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RBR Tailgaiting: Burgers 101, a Result

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Tested and true, rung through the wringer, and guaranteed hearty and succulent; a patty for even the most discerning burgher.

I wrote about my joy upon the delivery of a new meat grinder, my first, in the opening week of October.

If you read it, you might remember my jeremiad recounting butcher betrayal and disillusion. I made it my mission to banish the memory of that god awful failure of a burger by single-mindedly pursuing hamburger perfection. If I were writing a movie about a journey of redemption I might have the lead realize somewhere along the way that rather than banish the memory of failure he should recognize it as the catalyst for his later success; something to be cherished. But that’s a load of sentimental crap. I want that first ground burger with all its mealy dryness tossed callously down the memory hole. Gone and forgotten.

So here, just in time for the Iron Bowl, is my offering. Some may argue that Bar B Q, or maybe brats if they’re Yankee NFL fans, is the most traditional tailgate meal, but I disagree. To me it’s always been burgers. This is the fundamental.

Grinding

On the advice of several sites, I keep my grinder in the freezer. That way it’s always set and ready. A warm, or even room temperature grinder can smear the fats and gum up the blade and gauge. For the same reason, the meat should be cold.

Most grinders have more than one gauge. If you are cooking on a stove top, the largest one is more than sufficient. Even when packed into a patty, there will be pockets where fat collects. Some of those pockets will burst but any fat lost will remain in the pan and baste the outside of the burger as it cooks.

Obviously, on a grill, any fat is lost to the fire. This is where the smaller gauge comes in handy. With a smaller grind there are smaller, but more numerous niches, and crannies. More will burst, but they’ll be the ones closer to the surface. What is lost on the outer edges is more than made up for by what flavor is retained further in.

Once ground, you have to decide how tightly to press the meat when making a patty. A great many sources warn of over packing. The worry is that too much working leads to a mushy final product. There’s nothing wrong with that line of reasoning unless it leads to what I’ve seen on too many sites and in too many pictures where the recommended “loose pack” translates, at least pictorially, to a patty with tendrils or shreds that fall by the wayside.

Look at the picture above. The top right patty is a “loose pack.” You can see that it teeters on falling apart upon flipping. Fissures form and heat gets in where it shouldn’t. You end up with a patchwork of medium rare and medium well with that much unwanted exposed surface area.

A proper patty is firm. Don’t mush it. Don’t play with it. Just cup it between your hands and make a solid patty with rounded edges and be done with it. In the picture above, the two top patties are home ground and the third is store bought. All three are handled the same way and all three are well formed but the two freshly ground are relatively, but not sloppily, loose in comparison despite being confidently handled.

Choosing the Proper Blend

I’ve played and played and played with different blends of beef. There were several very tempting suggestions to use a bit of pork or deer, but I wanted stick with cow for an admittedly silly adherence to tradition and purity.

Filet, Strip, and Rib Eye were right out. This is supposed to be a hamburger, not an investment. My blend needed to cost less than eight bucks a pound.

After a few trials, I came to the conclusion that as far as hamburger ingredients are concerned, meats fall in to one of three categories.

First, a neutral canvas. I started with the not terribly insightful, but defensible idea that the reason chuck is the most popular ground meat for hamburgers in America is because it has a flavor profile that falls within the acceptable range for the majority of eaters. It has some of all the desirable attributes of a great hamburger but none are highlighted at the expense of the others. Round fits into this category as well.

Second, a beefy, iron-rich additive. Sirloin was the obvious and most recommended, and why not considering the punch of flavor it delivers. It had the disadvantage of almost no marbling, but it wasn’t making an appearance in a fat-rich role. A less obvious, but interesting cut was hangar steak. It’s maybe the most bloody bit of the cow to make it to your butcher’s counter.

Third, fatty without being just fat. I know that sounds odd, but plain fat lacks sweetness. I can’t find any consensus or even a modest plurality to back me up on this, but a ground fat without at least some of its attending flesh is jarring. It doesn’t work. A short rib trimmed of gristle fits into this role nicely, as does a flap steak.

I was very pleased with a blend of 12 oz. chuck, 12 oz. Sirloin, and 8 oz. spare ribs. The beefy-ness of the sirloin and the juiciness of the spare ribs were evident and the chuck kept the mealy sirloin at bay for a silky smooth final product.

Next I took the same blend and added 10% (3.2 oz.) oxtail. I was warned that oxtail can take over. It’ll either provide a savory mouth feel or slap an unctuous pall over your whole meal.

