Building Better Burgers

The humble hamburger is an American icon. A good hamburger is a thing of beauty, the center of a thoroughly satisfying meal; a great hamburger can be as memorable as a great pizza, bouillabaisse, banh mi ... you get the idea.

Today I’m going to outline my preferred method for making burgers at home. Try them yourself and let me know what you think!


Step 1: Select the beef

For the best burgers, look for an unground well-marbled chuck roast* (even better if the beef is local and organic). Too lean and the burgers will be dry. Try to find fresh beef, freezing also causes that cell damage that also reduces the quality of the burgers (but not to the extent that pre grinding does). If you can find aged chuck then you are on your way to some outstanding burgers! You’ll need ¼ to ½ pound per burger. For today’s burgers I’ll be using chuck from Seven Bridges Farm in Lima, NY. *There are fancier combinations you can get into - but chuck is easy to find and doesn't require heroic logistics.

Never use pre-ground beef that comes is a tube or tight conformal packaging. Once the beef is compressed, the resulting burgers will have a chewy dense mouth-feel (and will simultaneously taste less beefy). Not only will using pre-ground beef result is an inferior texture and flavor, but pre packaged ground beef is usually the culprit in beef related e. coli out-breaks.

Step 2: Seasoning and grinding

You need a grinder*.

If you want to achieve the best result, the beef must be ground (with the spices) on the day you will be eating the burgers (keep the beef at a temperature below 40 F at all times before you cook the burgers). A hand grinder that attaches to a kitchen counter will do well. A small grinder is easy to clean and maintain. The grinders usually come with two disks; use the finer disk for the ground beef.

The grinder has a feeder screw. Slice the beef into strips that will thread into this screw. Lay the beef on a flat surface and season. You could keep it simple with sea salt. I usually season liberally with New York Minute spice rub. For a more southwestern vibe I use Sabroso.

Grind the beef into a loose pile. Try to avoid compressing the beef at this point.

*The next best option if a grinder is not available is to purchase a whole chuck roast from a good butcher that will grind it to order.

Step 3: Forming and cooking the burgers

Form the beef into 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick patties on a flat surface. The trick is handle the beef is little as possible and to not over-work the patties. The patties should just hold together. you'll have to use a wide spatula to move them as this point.

There is one caveat to these loose packed burgers: They require cooking on a griddle or other flat surface. They are too fragile to flip on a grill. The best compromise if you want a smoky edge is using a griddle over a wood fire. Today I am using a shallow pan with mid-high heat and caramelizing some red onion while I'm at it. I lay down thin slices of Shtayburne Farm cheddar as soon as I flip the burgers (the hot surface helps melt the cheese). The burgers have to be flipped with care, but if they develop a few cracks or barely hang together don’t worry. They’ll still be great. You can cook the burgers to whatever temperature you prefer. You’ll find that these burgers are quite fault-tolerant (if you accidentally overcook them they’ll still be palatable).

Step 4: Finish it

Good burgers deserve matching accompaniment. The foundation is the bread. I love our local Rochester knot roll buns but sometimes I prefer a pair of good crusty slice; like from this nice seeded semolina from Flour City Bread.

Today I kept it simple: cheddar, grilled onions, a few dill pickles and tomato Kats’up. This was a quick lunch, so there was no time for Frites (boo!). A small side salad fits the bill. Of course you can get fancier, truffles, caviar, green chiles (!) or whatever floats your boat. A good burger at the base makes it all work!