Adapted from George Motz | Great American Burger Book | Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2016
Knowing how to make the best burger is no small trick. There’s tremendous potential for things to go wrong before you even think of turning on the stove or the grill. And while everyone has an opinion on what cut or blend of beef makes the juiciest, richest, most robustly flavored burger, that’s only part of the equation. And who better to turn to for advice on recreating the most awesomest of burgers than someone who’s spent literally years being obsessed with the topic to the point of dedicating his every waking moment to it? The below tricks and techniques are courtesy of George Motz’s latest and greatest, The Great American Burger Book. (Motz, it should be noted, is also the author of Hamburger America: One Man’s Cross-Country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation.) Trust us. Trust him. Heed his words and in no time you’ll be making the best burger ever.–Renee Schettler Rossi
Fresh vs. Frozen Ground Beef
Fresh ground beef is the single most important element to any great burger. There are scientific reasons why fresh beef makes for the very best burgers, but it’s the end result that matters—fresh beef tastes better than frozen.
Scientifically, the moment that raw beefsteaks are sent through a grinder, liquid is released as the muscle fibers are basically crushed. The clock is ticking, so it goes without saying that the best burgers come from beef that has just been ground. When the Midwestern burger chain Steak ’n Shake opened in 1934, they would grind beef in the dining room in full view of customers to prove this point.
The integrity of ground beef changes dramatically when it has been frozen. When thawed, frozen ground beef will never resemble the loose, plush stuff that came out of a grinder. The liquid present in the meat forms ice crystals when frozen, and those crystals actually cause damage to the cell structure of the beef, altering its flavor and texture. And as we all know, good food is all about flavor and texture. But it gets worse—the deeper the freeze, the more extensive the damage, especially upon thawing. Please stick to fresh ground beef, the only path to hamburger success.
How to Grind Meat at Home
If you are grinding at home, pick up an inexpensive hand grinder. The hand-crank models that clamp onto a table edge work well, but if you have a lot to grind it becomes tedious. If you already own a KitchenAid stand mixer it’s time to invest in their dependable grinding attachment. Introduced in the 1940s, the KitchenAid food-grinder attachment has changed very little over the years and costs only about fifty dollars.
Your beef should be kept cold in the fridge until just before you’re ready to grind. Beef that has warmed even slightly will begin to soften the fat content and that in turn will gum up your grinder. J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats recommends chilling the grinding attachment itself, which is a great idea. Most butchers keep their grinders in their walk-in meat lockers, right by the hanging sides of beef, so Kenji’s method is pure common sense. I’m guessing you do not have a walk-in at home, so toss your grinder in the fridge the day before you plan to grind some beef.
What Kind of Beef to Grind for Burgers
My advice, which comes from years of studying my burger heroes and their methods, is to use chuck steak as a baseline for making great burgers. It’s a forgiving cut and the choice for just about every small-town joint and big-city burger pub. Chuck steaks have the perfect muscle-to-fat ratio, especially if ground to 80/20-percent specifications (a scientific method best left to butchers and meatpackers). Certified Angus Beef is a great option to start with; it’s one of the first beef brands in America that was promoted for its consistency and high quality, and it still delivers on that promise today.
How to Talk to Your Butcher
If you have not done so already, start a relationship with your local butcher shop. Explain to them that you plan to grind your own beef for burgers and they should be able to choose a chuck steak that contains marbling close to the ideal 80/20 ratio just by eyeballing it. Ask for a chuck steak or chuck roast. This is the big steak that butchers sell as pot roast. Experiment by tossing in other cuts of the animal as well, like bits of tasty short rib or brisket (but don’t add too much—there’s a reason these “less desirable” cuts require longer cooking methods, such as smoking and braising, when cooked on their own). Or ask for their special burger blend: Most butchers, especially those that sell dry-aged steaks, save the trimmings from those cuts and use them in special blends specifically for burgers. It’s the way it’s been done in butcher shops forever.