5 tips for a better burger

Burger with blue cheese & mushroom

It seems like every man — at least every man who's into cooking — will at one time in their life find themselves on a quest to create the perfect burger. There's always the option of buying pre-made burger mixes or simply grilling supermarket stock-standard mince, but if you're willing to get bogged down in meat:fat ratios and the like, delicious rewards await you. These days you don't even have to work empirically. I didn't have the time, tools, nor the stomach to eat dozens of burgers of variable quality in my search for perfection, but it's all been done before, allowing a simple literature review to substitute for original investigation.

Now when I talk about the perfect burger, I'm talking about the meat itself. The scope for toppings is unlimited and can vary on a whim, however when it comes to the meat I believe in the idea of the one true burger. Although I believe such a burger might exist, I'm okay with the idea that I might never eat it, and openly doubtful that I'll ever make it — a fact that I find rather freeing. Perfect is the enemy of good enough, and I there are a handful of simple techniques that can dramatically improve a burger, leaving the purists to fight over the long tail of diminishing returns.

Below are what I consider the most successful advances in burger technology:

  • No pre-ground meat: The problem with pre-ground is that the poor quality mince is made from scraps, and the 'premium' mince is too lean. Go for a braising cut such as chuck or brisket, which has a strong beefy flavour and the right fat content (25-30%), or experiment with mixtures. Grind it at home if you have the equipment, or select a cut and ask your butcher to do it. Persevere: I tried three butchers before I could find one that would do this for me — the rest claimed that their machines were too big to put through only 2 pounds of chuck.
  • Where's the beef? Some like to mix the minced beef with onions, herbs, or god forbid, bread crumbs, but that's what toppings are for. Let beef be beef.
  • Season well: Generously salt and pepper the outside of the raw burger just before it goes onto the heat. You'd be surprised at how much seasoning a burger can (and should) take.
  • Keep your cool: I keep the mince in the fridge right up until it's time to cook. This goes against all other advice for cooking meat, but with burgers a cool temperature will help the mince stay together and prevent too much fat melting away in the initial stages of cooking.
  • The Shake Shack Smash: As seen in this video, the shake shack smash is a thing and it really works. The key is to do it early — only 30 seconds into cooking — and to form your raw burgers a little thick so as to let the smash shape it to size. I used to always have a problem with perfectly-rolled-out burgers contracting into hockey pucks, but no longer. If you don't have Shake Shack's rigid metal spatulas, I find that pressing on a regular non-slotted spatula with a potato masher works nicely.

The above list is far from comprehensive (there are entire blogs dedicated to burgers alone), but those five simple tips have transformed burgerdom in the second pancake household.

As I was saying, the kinds of toppings are endless. The above burger was a good one so I thought I'd share: Baby spinach, blue brie (Kind Island Dairy), grilled portabello mushroom, and quick onion jam (onions, sugar, salt, worchestershire sauce, and tomato ketchup). Winner.

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