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How to Make a Great Burger - Start with Great Meat 

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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    How to Make a Great Burger - Start with Great Meat  - CT Bites - Restaurants, Recipes, Food, Fairfield County, CT

Reader Comments (22)


Now that you've thrown the subject open for comment, allow me to make mine.

I have had a couple of issues with Craft WHICH I HOPE are anomalies and perhaps someone can weigh in with comment.

Some of their lamb and pork is amazing, though price wise we are talking nosebleed levels here, but put that aside for a second...

I have had freshness issues here. I have, too many times, walked in for one specific item and found that either did not have it or, conversely, what was in stock showed visible signs of having been there too long. A couple of years ago I recall seeing a big tray of some of the most amazing looking short ribs I have ever seen, and sadly, three days later when I returned, they were almost all still there and looking every bit their age.

The other thing is, I personally am not crazy about the taste of Crafts grass-fed HAMBURGER, have not tried the steaks. I do not know if what I bought was the same special, tricked out blend you describe above, but it retailed for 6 bucks a pound and honestly didn't taste very good, although that was perfectly fresh.

The best burger in Fairfield County? That's easy. That occurs when I buy Stew's 22/pound prime strip steak, grind it up at home and throw 'em on my Weber. You never tasted such a burger. I'm serious!

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy

Overratted, overpriced. People with disposable income love getting ripped off.
Fairway or Stews does just as good. When you know how to cook you dont need $25.00 lb. meat.

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfoodieonline

Just my two cents...

I like Saugatuck Craft Butchery and think that if you are not just shopping for the popular cuts, the prices are quite reasonable. (I also like that they are supporting local farmers, so I'm keeping my money in the region.)

As to hamburger - FWIW, I don't think anything tops the Wagyu at Balduccis. I have not tended to like the results that I have had at home with their other Wagyu cuts - just not worth the money - but the ground really rocks. Counterintuitive, but my consistent experience.

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Grimm

Really not getting ripped off when you know where your meet is coming from and the quality of their stuff. I've never been disappointed and everything I have gotten has been amazing. If you want LOCAL pasture raised its the place to go.

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeffB

not knocking Stew's but their "naked" ground beef is $5.99 a pound regular how is $6 a ripoff realguy?

and just a little FYI, Craft wasn't even open a "couple of years ago"

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjon

Thanks realguy, in meetings all day yesterday so I apologize for the delay. I ate two blends on the day of, as well as brought meat home for my own test drive. I also grilled the take-away meat on my Weber and I found the meat to have as great a flavor as the one I sampled in the store. A few days later I returned and bought another pound+ for test sample #2. This time I grilled one of the patties and sous vide and then sauteed in olive oil the other. On a side by side comparison, they were very different. The grilled patty was as flavorful as the first batch and the sous vide and sauteed was delicious but milder in flavor. I credit this to the fat content, which I feel is closer to 25% than 20%. It absorbed the smokiness like a sponge. So not only is it important to buy excellent meat, but the cooking method greatly effects the end product.

And the price is $6.99 a pound, not sure how that is in the "ripped-off" category. Likewise my definition of getting ripped off is thinking you are buying A and the merchant sells you B. And please don't get me started on Stew Leonards as the benchmark for not getting ripped off...hysterical. 1 - The former owner and namesake went to jail for ripping people off; 2 - You need to buy 2 to receive the "sale" price is completely not in line with "the customer is always right" mantra. And do yourself a favor. Do the math one weekend on the "whole filet." Then tell me how inexpensive that "deal" is?

I guess Jeff was right...this burger stuff is really polarizing. As the owner of Craft Butchery, I want to respond to a few of the posts on this message board. Craft is a very different type of shop than the large stores that you reference. Rather than buying boxed beef from feedlots in the Midwest, we only bring in whole animals from local farms that raise them according to some strict criteria. This comes with a lot of benefits – to the consumer, the environment and rural communities where animals are raised - and also a few inconveniences.

For example, it is true that we are frequently out of some items. Most people don't know that there are just 4 pounds of skirt steak, 4 pounds of flank steak, 3 pounds of hangar steak and 8 pounds of tenderloin (filet mignon) on a 1500 lb steer. These cuts sell out very quickly. We run a sustainable business and are committed to using the whole animal, "nose-to-tail" as they say, with full transparency and little to no waste. I hate telling people that we're sold out of certain items, but unfortunately that's the reality when you source this way.

