Plump and juicy, pink in the center and charred on the outside, piled with condiments and served up on a fresh bun: the hamburger is more American than apple pie. Fast food or upscale, you’ll find a a ground beef patty in a bun on restaurant menus as well as backyard grills everywhere. I can’t imagine how many billions are served each week.
Now that the grilling season is here, hamburgers at home swing into high gear. The searing heat of a grill, flames licking the meat, smoke adding to the flavor mix – you can’t get any of this cooking on a stove indoors. Grilled hamburgers stand apart.
Hamburger meat has diversified and moved upscale. Choices used to be limited to ground round, chuck, or the more generic ground beef. Black Angus beef became a higher quality option a few years back. More recently, there’s been a move toward grass fed, which is rich in omega 3 and vitamins. Although it’s likely better for us, the meat leaner so you have to be careful not to overcook it. You can even find some exotic Kobe beef ground for hamburgers.
Thanks to cutting-edge wholesale butcher Pat Lafrieda, the latest trend in burgers is to combine different cuts in the hamburger grind. He began by custom blending brisket, chuck, skirt steak, and short ribs for his upscale New York city customers – each restaurant having a signature blend. The idea caught on and has spread across the country.
At Stew Leonard’s, for example, the steakhouse burger is a blend of short rib and brisket sent up from New York by Lafrieda. They also have the naked burger – hormone free 100% grass fed Angus beef. Gourmet burgers have added flavors like bacon or cheddar mixed in. All these in addition to the old standards of round and chuck ground in store all day long. I’m told that the steakhouse is Stew’s personal favorite.
“Fat equals flavor” is an often quoted saying in the meat business. Hamburger meat comes with varying ratios of lean to fat. 80% lean and 20% fat is the standard mix and makes a juicy burger. You can also get 85/15 or 90/10 for lower fat content, but the meat might cook up dry. Leaner blends are better for something like tacos, where you sauté the meat in advance and the fat renders out.
Fast food restaurants used to be the home of frozen pallid patties cooked well done, but even they have moved upscale. Danny Meyer’s breakthrough Shake Shack restaurants have set a new standard for a high quality burger cooked in a quick-service setting. The burger is all Black Angus with a secret blend of cuts created by Pat Lafrieda, thick enough to be cooked medium or any other way you’d like it.
Meyer proudly proclaims that his burgers are served on Martin’s Potato Rolls from the family-run bakery in Chambersburg, PA. The rolls – soft (some say squishy) – have a distinctive flavor and texture prized by burger lovers. Bun options have risen, too. Beyond the soft bun and the Kaiser roll (with or without seeds) there’s lots more choice. At Stew’s you can get a pretzel roll, quinoa bread, or a brioche bun. My son Bert favors an open face patty-melt on rye bread.
The list of possible condiments is long and growing. Lettuce and tomato go without saying – leaf or shredded, iceberg or something more tender. There’s nothing better than a vine-ripened tomato in season. Bacon has entered into the standard repertoire, too. Beyond that, just about anything goes: avocado or guacamole, salsa, mushrooms, and even a fried egg. The world seems divided into ketchup or mustard camps. I like mayo plain or jazzed up with chipotle, Russian dressing style, or as a garlicky aioli.
Cheese is a category unto itself. American cheese sets the standard for color, meltability, and texture. Cheddar can give more flavor but doesn’t melt as well. Gruyère and Swiss have their partisans as does blue cheese. More exotic cheeses like Taleggio, brie, or havarti are great paired with mushrooms. Down south they sometimes slather on classic pimento cheese.
Over the years, I’ve learned some basics that make for better burgers. Loosely form the burgers, just shaping them enough so that they hold together. Don’t handle the meat any more than you have to. Put a thumbprint dimple in the middle of the burger to prevent them puffing up as they cook. Sprinkle plenty of salt on the burgers just before cooking – both sides. Cook over a hot fire so the meat browns. Don’t be afraid of a few flames – they add flavor. Last, but definitely not least, a buttered toasted bun makes all the difference.
Hamburgers are an American classic, but everyone has their favorite. There’s no one right way, just lots of options and innovations. So get your grill sizzling, and don’t let the season pass by without enjoying plenty of beef on a bun.