It seems that just about every restaurant that serves burgers, including carryout and delivery restaurants, have at least one Angus Beef Burger in place of honor on their burger menu. Angus beef is supposed to be the best beef. It is not only well-marbled and tasty, it is economical for the beef industry. Yet, when I order an Angus beef burger, I am usually disappointed. If Angus beef is so great, why is my burger dry and tasteless?
Certified Angus Beef
I could talk about Angus beef and why it is favored but that may be best left to another article. I will point out one important thing. Angus beef is not necessarily the same as Certified Angus Beef (CAB). Certified Angus beef is a branded specification based beef that became protected in 1978. American CAB must be reared on a ranch approved by the American Angus Association. This is the largest beef licensing program in the United States. If a menu doesn’t say Certified Angus Beef, you may not be getting what you pay for.
The Importance of Quality Cooking
However, there is a misconception about burgers, and about beef and other meats in general. In some respects, this misconception exists in relation to all food. In her classic book, Food in History, Reay Tannahil wrote about this misconception. Regarding the “quality of cooking” during the 1800s, she shared a quote from Mark Twain. Twain had been touring Europe in 1878 and he hated the food. Hungry for a taste of home, he mused on what he would eat once he was finished with his trip. He talked about buckwheat cakes with maple syrup, hominy, squash, fried chicken soft shell crabs, Boston baked beans, and “a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place.”
Tannahil pointed out something that Twain failed to mention: None of this was possible unless the quality ingredients were in the hands of a first-rate cook!
And this is the lesson I want to impart if I am qualified to impart any lessons at all, on Angus beef burgers or any other claims to high quality. None of it matters if the cook doesn’t know what he or she is doing.
In regards to the dry tasteless Angus burgers I’ve had, what happened? I’d guess a few things.
Not Enough Fat in the Ground Beef
One, the ground beef mixture was wrong. The secret to a good burger is not just high-quality beef, but plenty of fat. A burger made with very lean ground beef will be a dry and disappointing burger. Many burger cooks might swear by using only ground sirloin in their burgers (I think sirloin is overrated), but if there is not enough fat, it won’t matter. I would disagree with sirloin in general, and point out that an expensive cut does not necessarily make a better burger. Just as Angus beef does not necessarily make a better burger. I go with ground chuck. Good marbling and good taste for a burger.
When you go to buy ground beef you’ll see the fat content listed as a percentage. For example, 90% lean means it’s 10% fat. So, how much fat is good for a burger? Estimates vary but I’d say:
For a good burger choose 80% lean ground chuck.
I have a feeling some of those Angus burgers I’ve eaten were made with something like 90% lean or even something leaner.
There is Such a Thing as Too Thick
If you like your burgers rare or medium-rare, then a too thin patty will not work for you. You just can’t cook a very thin patty to rare or medium. They cook through too quickly. On the other hand, those giant “house burgers” that many of my friends seem to cherish, the ones that look like ground beef baseballs inside a too large bun, are no better.
There are a few problems with a burger that is too thick. One is that, although you salt and pepper the outside, there is so much meat on the inside that the salt to meat ratio is no good. The inside simply does not benefit from the seasoning. You also want a good sear on the outside but you do not want it charred and dried. If the burger is too thick, by the time you get the inside to temperature, you end up with a layer of hard dried out meat on the outside. A good patty should not be too thin or too thick. More is not always better! So how thick should the patties be?
Preferences vary. Some folks, like myself, enjoy a good old-fashioned diner-style with thinner patties…only two of them. Others like their burgers a bit thicker.
For optimal thickness, go for around 3/4 inch thick. To fit the typical bun you buy in the grocery store, that is about 6 ounces of meat, so you end up with a patty 3/4 inches thick and a little bigger than 3 1/2 inches in diameter.
These Angus burgers I dislike are usually way too thick. Tasteless, dry, over-seared on the outside. Of course, an over-cooked burger is an overcooked burger and usually, these burgers are done all the way through.
Meat is Over-Handled
A good burger should hold together when it is cooked but the texture should be somewhat loose, not tightly compacted and broken down. The difference is readily apparent when you compare a proper house-made burger with a factory-produced frozen beef patty. The texture of these Angus burgers are indicative of an over-worked patty.
When you make your patties, only work the beef enough to shape the meat into your patties. Avoid over-mixing and massaging it. Above, I mentioned the problem with overly-thick burgers and lack of seasoning. Some cooks try to overcome the seasoning problem by mixing seasonings like salt, pepper, and other ingredients into the ground meat and mixing it all together. The problem with this is that by the time you get all those ingredients distributed throughout the meat, you’ve overworked the beef. Most good restaurant burger chefs simply shape their patties and use salt and pepper on the outside. Since the burger is not too thick (but not too thin either), seasoning the outside is enough. In other words, you get enough salt for the amount of beef you’re eating.
If you are making turkey burgers you will probably need to break this rule since ground turkey needs a little help for flavor and moisture. However, when choosing ground turkey, don’t go for 100% lean ground turkey breast. Try to find a 90% lean, which will have dark meat, with more fat. You may also be able to find all dark meat ground turkey, worth a try for the most flavorful turkey burgers (some may not prefer it).
We’ve all had the hockey-puck burger problem. I mentioned big thick house burgers that look more like meat baseballs. You shape your patty carefully, making it as uniform as you can, and while it cooks, the patty shrinks in diameter and swells up in the center. You end up with a burger thicker in the middle and too small for the bun.
