Recipes engineered for perfection—what exactly does that mean? The Science series takes you inside the experiments behind 50 cooking concepts featured in our new book, The Science of Good Cooking, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated.
You can’t get any more American than burgers. We grill them. We pan-fry them. We make them out of beef or turkey or even tuna. It seems like everyone is on a quest to make the ultimate burger. And here at the test kitchen, we’re no different. When developing our own recipe for Juicy Pub-Style Burgers, we began with beef and then turned straight to science.
Here you can see Associate Editor Dan Souza getting started in the kitchen. When he and I sat down to talk about the chapter in The Science of Good Cooking that would deal with ground meat, we knew one thing: Oh yes, there would be burgers. But before we get to Dan’s experiment, and the actual burger itself, let’s back up: Meat. How does it work?
Well, beef is composed of long muscle fibers. You can see them, for example, in the grain of this piece of flap meat. Those muscle fibers are wrapped in tough connective tissue, which binds them together.
For burgers, we need ground meat. The act of grinding shears all of those muscle fibers into very small pieces that are easy to chew. When these fibers are cut, they release “sticky proteins.” These sticky proteins are important because they allow us to bind the meat together to form a burger.
But making the ultimate burger isn’t as simple as buying a package of ground meat. There are a few things to consider.
First: the size of the ground pieces of meat. When it comes to burgers, you don’t want the meat ground too fine—you’ll end up with dense and rubbery burgers. You don’t want meat that is ground too coarse either—then your burgers will have gristly bits and fall apart as they cook. But you don’t have any control over the size of the grind when buying packaged ground meat from the market. You also don’t have any control over the particular cuts of meat that go into each package of ground beef. And because most preground beef in the United States comes from one of about a dozen processing plants, this means that one package of ground beef can contain meat from upwards of a hundred different cattle.
What to do? Here at the test kitchen, we like to grind our own meat. This may sound daunting, but it’s really very simple. All you need is a freezer and a food processor. Grinding your own meat allows you to control the cut, the flavor, the fat content, and the size of the grind. You’ll end up with a better tasting, more tender burger.
Talk is easy, but for the test kitchen experiment in The Science of Good Cooking, we knew we needed proof. How? Well, Dan stockpiled some beef and started cooking.
He made two sets of burger patties. One Dan made with store-bought 90 percent lean ground chuck. The other he made with flap meat that he first cut, then froze, and finally ground in the food processor.
He cooked them to medium-rare, let them rest for 5 minutes, and then he got crazy.
Tasters had confirmed that the home-ground burgers were more tender than the preground burgers, but we needed a way to show it. So Dan began dropping 10-pound Dutch ovens on top of each burger from 6 inches above the counter. And what happened?
Well, he made a mess.
The burgers reacted differently to the weight of the Dutch ovens. The store-bought patties smushed a little but remained relatively intact. They barely oozed any liquid at all. However, the home-ground burgers, made with meat that Dan had ground coarsely, flattened like pancakes, spewing their moist interiors all over the cutting board. They were clearly the most tender of the bunch.
So in conclusion: Grinding your own meat allows you to have control over the cuts that go into your burger, which determines flavor and fat content. Grinding your own meat also lets you control the grind size, which determines how tightly packed together the patties are. Put that together, and you’ve got the science of the ultimate burger.
MAKE IT NOW
Our recipe for Juicy Pub-Style Burgers is free through October 1, 2012.
Got any burger questions? Leave 'em in the comments.