Friday, March 1, 2013

Thick burgers (unabridged)

I pick up the meat with my two bare hands. Shedding all veneer of civility, I take a huge, bloddy, juicy bite, chewing and moaning at the same time. I am aware of the risk involved in eating medium-rare ground beef, but I don't care. If I die at this moment, I'll die happy.* If you've never had a similar experience, you are not a burgerphile and should go read someone else's blog about chocolate chip cookies and quinoa salads. This post will probably either bore you to death or leave you appalled at what a person would do for a burger.

First, let me apologize for all my previous burger posts. While writing the first post, I was young and inexperienced. While writing the second one, I was pregnant and desperate for a med-rare burger that was "safe." How else can I explain cooking a burger sous-vide for 2 hours?  After doing substantial burger research over the last year, I am finally producing reliably stunning burgers, and it's time to share what I've learned on this delicious, artery-clogging journey with my readers.

Most serious cooks who love burgers, probably read the Burger Lab column Kenji Alt writes for Serious Eats. I think MIT should hire Kenji as the dean of the School of Burger Engineering (SBE).  I am forever grateful to his desire to make hundreds of burgers, analyze every conceivable combination of cuts, and test burger tenderness by smashing them with heavy skillets.  Let me distill some of Kenji's wisdom for you and add a few techniques of my own.

There are many burger styles. This post is about thick medium-rare burgers. If you are in the Boston area, good examples of these burgers can be found at Lineage and Catalyst

Here are the goals for my burgers and techniques that accomplish them.

A burger is not a sausage or a meat ball. It should be soft and slightly crumbly. To accomplish that, you can't mix anything into the meat. Not even salt. All the salt should be on the outside. I was very skeptical when I read this in Kenji's posts. Although I like the flavor of burgers that are seasoned throughout, I don't think it's worth the texture trade off. What about salting meat before grinding? Wouldn't it be seasoned throughout without kneading the meat after grinding? That's the Zuni cafe method. It's far superior to kneading the salt in after grinding, but it is a bit more sausage like.  The grind has a lot to do with texture too. After trying all different grinding procedures, I was happiest with a large hole grind, followed by a small hole grind. Don't forget to shape your burgers very gently and loosely.

What cut you grind makes a big difference. I tried chuck and skirt steak so far. Skirt steak produces a slightly grainier texture, but the flavor was through the roof!  I am sure that grinding a prime rib-eye would make a great burger, but I took a Hippocratic oath as a burger maker to do no harm. Destroying a prime rib-eye stake seems like harm to me. But a skirt steak actually tastes better in a burger form than it does in the steak form -- all the beefiness without chewiness. If you are not grinding your own meat, I found 85/15 ground beef from Whole Foods to be the next best thing. Don't forget to be extremely generous with salt on the outside of the burger. That salty crust needs to compensate for the lack of salt inside.

Juiciness goes hand in had with fat content and doneness. A lean burger is not a burger in my opinion. Ideally, you want about 20% fat (or even as high as 25%). Take the labels on store ground beef with a huge grain of salt. 80/20 label means that it's 20% fat or less. I found that the best way to get the right mix of lean and fat is to use skirt steak or chuck and add a few ounces of fat when grinding. I was thinking of buying some short ribs with a big fat cap to add to the grind, but then it occurred to me to ask the Whole Foods butcher if they could sell me some beef fat. He took out a pound of fat cap from rib roasts, and gave it to me for free -- certainly beats paying $7/Lb for bone-in short ribs. Adding about 2 oz of extra fat per pound of meat is helpful. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that while removing the grizzle, you'll remove some fat too. Trimming your meat of all grizzle and silver skin is crucial if you don't want to clog your grinder. I'll talk more about that when discussing the grinding procedure.

Reliable Doneness
This is the crux of the matter. A thick burger needs to be about 130F max after resting. Lower than 120F and it's raw mush -- very tender, but not juicy (juices don't release until 120F). The higher you go over 130F, the tougher and drier it gets. How do you get not only the center, but most of your burger to be around 130F? The best line cooks accomplish this feat through multiple flips over high heat, followed by a long rest. After trying that at home, I've discovered that this method is extremely unforgiving. Ambient temperature of a restaurant kitchen is a lot higher than of a home one, and knowing just how to divide your time between cooking and resting comes with experience of flipping 50 burgers a day. If you want even doneness at home, low and slow is the way to go. After extensive experiments with low temperature oven (my favorite steak/roast method courtesy of Kenji) and sous-vide, I came up with two fabulous though slightly different burgers. The sous-vide burger offers most even doneness and thus tenderness, but lacks a crunchy outside. The oven method produces a superb crust, but slightly less even inside. These differences were more striking when eating a patty completely unadorned (no bun, cheese, etc). After assembly, I had a hard time deciding which one was my favorite.