As to the point about the freshness, I'm not sure anything can get any fresher. We pick up our meat directly from the farmers every Thursday morning, which means that it was slaughtered two days prior. Save for our dry-aged steaks, we sell the entire animal in one week, we never freeze anything, and we don't use any gases or oxygen depletion to make our meat look fresh. Because there are no preservatives or additives to the meat, it will occasionally oxidize (turn brown), but this does not compromise flavor or texture. Our staff are freaks about quality and would never sell anything that's not up to our standards. With respect to the short ribs in particular, we sell out so quickly each week that my wife and I just had our short ribs for the first time since we opened a year and a half ago.

Finally, we understand that the topic of pricing can be a sensitive one. For a sustainable food system to truly work, we believe that this type of meat should be available to everyone, and we make every effort to keep our prices at a reasonable level. On the non dry-aged items we try to keep in line with Whole Foods, Stew Leonard’s;, et al, even though these products are often not comparable to what we sell. The dry-aged items, sausages and charcuterie that we make in house can be more expensive than our peers. This is representative of the amount of time and resources that we invest in our craft to create products that are extremely unique and high quality. We view these as specialty items, at one end of the very wide spectrum of prices and cuts that we offer.

On that note, it’s important to keep in mind that the food system we champion is extremely different from that of the large groceries and regional chain stores. To grow an animal on pasture takes up to twice as long as the factory farm (CAFO) animals that comprise ~99% of the meat that we consume in this country. Our animals are not given hormones or antibiotics or fed animal by-products, all of which are regularly used in factory farms to accelerate growth and produce cheaper meat. Our small local farms have significant pricing constraints because of their scale and because, unlike the feedlots, they don’t receive the government subsidies that keep the price of most meat artificially low.

That said, if you still want to compare based on price alone I would concede in the near term buying local, pasture-raised meat will be more expensive. It’s a personal choice whether you want to support us, and we recognize that there are people who don’t share our views on the state of our food system and how to fix them. That’s fine. We just want to make sure that people understand the difference between their options. We also strongly believe that people have a right to know where their food comes from, and what’s in it (meat should not have an ingredients list).

I think the mid to long-term picture is very different. You’re going to start seeing a lot more pricing parity as increasing oil and corn prices drive up the cost of feedlot beef. I think/hope at that point the decision becomes much easier. Which brings me to my final comment…we should all eat less meat. It’s a total cliché to quote Michael Pollan, but we preach it all the time…”Eat (REAL) food, not too much, mostly plants”. That’s the ultimate solution to our food woes.

April 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan


Thank you for taking the time to explain in more detail items that we discussed but did not have room to include.


I know your stuff is great, when perfectly fresh, freshness being a necessary precondition for all deliciousness.

Here is my thought. Do you have an email list where you send people updates literally on a daily basis about what is fresh today? That even opens up the possibility of pre-selling, sight unseen a good portion of your stock, and thereby killing like, at least 2 birds with one stone.

It is good that you responded personally. I have always enjoyed your stuff. If I knew what was new, freshly chopped up in the past 24 hours, I gotta believe I would come in more if it weren't such a crapshoot, in the best sense of that term:)

I also imagine your move across the street will somehow improve things.

You had a fluffy little lamb roast I bought a few years ago that was one of the best tasting things I 've ever eaten.

And Ryan, as far as hamburger is concerned, as you know I regularly pay 16 bucks and pound and then go grind it up, lots of work, just to get great hamburger. So Ryan do you now offer better grades of burger, as Jeff's review suggested? As for me, I don't REALLY care how much something costs. Being ripped off, Jeff, means getting anything but the best regardless of price.

Ryan if you are into this heavy communication thing that I suggest, it MIGHT I didn't say would, but it might be just the ticket for you.

And people, it is true...If you've forgotten what pork chops taste like (and who hasn't?) Ryan's are a revelation.

April 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy

"Realguy"...what's "real" about hiding behind an alias on a food blog? Get a life. Secondly, get a clock, a calendar, a decent watch, a sundial, or at least a clue. They haven't been open for, "a few years", so the only thing you got there was a "fluffy little" crock of BS...

April 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterget your facts straight

Hey realguy.

If you enjoy Stew's or Stop and Shop or Whole Foods meat, cheese, produce or whatever, that is great that you have found your particular place to shop. But if you want to know what is fresh and that day's products I hope you just do what I do, I ask.

