How to Make a Great Burger - Start with Great Meat

Jeff "jfood" Schlesinger

Want to start an argument…talk hamburgers. This simple grilled piece of ground meat is one of the most polarizing topics in the culinary world. Websites are fully dedicated to hamburgers, magazines run covers and full articles on hamburgers, super-chefs are sent to their knees if their hamburger is not on par with their foie gras, and the backyard griller will season and treat his hamburger like haute cuisine.

Why does a simple patty of cooked ground meat on a bun with toppings generate such love and vitriol, simultaneously?

Let’s start with the meat. There are currently numerous choices…local farm, commercial farm, grass-fed, grain-fed, dry-aged, wet-aged, medium grind, fine grind, single grind, double grind, so many permutations, and so little time. I reached out to Ryan Fibiger of Saugatuck Craft Butchery for some sage advice. His response, “come in and I can show you how our best burger meat is cut, blended and ground.” So one afternoon Ryan gave me a two-hour butchery course as he broke down the front quarter of a cow, combined and ground the cuts, and finally prepared and served two different hamburger blends.

When I arrived, the lunchtime rush was winding down, a few chickens were roasting in the large rotisserie, and the cases contained varieties of sausages, steaks, pork, lamb and beef. Sitting atop a large Boos Bros table in the rear of the shop was the front quarter section of the afternoon’s activity. I asked Ryan where he buys his meat and there are currently three purveyors; Josef Meiller and Prospect Hill Farms, both in Pine Plains, NY, and Ox Hollow Farms, in Roxbury, CT.

We first entered the meat-aging refrigerator, located immediately behind the table. Inside the fridge were dangling sections of pigs and cows, plus shelves of aging products in various states of dry aging. Which brings us to the first point, aging.

Ryan explained the importance of aging the meat, as well as the difference between dry-aging and wet-aging. The more common method, wet-aging, involves sealing the meat in Cryovac bags for seven days and allowing the enzymes contained within the meat to break down the fibrous tissue. The dry-aged process involves placing fully exposed meat in a moisture and temperature controlled environment for 2-4 weeks. Dry aging requires much more space, a more controlled environment and time. The end result of both is a tenderer cut of meat while the dry-aging method leads to a higher concentration of flavor. Beyond four weeks the dry-aging process slows significantly.

As Ryan worked through breaking down the front quarter he explained that the cow places 70% of its weight on these legs. The result is a larger than normal fat content as well as additional flavor in the meat. Ground meat is now one of Craft’s largest sellers with several hundred pounds leaving the store on a weekend and in the summer it is not unusual for the store to be completely sold out by mid-Sunday.

Now it was onto the tough work, breaking down the beef. Without getting into enormous details, there are several large bones that hide much of the desired cuts and Ryan used saws, knives and leverage to expose and remove them.

The three cuts of meat that are included in all of Craft’s ground beef blends are brisket, chuck, and short rib. The brisket contributes butteriness to the end product, the chuck brings the fat and the short rib adds tremendous flavor. Certain chefs will ask for some additional cuts in the blend including long-aged neck sirloin. Each chef decides and requests his own particular ratio.

For the sampling we chose two blends, the first with 20-25% fat and containing the three basic cuts, short rib, chuck and brisket; the second with the addition of some six-week dry-aged sirloin. Each was first cut into large pieces and brought to the grinder. The grinder, standing several feet tall, can handle hundreds of pounds of meat, and the thirty pounds for our test was quick work. The first pass used the coarse die and as the meat passed through the die, the fat was compressed into the meat. A quick change to a medium die, and then the meat went through a second pass. Several restaurants ask for a third pass through fine die, but most request the medium.

Two large, 8-ounce patties were carefully formed from each blend, topped with a little salt and pepper and then placed in a hot pan. Once a golden brown crust was formed, they were placed and finished in the oven.

And now for my favorite part of the afternoon…the tasting. My memory fails me just a bit on my exact words when I tasted the burgers but it was probably “Outstanding!” The patties were fantastic! The flavor was deep, rich and brought incredible flavor. And I absolutely loved the grind. It allowed for a soft texture, was not dense at all and allowed the full flavors of the meat shine. As we performed the side-by-side of the two blends, you had to concentrate to discern the slight nuances that the extra-aged sirloin brought to the patty.

So my quick education in butchery and hamburger crafting was complete. In two hours I saw the meat cut, ground and cooked. My burger was two hours from fridge to plate and I gained a great deal of respect of the first step in creating some of the great hamburgers of Fairfield County.

Stay tuned as CTbites presents its Top-10 List of “Bar Burgers” this Monday May 29th. 

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