The oven method needed no more tinkering than dropping the temperature from 275F to 200F. Since a burger is smaller than most pieces of meat I'd cook this way, it needed a lower temperature to stay evenly cooked inside. The sous-vide method needed plenty of help. Vacuum sealing a burger and cooking it long enough to pasteurize, resulted in a flying saucer shaped atrocity that tasted mushy and tired. This approach to sous-vide, popularized by Douglas Baldwin, produces mediocre results for most meats, but it produces particularly awful results for a burger. Before you think I am attacking pour Douglas, let me clarify. Sous-vide mediocrity often tastes better than what most home cooks can produce with traditional methods, but it doesn't mean that one shouldn't strive for "best", not "better." I switched to using low tech zip-lock bags instead of a vacuum sealer to avoid squashing the sides and compressing the meat.  I also reduced the cooking time to puny 25 minutes at 126F.  The results were lovely.  You have a 5 minute leeway here, but not more. Ignore everything you heard about sous-vide not overcooking the meat. Any unnecessary holding in a bag results in moisture loss. The moisture loss is a lot slower with solid muscle, but with ground meat the results are devastating. Don't believe me?  Take the burger out of the water bath every 15 minutes and see how much liquid is in the bag.
200F oven burger
126F sous-vide burger

Developing a crust without overcooking the inside  
I found that salting only after the low/slow part and immediately before searing drew out less moisture and helped the burgers brown. Resting the burgers for 7 minutes after the low/slow part before searing let the outside cool off and prevented the searing from ruining the evenness of the inside. I was floored that a teflon pan produced a better crust than a stainless Al-Clad. The only way I can explain this phenomenon is that you only have 1 minute per side before you ruin your inside, so you want every little brown bit to stick to your burger and not the pan.

There is a difference between a med-rare burger and a med-rare steak. Bacteria is only found on the outside of the muscle and when a steak is seared, they die instantly. So if you like your meat cold inside, you are not taking any risk eating it that way. However, after you grind the meat, some of that bacteria ends on the inside, so an under-cooked burger is a tad risky. The question is how big is this "tad." You take plenty of risks every day. Driving is probably one of the biggest for an average civilian. How many people do you know who were injured in a car accident? How many people do you know that were injured with a med-rare burger? Of course, you could argue that you drive more often than you eat a burger. But let's look at some numbers. An average annual death toll from E. Coli is in the low 20s.  An average annual death toll from automobile related accidents is more than 30,000.  So in the grand scheme of things, that burger is unlikely to significantly change your risk of getting hurt.

To reduce the risk further, you could grind your own meat. This way, the grinder touches only a few pounds instead of a few hundred pounds of meat, which will reduce the risk of cross-contamination. You could take it even further and briefly sear the meat on the outside before grinding thus killing most of the bacteria. It works ok with chuck because you can get a bulky piece of it. It doesn't work with skirt steak because it's too thin.

Besides e coli, there are other, not so dangerous bacteria that grow on meat when it decomposes. My conclusion is to buy meat at a reputable place, keep everything (meat, grinder, bowls) extremely cold, and stop worrying.

Tips for grinding your own meat
  • If you own a KitchenAid mixer, you can get a grinding attachment for about $40.
  • Remove all silver skin and grizzle.  Here is a video on how to trim meat.  Any connective tissue left on the meat will wrap around the blade and clog your grinder.  
  • Freeze assembled grinder with large hole disk for 2 hours. Assembling the grinder after freezing is difficult since metal shrinks. Freeze the small hole disk separately. I keep my grinder in a large freezer bag permanently in my freezer, so that I can use it any time.
  • Cut meat into 1x1x2 inch strips. 
  • Freeze meat for 45-60 min or until very stiff, but not rock hard.
  • Refrigerate 2 bowls (you'll need 2 since you'll be grinding twice).
  • On KitchenAid, use speed 6-8.
  • Grind twice -- first time through large holes, second time through small holes
  • If meat gets stuck, don't keep pushing. Remove the disk with holes and clean out the blade before proceeding.
  • Run a dry paper towel through the grinder in the end to push all the meat out.
  • Wash everything with lots of hot water and soap using a bottle brush (OXO makes a great one)
  • Dry metal parts immediately so they don’t rust.
  • Sometimes you get a tiny bit of black discoloration on the meat. That's from the metal parts grinding against each other. It's not a health hazard. 
Thick Medium-rare Skillet Seared Beef Burger Recipe

Ground beef (15-25% fat content)
Salt and pepper
Grapeseed oil (or some other high heat cooking oil like safflower or canola)
Cheese of your choice
Red onion sliced into 1/4 inch half rings
Bun and toppings of your choice

Divide the beef into 6 oz portions and shape into disks 4 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Handle beef very gently and don't try to force it into a monolythic hockey puck. It's possible to use up to 8 oz of beef for a very hefty burger. In that case, make it larger in diameter, but keep the thickness at 1 inch.

