10 Steps to Becoming a Burger Expert

Burgers are simple: Burger Experts purchase a patty at the store, grill it, and serve it. But vast burgers—those juicy, you still recognize from the summer of 09—require more expertise. Enter Jamie Schweid of Schweid and Sons, a New York-based ground beef purveyor nearby for hundreds of years.

When I met Jamie over a burger aq(what else?) at Genuine in Gotham West Market, he chatted about burgers the same way many do wine—with enchantment and passion that left me reflecting on the nuances of ground meat. 
1. Be an intelligent burger shopper (and speak up). While a rising number of butchers are focusing on the quality and ratios of burger blends, Jamie says that various supermarkets stock shelves with the same blend ratios they've been selling for decades. So if you prefer a particular mix of burgers, speak up—some supermarket meat counters will create a custom combination for you if you order ahead—or order your burgers from a butcher specializing in blends.
2. Bring on the fat. In short, fat is what makes burgers so darn delicious, so an 85/15 blend (85% meat to 15% fat) will form an "arid and unflavored eating experience," according to Jamie. Just going up a few percentage points of fat can deliver all the difference: Jamie suggests something closer to 80 / 20 or even 75 / 25. Jamie adds that fat is one of the primary ways that the quality of the meat is determined: The USDA determines whether something is "prime beef" by grading the marbling or the amount of fat in the meat. The fatter and the younger the beef, the higher the grade. (Jamie's personal favorite is USDA Prime Chuck.)

3. Know your chuck from your brisket (and your short rib from your sirloin, for that matter). If you've ever bought meat from a menu, you know there are various cuts of beef (flank, porterhouse, and ribs, to name a few). In the burger world, Jamie demonstrates, only about four cuts are meriting knowing, each of which can be combined into different mixtures:

Short Rib: Meat from the cow's rib area has a robust and powerful flavor (think of the richness of a veal shank in osso buco). For this reason, it's often used in a smaller ratio to round out the flavor profiles of other cuts.
Brisket: This cut has a meaty flavor from its naturally-occurring oleic acid.
Sirloin: "Having a burger with a high sirloin ratio is like having a steak," says Jamie. It has a hearty flavor similar to that of short ribs. He explains that it works well in burgers because of its texture—unlike a strip steak, which doesn't hold well in a burger.
Chuck: This beefy cut has a clean taste and is manageable. (It also happens to be Jamie's favorite.)

4. Understand the terms of burger packaging. We've already covered "prime" meat (which is essentially young, high-fat meat), but there are also terms like "choice beef," "Certified Angus," and "grass-fed." 
  1. Choice beef is a step below prime meat (as determined by the fat marbling), and select is the reasonable level of beef sold in retail. It's also the thinnest (less of that kind of fat), but it doesn't have many flavors. Luckily, you can regularly tell the difference—all packaged beef is marked with its USDA grade. 
  2. Certified Angus beef uses a 10-point grading system to determine if a cut of meat meets the standards to be suited as such a cut. 
  3. As the name suggests, grass-fed beef represents cattle raised eating only grass rather than grain. It has no fat marbling and a different flavor profile than grain-fed animals—it's often gamier, leaner, and slightly healthier. But Jamie (who prefers grain-fed beef) says the health advantages are minimal: "We're talking 10 calories per serving on a 4-ounce patty, but it's the same hormone-free."
5. Check the freshness of the meat. In addition to the state of the beef, you should always check the expiration date on the flesh and, if listed, the day it was ground. Jamie says, "It should have been crumbled that day." When the packaging indicates an expiration date, follow it.
6. Keep your patties cold and touch them with care. When serving your meat for the grill, keep it as cold as possible until you're ready to cook the patties. Once heated, they're much more likely to fall exclusively on the grill. As for herbs and marinades? "This is where I have to take a belief. If you have the right meat, there's no cause to over-season or marinate. The meat should stand for itself." He recommends a mixture of kosher salt on each side of the burger, which also helps form a charring effect when pan-frying.

7. Don't overthink the cooking method. Avoid futzing with the burger once it's on the grill—the longer you touch the meat, the more possible it is to break apart. And never force down on it while it's cooking, as this just pushes the right fats out of the burger. Jamie says, "Flip once, and you're done."
8. Don't over-cook it and permit it to sit. While Jamie says he can't tell people how long they should cook their burgers, he advises that the longer you cook, the drier and less flavorsome. (He goes for medium-rare.) He also states to err on the side of warning: "When you take the burger off of the grill, a lot of people don't realize that it still cooks once it's removed." He suggests removing it from the grill when it's 160° F and letting it sit for a few minutes before serving.
9. Top it with whatever you want—there's no incorrect answer. Jamie's burger option is served on a potato or brioche bun with American cheese and barbecue sauce, but he says, "The goddess of the burger is that there are so many toppings and buns that complement the meat." Finding what works for you is sufficient—there's no right or wrong way to serve it.
10. Do what makes you happy. Yes, this is cheesy, but it's good to remember—if you prefer a well-done 85/15 blend, then go for it. Jamie says, "You're a true burger lover if you eat and appreciate burgers." It's that easy. He adds, "You should never be overwhelmed when cooking a burger or feel inadequate in any way—it's probably the easiest food to make."

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