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One day I had a yen for hamburgers so I ventured to my local supermarket. I detest the supermarket pre-made patties. First, their quality is always suspect and second, they’re too darn thin. I like forming my own patties from ground chuck with a few secret ingredients, (which we’ll get to shortly). Sometimes however, I also mix in some ground sirloin, which was my intention on this particular day.
Anyway, I approached the seedy looking “butcher” behind the counter and asked him for some ground sirloin. He replied that it is illegal to sell ground sirloin in NJ. I was flabbergasted. This is an absolute falsehood. What he was really saying is he didn’t want to be bothered with having to fetch a piece of sirloin and grind it. Not being in the mood to confront his blatant prevarication and laziness, I simply left, went to a butcher shop, (which I should have done in the first place), and procured my ground sirloin.
Supermarket hamburger patties are a gamble. Unless the package declares them to be chuck, (a tasty cut from the shoulder section), they are simply ground beef. Ground beef is a hodgepodge of the store’s meat scraps, which can include cuts not appropriate for hamburger. Ground beef is also known as hamburger meat simply because it is routinely employed for that purpose. Ground beef is graded by its degree of leanness. Thus, 90% ground beef contains 10% fat. Generic ground beef can contain as much as 30% fat. The higher the fat content, the more the meat will shrink when cooked. But fat is where the flavor is. If you must use ground beef, I recommend the 80 or 85% grade for hamburgers. This provides the optimum level of flavor without excessive shrinkage.
Chuck is the meat of choice for hamburgers because it is high in flavor, contains 15-20% fat which is right in the zone, and is not composed of miscellaneous scraps. If you want to cut down on the fat and still maintain decent flavor, then mix in some ground sirloin. And if you really want to push the quality curve to the max, buy whole chuck and/or sirloin and grind it yourself in your food processor. Freshly ground meat will definitely taste better than the mystery-mix patties that have been sitting on the supermarket shelf.
The origins of the hamburger are as controversial as the genesis of the universe. There are five well known claims as to its creator. They are, in date order: 1) the Menches family in the Midwest in the early 1880’s, 2) Charlie Seymour of Wisconsin in 1885 at a county fair, 3) Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut at his luncheonette in 1890, 4) Otto Kusaw, a chef at a restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, (hence the name hamburger), in 1891, and 5) Fletch Davis, from Athens, Texas in 1904 where he sold them at the St Louis World’s Fair.
The goal in making a hamburger is to maximize flavor and juiciness. Here’s where a few additions come in. For every pound of meat I mix in a half cup of beef/veal stock and 2 tablespoons of olive oil, as well as a generous helping of kosher salt and black pepper. The stock, if you’ve degreased it properly, will not add that much fat. But because of it’s gelatin content, (denatured proteins), it will contribute delicious moisture. Olive oil is a fat but not saturated. It will further increase the hamburger’s juiciness without adding unhealthy fat. The oil will augment the flavor profile of the burger as well.
Form your burgers, place them on a hot grill, flip them only once, and DO NOT press them with the spatula. Squishing them will cook them quicker but you’ll squeeze out some of the juice. The last thing you need to do to achieve a juicy burger is to not cook it beyond medium. If you insist on overcooking your meat, knock yourself out. But the fact remains that the more you cook protein, the tougher and drier it will become. Your choice.
How long your burger will need to cook depends on its thickness, the intended degree of doneness, and the temperature of your grill. Professional cooks learn to judge the doneness by touch. The more done it is, the harder it will feel when you poke it. Of course you could cut it open but this will dispel some of the juice. You’ll just need to practice with your grill and the thickness level of the burgers that you prefer. Follow all the above steps and you’ll quickly see why Wimpy went for the burgers and left Popeye with the spinach.
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