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Burgers 101

 

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For such a simple, classic sandwich, there are a surprising number of competing theories on how to make the perfect burger. Chef Mike Gershkovich insists that a true hamburger is made from 100% ground beef. But over at Pomegranate, Brooklyn’s most prestigious supermarket, “meatologist” Ari Heinemann disagrees. At Pomegranate, the most popular ground beef blend is the so-called Perfect Burger, a closely guarded secret recipe involving salt, onion powder, soy sauce and minced onions. And at Wolf & Lamb, Chef Daniel favors a simple mix of salt, pepper, garlic and onion— “seasonings that enhance the natural flavor of the meat, and don’t compete with it,” as Wuensch explained. Both Heinemann and Gershkovich recommend using ground chuck, an affordable and reliable choice.

At Wolf & Lamb, the chefs put aside scraps as they trim top-notch meat cuts like rib-eye and ribs, and then grind those scraps into their famous rib-eye burgers— Wuensch recommends home cooks try the same trick for an affordable way to have burgers made of top-quality meat.

Another point of disagreement between our panel of burger experts was the correct ratio of meat to fat
in the beef mixture. Wuensch advocated for a high fat percentage of 30%, while Chef Mike insisted that you need only 15% fat. In general, a good rule of thumb is that well-done burgers require more fat, while rare burg-
ers can be leaner. “In an all-beef burger,” Gershkovich explained, “the fat bastes the meat as it melts away, giving you a lot of flavor.”

The best way to know what is in your ground beef is to grind it yourself, but if this isn’t an option, find a real butcher shop where you can have your meat selected and ground to order. At Pomegranate, where fresh beef is ground daily, Heinemann recommends purchasing beef on the day you plan to use it, and notes that slight color changes on the surface of the meat is not a cause for concern. “Of course, if the meat starts to smell bad, you should start to worry,” he joked, cautioning that ground beef be kept cold at all times until it is cooked. While every chef we spoke to agreed that fresh meat is best, if that is not available in your area, you don’t have to feel deprived.

Jack’s Gourmet offers premium frozen burger patties in grocery stores nationwide. Look for Sweet Italian and Mexican Chorizo, modeled after the two most popular sausage flavors from the popular kosher meat brand, as well as a Facon Burger, made of premium chuck meat with bits of “Facon” beef bacon.

The Beef

Once your beef is ground, gently form it into patties and sprinkle generously with non-iodized salt and coarsely ground pepper. “Don’t over-handle it,” Gershkovich cautioned. “The more you roll and handle it, the tougher it gets.” A gentle touch will help the burger retain its flavor and texture—no additives necessary. A relatively thin patty, no more than 3⁄4 of an inch thick, will cook quickly and thoroughly, but if you want to make sure your burgers remain no more than medium-well on the inside, keep your patties about one inch thick. Pressing a dimple into the center of each patty will help prevent the burger from curling up into an unwieldy oval shape. Finally, patting the meat dry with a paper towel will help it sear properly.

The Cookout

Your next step? “Go outside and grill!” Heinemann and Wuensch both noted that most people prefer the grill, even though it is easier to get juicy, succulent burgers by using a skillet indoors. If you do grill directly over the flame, use a less fatty meat mixture and never, ever press burgers down onto the grates with your spatula. “Don’t try to flip the burger until it comes off the grates or the pan easily,” warned Wuensch. “Don’t play with it more than necessary.” Wait until it releases easily from the cooking surface, then flip, and wait until the other side is cooked thoroughly as well.

Doneness is a matter of personal preference, but for food safety reasons, the USDA recommends cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 160°F.

Nowadays, the list of topping ideas for your burger stretches far beyond your basic ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato. There are aiolis, slaws, truffle oils, non-dairy cheese substitutes— enough options to last you until Labor Day. One particularly popular burger topping at kosher eateries is a fried egg—you can find a sunny- side-up perched on a hamburger at Amsterdam Burger Company, at Wolf & Lamb, and several other restaurants. “I think it’s because it has almost a dairy feeling to it,” explained Wuensch. He noted that after several attempts, Wolf & Lamb had decided against using non-dairy cheeses on their burgers, focusing instead on getting that creamy, melt-like sensation from eggs and egg-based sauces, like hollandaise sauce.

For the latest, trendiest and most decadent burger topping, try bacon. Or rather, its nearest kosher equivalent–Facon, from the Jack’s Gourmet line of meat products. We spoke to chef and Jack’s Gourmet founder Jack Silberstein about the wildly popular, and surprisingly authentic-tasting, kosher beef bacon, but he insisted that the authentic taste should come as no surprise at all. “Regular bacon is cured and smoked pork belly,” explained Silberstein. “The meat is dry-cured with salt and sugar, which pulls out moisture and concentrates the flavor, and then it’s smoked. Our facon is made of beef plate, the equivalent cut to pork belly on a steer. We cure it using the same dry-cure, and then cook it with smoke. There are no other tricks!” The result is satisfyingly crispy and smokey- tasting, making it a perfect burger topping–in fact, it is the brand used by Amsterdam Burger Company and many other restaurants. Jack Silberstein recommends the “ultimate breakfast” of a burger with Facon and a sunny-side-up egg, or suggests wrapping strips of Facon around small slider-size burgers for a unique appetizer.

Whether you choose to top your burgers with sauces and slaws, or stick to ketchup and mustard, make sure your toppings and buns are ready before the first burger hits the grill. “People wait for food; food doesn’t wait for people.” Chef Mike repeated this mantra several times, stressing that it is perfectly ok—even preferable—to have your guests wait and get their burgers one at a time as they come sizzling off the grill. “Good food is worth the wait,” he said with a smile. And when you hand your guests a burger so delicious and juicy that it will seem like a professional chef is hiding in the kitchen, they will be inclined to agree.

Read more from our chefs in A Better Burger.

As seen in the Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine

Summer 2013

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About Devorah Backman

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Devorah Backman divides her time between working in the publishing industry and planning elaborate meals for friends and family. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and growing collection of cookbooks.

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