Out of curiosity, when you asked Stew's butcher when the meat was slaughtered did they know? Does it ground on premises? These are real questions as I am curious as to the quality of the meat behind the counter as I have never bought their "prime."

But we will agree to disagree on the definition of "ripped off." Let me ask a hypothetical. If you are standing next to someone at Stews' butcher and you both buy a pound the $20 meat and they charge you $45 and the other patron $15 do you feel ripped off? To me, that is ripped off, but according to your definition that is OK. Just a thought.

As the owner and chef of Bar Sugo, I have a great relationship with the Craft crew and its beginning to be a reoccurring thing here on CTBites that the comments are becoming more and more negative. Let me tell you guys something about Craft. They bust their ass to bring us the best meat around this area hands down! They source locally and because of that they need to pay for it. Just the same when you come to my restaurant and have to pay more for our meatballs. We get our meat from Craft and I won't buy from anyone else. I'm sorry that you can't get $1 meatballs from Bar Sugo but we set ourselves aside from everyone else because of the freshness and taste compared to our competitors. I know I'm opening my self up for ridicule and backlash but just take one second to think that everyday we do the best that we can do to make our consumers happy. We put our blood, sweat, and tears into our business just for the "people" to criticize us! I'm a firm believer into buying local and thanks to some of the great chefs around like Bill Taibe and Tim LaBant we are now creating a movement in Fairfield
County and I believe that instead of breaking balls we should be praising emery one for their efforts and dedication! Hey, craft guys! Keep rocking out and we'll keep being there for you.

The guys at Bar Sugo

I certainly appreciate the comments, and the feedback from realguy is useful. These issues are inherent in the business model and there are very few proxies in the entire country to guide how we address them. Since opening we've tried many different methods of inventory management and channels of communicating with customers (including exactly what realguy is suggesting via FB, Twitter and our email last Spring). Unfortunately, since we sell through things very quickly the communication needs to be real-time in order to work and we don't have the platform or staff to manage this. What does work incredibly well, however, is pre-ordering. Our customers know that if they call ahead we can generally fill any request, thus eliminating the "crapshoot" (thanks for that, btw). That said, availability of all items has improved dramatically as we step up the number of animals that we buy in a week. This will only improve as we continue to grow.

As to your continued assault on freshness, all I can say is that we flip our whole case about 2x per day and 5x per day on the weekend. It can't possibly get any fresher, and if you only knew how old the items are at the large grocers that are gassed and made to look fresher than they are, you'd most certainly agree (and be horrified). Jeff's right...just ask your butcher. They really should be able to tell you how old it is (not when it arrived in a box), as well as where it came from, how it was raised, how it was slaughtered, and at least three different ways that you can prepare it. That's the job of a real butcher. Hopefully you have one that you can trust.

April 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Making burgers with Ryan's dry aged ground beef (and occasionally ground lamb!) has become a near weekly ritual in our house. And I also have to give a shout-out to those fingerling potatoes often beckoning in your basket which are pitch perfect combination for the burgers roasted with some evoo and kosher salt. Last time my husband stopped in for our fix, there was barely a 1/4 pound of the regular ground beef which prompted someone from the team to grind us a pound on the spot. Knowing the thought, time, and yes, craft, that goes into what they do means that we will continue to drive 30 minutes out of our way for our butcher. Thanks for doing what you do, Ryan. We're glad to have you and your team in Fairfield County.

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Kundrat

Wonderful to read Ryan's responses here. As Amy said above, so happy to have him and his team nearby. They inspire us to cook (meat) more.

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermla19

Hey guys,

Sorry for the delay getting back.


The Prime stuff at Stews, at 22 bucks per pound, can be awesome, obviously depending on the exact cut of meat and the freshness issue, which at Stews normally means something will be perfectly fresh, something will be perfectly spoiled, and it's up to you to know the difference.

Pick the right steak, (and isn't that always the game anywhere anyway) and Stews prime strips are off-the charts tasty and it's funny but I just bought two tonight and they look quite awesome, but at Stews yes, you have to use your eyes and you kind of need to know what a great steak's supposed to look like.


I apologize for going on a freshness rant regarding your store. I, as the stand-up-realguy I am will come back in THIS week and perhaps I will buzz you on the phone first and you can tell me when exactly something extraordinary will be on offer and I will buy it and bring it home and cook it.

Truth be told, Ryan I am very very open to coming back as a customer. It was simply a matter of A) I generally have preferred corn fed beef, but perhaps, you can hip me to an extraordinary cut of steak and set me straight on that matter as well.