Option 1: Warming up the burger using the water bath
  1. Put each burger into a separate quart-size zip lock bag. 
  2. Set up a 126F water bath. Be prepared to maintain this temperature for 30 minutes. If you don't have an immersion circulator, here are some hacks.
  3. Submerge each opened bag into the water bath, pushing out all air and close the bag. It should be very tight around the meat.
  4. Use a rack or something to keep the burgers submerged since they will most likely float.
  5. Cook for exactly 25 minutes. Additional cooking will result in detrimental moisture loss.
  6. Remove burgers from the water bath. Dry thoroughly on paper towels and let sit 7 minutes before searing. You'll need lots of paper towels since the meat will be wet coming out of the zip lock.
Option 2: Warming up the burger using the oven
  1. Preheat the oven to 200F. 
  2. Wrap a rimmed backing sheet with foil and set a flat rack (sold as cooling rack or cookie rack) on it. Place the burgers on the rack and cook in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. 
  3.  Remove from the oven and let rest 7 minutes before searing. 
Searing and Assembling
  1. Turn on the broiler.
  2. Put 1 tsp grapeseed oil per burger into a non-stick skillet and set it on the stove top over high heat. 
  3. While the pan is preheating, season burgers very generously with salt and pepper on all sides. 
  4. When the oil just starts to smoke, place the burgers into the skillet and cook without moving for 1 minute. Flip. Scatter onions around burgers and cook 1 more minute stirring onions frequently. At some point you want to sprinkle the onions with a pinch of salt. Remove burgers to a plate. Remove onions to a small bowl.
  5. Top burgers with cheese and put under the broiler until the cheese melts (30-60 seconds). 
  6. Top burgers with onions and let rest 4 minutes. 
  7. Return the skillet in which you cooked the burgers to medium-high heat and toast buns using burger drippings. Watch out -- they brown quickly.
  8. Assemble the burgers with any additional toppings or sauces pouring any juices that accumulated on the plate over the burgers. 
* If you read my section on safety in this post, you'll realize that under-cooked burgers are not nearly as dangerous as FDA makes them sound. Dying from one would be as likely as having a brick fall on my head while walking down the street. Even getting sick from one would be incredibly rare. But when I started eating my burgers medium-rare, I didn't know that, and there was an additional thrill of doing something mildly dangerous.


Unknown said...

I'm a Chef and admire your diligence... but if I had to wait this long for a burger I'd go nuts. We use free-range beef at our restaurant and I absolutely positively recommend it for any burger lover and that includes me. The flavor is totally awesome and I can still get the medium-rare with crust at home without all the fuss of cooking it 3 times. Bless you and your tenacity.

MadSCAR said...

Great recipe thanks :)

Helen said...

Hi Lynne,

Want to share your technique for getting a thick medium-rare burger at home with no fuss?

Actually, the method I came up with is the least fussy out of the ones I've tried. I get my burgers in the oven or water bath and use those 25-30 minutes to make a salad and some toppings. The end game takes 2 minutes and no guess work.


Sara said...

Hi Helen - Thanks for recommending cookware with Teflon® nonstick coatings while making your Thick Burgers recipe! I represent DuPont and it's always a pleasure to see people recommending our products in their recipes.

For more great recipes and tips for your cookware with Teflon® nonstick coatings, visit: and! Also, feel free to check out our Facebook ( and Twitter ( pages. Thanks! Cheers, Sara

Unknown said...

I do not have kitchenAid mixer. Is there any other way to grind meat? You have also mentioned about amazon. I live in India and want to buy this mixer in India?
Please provide the kitchenaid information related to India.

Helen said...

You can grind meat in a food processor in small batches after freezing it in small cubes for 30 min and using the pulse button (be careful not to overprocess). I buy meat for burgers already ground from good butcher shops in Boston. Can you find one where you live? Just be careful. In the US, it's pretty common to undercook burgers and high-end butcher shops keep all the machines very sanitary and some even put the meat through an e.coli wash. If there is any worry about e.coli in your area, sear a large pieces of meat for 1 min per side, then cut up, freeze, and grind yourself. KitchenAid makes many stand mixers. They are all compatible with their meat grinder attachments. Just google for "KitchenAid stand mixer" and "KitchenAid meat grinder" and see what you can find.