This post is written by Salted editor, Alyssa Mandel.
After many long months of antsy anticipation, grilling season is nearly upon us! I know this because I find myself more and more frequently falling back into the endless debate of what makes "the perfect burger". There is an overabundance of opinion on the ideal size, the best condiments, which kind of lettuce or cheese or pickle should be used, how the toppings should be ordered... I’m no burger expert, but from my experiences as an enthusiastic food maker and eater, what makes a burger great is not about trendy ingredients or complex composition. The perfect burger is the result of an attention to detail in preparing and showcasing the oft-overshadowed star of the dish: the meat.
It all starts with picking the right blend of meat. Purchasing quality meat doesn’t mean you have to spend your life savings on the absolute finest cut of beef - it is a burger after all - but try to avoid pre-packaged or pre-ground super market cuts or blends. Never buy cheap, frozen, or lean beef. Talk to your butcher about how different cuts contribute different flavor and texture. It is also important to consider the meat to fat ratio of the blend, which typically ranges from 80-20 to 70-30. Again, consult with your butcher to decide which ratio is best for your burger. Keep in mind that too much fat content will render out causing the burger to shrivel up, but not enough and the final product will likely be dry and lack a certain depth of flavor.
After picking the right meat, be sure to handle it with care. The best burgers I've made originated from meat I ground myself. From a health standpoint, using pre-ground meat is a very uncertain gamble. You can never be sure what quality of meat is being used. Additionally, you have less control over the subtleties in flavor, the fat pieces will not be as distinct, and pre-ground meat is often ground too small. To learn about the benefits and technique of grinding your own meat, visit “The Basics of Grinding Meat at Home” by Chef Elias Cairo.
Another key step in making the perfect burger is to form the patties when the meat is cold. After grinding, be sure to handle the meat as little as possible. You don’t want the heat of your hand to melt the fat and blend it in. If it is too blended, the patty will be more dense and less juicy. Work quickly and lightly to form the burgers. Making a indent in the center of the patty will encourage it to maintain an even flatness as it cooks. This little trick helps you avoid the devastating crisis of an unevenly cooked, convex patty,
Seasoning the meat is the last important step before cooking the patties of your the perfect burger. I like to keep the seasoning simple with salt and pepper to enhance the natural flavor of the beef. Season just the outside of the patty on both sides a few minutes before cooking it. Seasoning too early or blending it in with the meat can actually result in a dry burger. Salt tends to draw out water and can affect the fundamental structure of the meat. Adding salt right before putting it on the grill imparts flavor, creates a thin crust, and doesn't alter the texture of the meat.
How long you cook the burger for, and what you top it with is really up to you. Building a burger is a personal process and matter of taste, but be sure to select toppings thoughtfully. Think about how flavors interact with each other, and be careful not to overwhelm the meaty goodness you worked so hard to prepare.
The "perfect burger" has and always will be a subjective matter, but to me, less is more. The combination of quality and simplicity is the difference between a burger that is delicious and one that is truly memorable.