I never disputed the fact that deliciousness can be found at your shop...Or that you are doing a great thing for us here. I actually thing that oddly, your move across the street will somehow facilitate shopping or something along those lines.

And Jeff, I owe you a few rounds of Guinness at Cherrystreet. Let me know when.

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy

I am taken aback to see your comments about the Leonard family. While I believe you may have been trying to draw a thread between what foodieonline was saying about being "ripped off" at SCG, and the price per pound of Stew Leonard's ground beef, you veered way off course with your personal comment about Mr. Leonard's jail time. You write for a food blog, and are thus entrusted to represent an "informed opinion" (the ultimate oxymoron) about what food you review......and that is ALL. I found your comment wholly unprofessional and irrelevant to everything being discussed in this thread.
And good job, Ryan! Your comments were tempered, mature and informative.

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMGM

And by the way, (because I know what a few of you hecklers in the crowd MAY be thinking,) I will NOT be sneaking into Ryan's a pussy(cat) with my tail between my legs pretending not to be the mad blogger. Oh no. When I arrive at the shop I will announce myself as the mad blogger, and we will go from there.

A couple of other quick issues.

You guys...I NEVER buy ground beef, not fro Stew or anywhere else. I buy steak and grind my own.

At stews it is all about the butcher-style case, NOT the supermarket style case that precedes it and for damn sure not the far one where the cheaper beef resides. No, it is all about the butcher case and I do buy the prime when it looks fantastic because it is better on average than the other stuff.

It's funny at Stews...I like the organic milk and the great steaks when available but I never touch a veggie or a baked good...The bread at Wave hill is now my regular bread (awesome) and I buy only organic veggies at Whole Foods.

You do have to tip your beret to their success. It's hard getting extraordinarily wealthy in America and they did it. Salute!

As I like to say, if my old man had worked a little harder, I'd be somebody today:)

April 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy


None taken and I am sorry you are taken aback, but the legal history of Stew Leonards is a fact, not an "informed opinion." From the NY Times...

1 - “Mr. Leonard, whose reputation was shattered this summer when he and three executives pleaded guilty to skimming more than $17 million in sales from the family's Norwalk store.” - NY Times October 21, 1993.

2 - "Customers at Stew Leonard's Dairy store in Norwalk were overcharged on a variety of foods ranging from ham salad (3 cents on a one-pound package) to lox ($1.76 on a one-pound package), according to a detailed report on short-weighting released today by the state." - NY Times August 19, 1993

Name one place that would not get lambasted in every newspaper and blog for such behavior if this came to the forefront today. Yes, this is a food blog, Stew Leonards is a food store and sorry, no free pass on this one. He did the crime, he paid the time. But they still have that Buy 2 for the discount, which I think is an affront to people who only want or can only afford one, give the discount on any purchaser. That is an opinion.

But back to the point at hand. I think SCB has fantastic products and I actually applaud Realguy for being a stand-up-guy as well. Hope he does goes back to SCB and has a realtalk with Ryan, choose his beef and maybe Ryan will grind it right in front of him and he can take it home and enjoy one freakin' great burger. I am glad I did.

If you want to write an opinion on the Leonards' biz practices, in a newspaper that will give you the forum, then go ahead. Otherwise, shut up and do your job here on CT BItes.
As far as congratulating "realguy" for being a stand up "guy" and willing to have a talk with Ryan.....give me a "real" break.

April 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMGM


Wow. A little vitriolic early on a beautiful Sunday morning. Take a deep breath. Good idea for an article though.

Have a great day.



It's funny...I used to do financial blogging and I literally got death threats. For blogging about stocks. So I get the passion of the forum, and the weird combination of both anonymity, and a far and wide audience for ones ideas, both genius and moronic.

And I get that we're talking about Ryan's business here, his livelihood, and that is a concept I take extraordinarily seriously. I will bend over backwards to avoid besmirching a solid persons reputation frivolously. It would have to be for a good reason. And mostly all I've ever done is inquired about affairs over at Craft, more than be a self-appointed expert on them.

And we're talking burgers on the other hand. This stuff is supposed to be fun. I miss the good old days when Big Top and Chubby's were here and all we had to do was EAT good burgers and not write about them.

Ryan, give me some kind of feedback regarding my above suggestion about us maybe reconnecting or tell me if am just an annoyance to you at this point.

April 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrealguy

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