Oxtail actually worked very well, but I discovered why it’s used mostly in soup. Even with the sharpest, most flexible boning knife, it’s a right royal pain in the ass to work with. That simple looking circle of bone is just the exposed bit of a vertebrate. The bone spurs out into the meat in ways that no one without an MRI or X-ray can predict. It took me longer harvest 3.2 oz. from that innocent looking little circle of beef than all the rest of the meat combined. I don’t want to do that again. Oxtail, while interesting, is out. It’s a bit too far to go for a little savory.

I finally went with a 3 parts chuck, 2 parts spare ribs, and then substituted 3 parts hangar steak for the sirloin. This had it all. Juicy, smooth, and savory with a profound beef flavor.

Hangar isn’t always available and I don’t think anyone will be upset with sirloin, but oh my, if you can get it, hangar is preferred.

I found that cubing the meats, dividing the individual cuts into three piles each, and then tossing them together in three separate grinder hopper filling sized piles gives me the most uniform post grind blend. It still needs to be lightly tossed once processed, but the heavy lifting is already done with little risk of overworking.

Salting

This didn’t take a whole lot of testing. You really shouldn’t salt ground beef until the last second. As soon as contact is made, the meat starts to break down. Let it go more than a few minutes and even with a hard sear, you lose a percentage of browning to mushiness.

For best results, get a skillet or grill piping hot. Salt one side of your patties, lay that side down on the heat, then salt the top side before flipping.

Which brings us to…

Flipping

There’s a machismo out there about making the perfect hamburger with a single flip; a perfect and considered touch cooking both sides evenly. It’s a matter of male pride that’s often the subject of bragging, like finding a great parking spot.

The problem with that method is that I like my burger medium rare, and while you can cook the center of a burger to medium rare with a single flip, you sacrifice a thick corona around that center to the demons of medium or (gasp) medium well.

A single side left over high heat (as all burgers should be cooked over) sears the bottom and the heat creeps slowly until the middle is reached. Flipped over, the process starts again but takes slightly less time as the former top/new bottom has a very slight head start as it got an indirect cook the first go round.

A seared and then flipped, second side seared and then flipped burger has an advantage. As long as it’s flipped every half minute or so the heat penetrates only so far, is flipped and penetrates only so far. You end up with a much larger area that is redish pink.

When the burgers are at the desired temperature, take them of the heat and let rest for five minutes.

Buns

I’m sure that there are gourmet bakers in your area as there are in mine, but as I stated earlier, this is a hamburger, not an investment. A lot of grocery stores have pretty good bakeries. French bread buns and “original hamburger buns” are traditional offerings in at least three chains in my areas.

Both of these are very good. I particularly like the French bread after a light toasting, but we found that brioche bun quickly seared open side down in fat offers a mild crunch on the interior with a sweet, soft, and egg-rich exterior.

The question was which fat to sear it in.

You don’t have a lot of choice when you’re grilling. Just brush the bun with a little melted butter and toss it on the grill for twenty or so seconds and you’re good to go. But at home, you have more options.

With all due deference to my beloved olive oils, this seems like a job for butter. But then there’s that skillet of beef fat sitting there on your cook top still simmering from the burgers you just pulled from the heat.

We tried both and both were amazing. I prefer the butter personally. The beef fat lent an awful lot of flavor to the bread, but it was in competition with rather than complimentary to, the hamburger. The butter brought a distinct new richness. Again, both were good.

Toppings

Whatever the heck you want.

Whether you like a traditional American lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle set up (with or without cheese - and cheese choice is a subject way too large to address in this post) or something as outlandish and a Kiwi burger with pickled beets, pineapple, and a fried egg in addition, you’re right. Whatever floats your boat.

I typically just go with a blend of chopped dill pickles and onion or the full on traditional American (in either I’ll sometimes add a slice of American cheese, which is not nearly as unnatural as you may think.) Occasionally I’ll go with cheese, Wickles, fried onions, and ketchup leather in imitation of L.A.’s Plan Check Burger. I wrote about that particular concoction here. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal hot dog/burger sauce which I wrote about here.

I’ll say though, I’ve been testing these meat blends for almost two months now. To pick up on nuances and textures I’ve been eating them plain - just meat and bread. If you haven’t done that in a while, give it a shot. It’s amazing how good a burger tastes on its own.

To Recap:

My nomination for the official RBR Hamburger is a freshly ground blend of 3 parts chuck, 3 parts hangar steak, and 2 parts beef short rib salted immediately before cooking, cooked over high heat with frequent flipping until medium rare in the center, rested for five minutes and served on a brioche bun that’s been lightly seared in melted butter with whatever the hell toppings you want.

Voila.

Enjoy, no injuries, and Roll Tide.