How to Build a Better Burger, Part I

A hamburger can be good without being gimmicky. In fact, a hamburger should be good without being gimmicky. You want a lobster burger or a lamb burger? That’s okay, but let’s walk before we run, and make sure we master the classic American Hamburger first.

It’s not as common as you might think, a good hamburger. A bevy of boring beef blended into rock-hard, too-firm and overcooked patties will be the norm this weekend, and the shame of it all is that it takes maybe an extra 20 minutes to make the Memorial Day burger a memorable one, not one that takes an extra few beers to make palatable. We’re not talking gourmet, here. We’re just advocating a little extra effort other than buying a tube of pasty ‘ground’ beef that came from random cuts that could be much older than maybe you’d like to think. We’re talking about making your own ground beef. It’s not difficult, given you’ve got a food processor (or a meat grinder, but if you have a meat grinder, you’ve probably already got a handle on this).

And maybe we’re even talking about making your own mayo and mustard, instead of gloppy white and yellow bottled goo. You can do either, or both, but doing any will make the burger better than otherwise. It’s not like we’re asking you to make your own brioche buns and grow your own heirloom tomatoes (though both of those things are perfectly fine to do, by all means), we just want you to care enough to do more than the bare minimum. Make these burgers worth eating.

Here’s what some of us will be making this weekend. You don’t need to copy it ingredient for ingredient if you don’t want to – this is just a guide.

Mix different cuts – different cuts of meat provide their own different attributes. Not known for its tenderness, chuck roast nonetheless holds a good portion of fat and flavor. The same with brisket. Sirloin, while not as fatty (or flavorful) is a little more tender than the other two cuts. Really, there is no wrong way – you can even use all chuck, if you like. Just don’t buy it pre-ground. For our burgers, we’re going with 1 pound chuck, 1 pound brisket, and 1 pound sirloin for 6 half-pound patties.

To prepare the meat, cut it into rough 1-inch cubes and season it with what you choose – reserving 1 teaspoon salt for later. We used 2 Tablespoons minced onions, 1 teaspoon paprika, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper and a pinch cayenne pepper.

In phases, add a handful or two of the seasoned meat to a food processor and pulse for a few seconds five or six times, or until the meat looks, well, ground. Don’t overdo it, though. You want to be able to tell it’s meat. You want bits and pieces, not paste.

When the meat is ground, pack it gently. Don’t handle it more than you have to. When you’ve got the patties formed, you’re ready to cook.

Just before throwing the burgers on the grill, add the salt evenly to the patties. You want the burgers to get a good sear, so use a hot grill (or frying pan, if you are grill-less), and try adding a good, hard smoking wood to the mix, such as mesquite or hickory. We can’t tell you how long to cook them, but don’t cook them for too long – there’s a point to grinding your own meat; don’t waste the effort by turning your beef into a block of char.

Now, for the rest of it – like we said, Mrs. Baird’s is fine, though a quick search at Central Market might turn up some tastier buns. Try to make your own mustard or mayonnaise. It’s an extra few minutes, and it will dramatically affect the burger for the better. Make sure your cheese is cheese (hint: if it comes in a bag and is pre-shredded, it’s not what you’re looking for) and your produce is fresh.

There are ways to improve a burger beyond this, to be sure, but this is a good start, a baseline from which to begin making your burger your own – a burger to which people look forward to eating.

And one that you can be proud of making.

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