condiments, the worse a burger ends up tasting. Traditionally, the first American hamburgers only used mustard, pickles, and raw onions.
Finally, ketchup is a controversial condiment for burgers. Ketchup, in George’s opinion, is too sweet for burgers and its addition will overpower the flavor of the beef, which should be the star.
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