Burger DIY/Making your own burger mix is the key to a better burger
You could accuse restaurateur Tucker Curtin of being thrifty by using bits of top round, sirloin, and other premium beef that didn’t make the cut as “center-of-plate” proteins (as they say in the biz) and tossing it into his burger grinder at The Steer and Lake Effect Diner. But it isn’t about thrift as much as it’s about flavor.
At Curtin’s restaurants, those bits all come from the same animal, of course—one of two or three humanely raised steers Curtin orders each week from a farmer he knows. And they’re mixed to achieve just the right combination of flavors and fat, ground in a way that leaves a bit of bite to the mix, and pressed with a Hollymatic Super Patty Machine, in order to turn out burgers that get significant word-of-mouth marketing.
But you don’t have to own a restaurant, or a lot of gear, to get burgers worth bragging about off your own grill or griddle. All it requires is a trip to your local butcher, fixings of your choice, and a willingness to experiment and eat your still-pretty-great mistakes.
Start with the meat. The packaged and often preformed ground beef most consumers buy can sometimes tell you the type of cut it’s made of (ground chuck, sirloin, etc), and an eerily precise fat content. But the number of different cows sourced into your packaged ground beef, the quality of that meat, and the mixing, storing, and transport conditions are either unknown or difficult to pin down. Small, local butchers and grocers may offer smaller scales and better assurances. But when it comes down to it, buying a cut of chuck, sirloin, top round, or brisket allows you to personally inspect a certain piece of one cow, control the fat content, and customize your blend with other cuts.
What meat should you buy? Well, that’s really a case of taste, but you can lean on the work of burgermeisters who have come before you. Curtin uses a two-to-one ratio of top round to brisket. Revered Manhattan purveyor Shake Shack uses two parts sirloin, one part chuck, and one part brisket, according to the sources of the blog A Hamburger Today. West coast institution In-N-Out Burger seemingly uses a good bit more brisket for an almost 60/40 lean-to-fat ratio. But you’re entirely free to add pork, lamb, and other finds from your fridge, or simply call your mother or grandmother and ask them how they made their own burgers before the advent of shrink-wrap.
If you own a stand-up mixer that accepts attachments, à la KitchenAid, it’s probably worth investing in a meat grinder add-on. But if you’re unsure of your long-term DIY prospects, your food processor can make do, as long as you don’t overdo it. Food writer Mark Bittman writes in the New York Times that you want “the equivalent of chopped meat, not a meat purée.” Curtin agrees; over-processing your meat, or running it twice through a grinder, destroys the integrity of the eventual patties, and “you end up with a hard little patty.”
Spices and seasoning? Go for it. Throwing half a regular onion in with every 1.5 pounds of meat is a good start. Garlic is an easy one, and I can’t stress enough how important a role salt and pepper play. It’s also likely you’ve also got a few Cajun, Italian, and other mixes in your spice cabinet just crying out for use.
How you form your meat is a personal preference, but the rule that runs through every technique is to avoid handling your carefully ground meat too much. Do so, and you’ll compress its interior, remaking it nearly impossible for heat, flavor, and everything great about a burger to move through it evenly. Aim for ¾-inch or less thickness when gently shaping your patties, and try celebri-chef Bobby Flay’s number one trick: make a thumb imprint in the center of your raw burger patty. That prevents the center from bulging upward, and also keeps your worst tendency—to press down that bulge with a spatula—in check.
Time to get cooking. In all honesty, whatever method you use will likely turn out a good burger, provided you use good meat, handle it gently and don’t overcook it. The Steer grills its burgers on wooden charcoal, while Shake Shack has its own smash-and-scrape skillet technique that aims for getting a serious crust on the patty’s exterior. Half the world seems to think you should only flip your burger once; the other half recommends faster and more even cooking by flipping often. Your aim isn’t global unity; it is to achieve something between bleeding red and bloody dry, so do the best you can.
The path to a better burger may result in some disintegrated patties, and perhaps flavor ideas that looked a whole lot better on paper. But allow yourself a few noble attempts—maybe starting with more chuck than sirloin—and you’ll come to love the burger world beyond your local supermarket’s freezer of shrink-wrapped, cardboard encased, preformed flavorless hockey pucks.
“Start with quality product that you know, and you can’t lose,” Curtin says. “All those different pieces, textures, cuts, and fat contents make a solid burger, with well-balanced flavor.”
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer who lives and cooks in the Elmwood Village.