What do most cooks do when their burgers swell up in the middle? They smash them down with a spatula. While this barely if at all solves the shape problem, it does smash all the juices out of the burger. You end up with a burger too thick in the middle and smashed dry. These Angus burgers I’ve had are too thick in the middle and dry. Must have been smashed! How do you avoid this?
The secret, and you may have seen this on Food TV, is to put an indentation in the middle of your burger patties. After you’ve made the patty to your specifications, just push down in the middle to make a depression. This counteracts the shrinking and swelling problem. It’s quite magical. The indentation disappears as the burger cooks, and you end up with a uniform burger, no smashing needed. And, yes, never smash your burgers.
Inconsistent Patty Size?
A good burger joint uses hand-formed patties. They may even go so far as to grind their own meat. But a good burger cook knows that just because you use house-made patties instead of frozen pre-formed ones, doesn’t mean you can claim your burgers are better. So, another thing a good burger joint will do is weigh each and every portion of beef, to make sure that the same amount of beef is used for each patty. Then, when the patties are formed to the same thickness and size each time and cooked at a consistent temperature, they can turn out burgers cooked to order more consistently. I suspect that some restaurants that include a few burgers as a side-note don’t bother with weighing out the portions and end up with one patty being a different size than the next, making cooking multiple burgers to proper temperatures on the fly that much more difficult.
High-Quality Meat Cannot Make Up for Low-Quality Cooking
I chose to pick on Angus, mostly out of remembrance of all the disappointing Angus burgers I’ve ordered. But the point here is not to single out Angus beef. The point is that no matter how great the beef is, or the quality of the particular cut, a bad cook can ruin it. In today’s restaurant industry there is a great deal of marketing emphasis placed on ingredient sourcing and quality. Remember that restaurant menus are not just meant to tell you what’s available; they are marketing. Don’t be impressed by locally sourced, organic, artisanal, or other buzz-words unless you have experienced what the kitchen turns out. Often, we overpay for expensive ingredients and low-quality cooking.
During our summer vacation, in Ocean City Maryland, we went to a restaurant with a very extensive menu of locally sourced ingredients. The menu boasted of the exact source of each and every ingredient used! The prices were at least a third higher across the board. I ordered a seafood stew. It was excellent. For my main course, I was in the mood for a burger. Lo and behold, there was a very expensive, locally sourced, Black Angus Burger. I ended up with the Angus Burger Blues, and had to send it back! Not only was the burger itself terrible, dry, overworked, and tasteless, but the combination of ingredients chosen were poorly chosen, with an overwhelming sweetness. The burger was too thick and the outside was charred hard and dry.
My replacement burger was no better. The rest of the items my family ordered were uneven as well. I won’t mention the name of the restaurant as I’m not a restaurant critic, and to the management’s credit the cost of the burger was removed from our bill. But, I was left shaking my head at the pretentious menu and sub-par cooking. Whoever was in charge of the soups had something going on. The hotline cook, though, needed some training. My son’s steak, an expensive local strip, was just as bad as my burger!
So, don’t be fooled by marketing terms. Angus beef, in essence, is a marketing term. You really won’t know anything until you bite into it! Similarly, locally sourced, organic, artisanal, etc. are marketing terms. Even low-quality ingredients can be turned into a memorable meal in the hands of a great chef.
General Steps for Perfect Burgers Summarized
1. Start with 80% lean ground beef (I like ground chuck), for flavor and moisture
2. Use 6 ounces of beef, give or take, per patty (you can use more, but be consistent!)
3. Don’t overwork the beef, handle it just enough to loosely shape into patties.
4. The classic burger bun is around 3.5 inches. Make your patties a bit larger than this.
5. Press down on the center of the patty to make a deep indentation in the middle
6. Salt and pepper the outside (whether or not to salt after cooking begins, is debated, but you’ll be golden either way).
7. Don’t smash your burgers while their cooking.
If you are not cooking your burgers on the grill, your first choice of pan should be a cast iron griddle or skillet. Failing that, use a stainless steel aluminum-clad frying pan. Place a tablespoon or so of oil in the pan and heat to high. Cook the burgers on the first side until nicely charred, but not burned about 3 minutes. Turn over. Cook on the next side. Three more minutes is generally good for medium-rare.
This is where uniform patties come into play, which is facilitated by a good kitchen scale like the Etekcity Digital Multifunction Food Scale. It may seem like overkill, but weighing out your ground beef portions on a scale, so that you have around 6 ounces for each patty, will help you consistently cook your burgers to the degree of doneness you like. Once you’ve decided your patties are going to be 6 ounces in weight and a bit over 3.5 inches in diameter, you will be able to nail down the proper cooking times, as well as get a feel for when your burgers are done. Even if you prefer an 8-ounce patty and you want it to be 4 inches in diameter, this consistency will be the key to a properly cooked burger, every time.
As I said above, I surmise that a lack of consistency is at work with some of the bad burgers we get from restaurants. These places would be better off with a preformed patty, ironically.
When adding cheese, don’t wait too long. Add your slice of cheese in the last minute of cooking. Allow a bit longer for slower melting cheeses. It helps to add a basting cover over the burgers to help the cheese melt faster. I just use aluminum foil in a tent-like shape.