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What makes a great burger?

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By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST

Listening to a couple food enthusiasts talking about what cuts of beef make the best hamburger, there were four cuts of beef in particular that came up. Those cuts were chuck, shoulder, rib eye and brisket. Then one of them had a question: “What happened to burgers just being made out of ground beef?”

Being that the aforementioned cuts are beef, and they get ground for burger, making them ground beef, I thought it was a funny question. But I knew what he meant.

Burger is ground beef, but there is way more to it than that.

Virtually all hamburger is made from the following items: pure fat, muscles that are tough, lack flavor, or are otherwise undesirable, shoulder, rump, and brisket. The last three mentioned have always been a part of the equation but have more desirable qualities than the other cuts not mentioned here. 

Large meat processors are able to sell far more cuts from a cow than the small independent rancher. Therefore, more of the higher quality cuts from the small ranchers goes into their grind in order to use as much of the animal as possible to recoup the cost of purchasing, raising and processing that animal for better overall profitability. Basically, burger grind is whatever cuts the processor or rancher cannot sell on their own, plus, generally, 18% to 23% pure fat. An 80/20, or 80% beef to 20% fat ratio makes the best overall burger. 

More and more chefs, quality restaurants and establishments are looking for a custom grind like rump, shoulder, chuck and brisket. And they all have different qualities.

The main reason for using these cuts is marketability to command a higher price tag for a menu item. By identifying the specific cuts, it lends to what we refer to as a “higher perceived value” to the customer.

The chuck/brisket combo is a popular one. Here is why: chuck becomes tough when cooked quickly due to its high levels of connective tissue and collagen—as does the shoulder and rump. But that connective tissue and collagen have tons of flavor and mouthfeel. When ground, they produce a rich product because that collagen breaks down and melts like butter.

Brisket has very little fat once you separate the cap from the bottom, and it has a firmer mouthfeel that is also inferior when cooked quickly, thus smoked brisket. In a burger, however, it eats well. In other words, it has a very desirable texture. 

So now, combine the rich fatty consistency of chuck and shoulder, which have great flavor, with the meaty firm texture of ground brisket, a 15% to 20% pure fat content, along with other cuts thrown in, and you have yourself a high-quality burger patty.

Some chefs even prefer to use rib eye as a component to their burger. I do not believe in that.

This is silly to me. It’s just not a smart use of such a high quality primal that can be cut and sold for a much higher profit. A rib eye is one of the best cuts of the entire animal and is far better served as a stand-alone cut. And your profit margin is far greater selling it as a steak. By introducing rib eye to a burger grind, you are merely pursuing the marketability of the name of the cut, but the financial return doesn’t make the juice worth the squeeze.

The quality of burgers varies greatly, and your burger can have any variety of cuts that make up your “ground beef.”

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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