Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s, where he was recently named director of education. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, he discusses various burger blends and alternative burger meats.
With temperatures in the Northeast (and hopefully wherever you are) hovering in the high 60s and low 70s, you might have felt the urge to clean off that grill, buy some charcoal or fill up the tank, and invite a few friends over. For some of us, this urge never dies…even in the cold of winter, which fortunately took it easy on us here this year. If you can cook it on your stovetop or in your oven, it can go on your grill. Steaks, chops, roasts, veggies: A grill does it all. But there’s one item to grill that eases you back into the process of cooking and holding court better than anything: burgers. A hot, flat surface on your grill, a few flips and you’re right back in the conversation. You’ve got your technique set. You’ve picked the proper buns. Condiments are ready to go. Now let’s talk about a mixed grill, burger-style!
No secret here — we’re big fans of pastured and grass-fed meats, especially beef. But every now and then, it’s good to switch things up for the world’s best ground-meat delivery system. Fortunately there are some great companion proteins out there that make for perfect blends.
Beef and bacon
As a culture we really like mash-ups, whether it’s Justin Bieber and Slipnot, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, or Doritos and, well, pretty much everything. If it can be combined, someone’s going to make an attempt. The hamburger was just asking for it. How could one possibly perfect the combination of a couple of strips of bacon on a burger: the saltiness, the grassiness and the smokiness? Make sure you get all that in every bite, that’s how! By grinding pieces of bacon into your ground beef, you guarantee that every bite is the best bite (Sean Brock’s cheeseburger at Husk is a perfect example).
Most whole-animal butcher shops these days should have this blend on hand. But if you’re the type who likes to grind at home, here are a few tricks: As always, keep everything super-cold. You’ll want a bit of “crunch” on it, so try placing your cubes of beef and bacon on a sheet pan in your fridge for an hour or two. You can certainly experiment with the ratios, but remember, if you’re already starting with a 70/30 meat-to-fat ratio with your beef, adding in bacon will significantly increase that ratio — not that that’s a bad thing. I try keeping it around 20 to 25 percent. And finally, two passes through the grinder should be enough — first the beef, then the bacon mixed with the beef. If the bacon gets ground through twice, you’ll get a pinkish, emulsified mess — it may not taste bad, but its looks will leave a lot to be desired.
Dry aging can be a way of adding deep, intense and concentrated flavors to meat. Once the crust — an outer layer that is formed on meat that is dry-aged — has been trimmed away, there’s still a bit of prep required for all those rib eyes and T-bones. And in keeping with our waste-nothing approach, we’ll incorporate that dry-aged trim into our burgers. Again, this takes some experimentation as the taste can vary depending on how long the dry-aging process lasts — the greater the time, the greater the intensity of flavors. What you get is something quite different than the burger above. It can be nutty and earthy, and full of that umami flavor that some of us love.
The list is endless for what you can grind or incorporate into a burger. Keep it simple so that we’re not bordering on meatloaf territory. Try a 50/50 blend of beef and pork, and you’ll add a bit of sweetness to balance out the grassiness, or maybe a 50/50 blend of beef and lamb for an even earthier taste. And don’t forget about offal! Liver and heart make for great flavor profiles, which help to ensure we’re using every bit of the animal.
Don’t take my word for it. Davos Seaworth knows that mutton is tasty. Why else would the salty Game of Thrones character request it while he protects Jon Snow’s body and contemplates the possibility of his own death by the hands of the Night’s Watch? Sure, he doesn’t have time to grind it and make patties. No worries. Burger King has got you covered with its Mutton Whopper, which has been on its menu in India since 2014. While I’m certainly not on team Baratheon or Burger King, it’s hard to deny such a noble protein. And while it might be tempting to veer off and toss in some spices, you’ll be rewarded with what Julia Child calls a “developed flavor” if you keep it simple with salt and pepper. Enough with the gamey talk.
With changing demographics, it’s more than likely you’re going to see a lot more mutton and lamb than you have previously. And just like when we talked about veal being a by-product of the dairy industry, the same goes for mutton. Culled ewes and rams are important parts of lamb and dairy farmers’ economic model. Because of the animals’ age, it’s easy to get a great meat-to-fat ratio, which I like to keep the same as beef: 70/30. If you’re concerned about the flavor being too strong for the newly initiated, you can dial back the fat a bit (since that’s where those flavors are), but I caution against going too lean. We want burgers, not hockey pucks! And while I keep it simple with a seasoning of salt and pepper, I eschew the ketchup/mayo combo and go for a yogurt/harissa mix. It’s a bit tangy and a bit spicy, the perfect complement to mutton’s developed flavor.
Chicken and turkey burgers can be the culinary equivalent of Chrysler’s 1980s K-car platform — dull, bland and unobtrusive. For our purposes, that means unnoticeable and attracting no attention on a menu. Born in an era that feared fats and cholesterol, we looked to poultry to save our buns, but certainly not our taste buds. There’s just not much you can do texturally or flavor-wise to poultry without adding a few key ingredients to have it hold its place next to a more traditional burger. Sure, we could add back some pork fat to make up for the leanness and flavor, but that seems like cheating. We’ll stick with using the thighs to ensure that we’ll be getting the most fat possible. We’ll also need something to help with the texture, and for that we’ll enlist mushrooms. I like portabella, but cremini or shiitake will also work. Grinding them into your turkey or chicken will ensure your patty doesn’t resemble a pancake. I’d stay away from using something with a lot of moisture, like eggs. Even though we’ll be grilling on a flat cooking surface, adding more moisture won’t do much to help to retain shape and improve texture.
Flavor is our next hurdle. While the meats mentioned above and poultry have similar amino-acid profiles, there’s one we’re particularly concerned with (okay, there are some other things that add to the flavor, but I’m trying not to get too science-y here.) It’s glutamate, better known as that pleasant savory taste, umami. You see, the meat of beef, pork and lamb have higher amounts of glutamate than the meat of chicken. (Chicken bones, however, have a good amount of glutamate, hence why we all crave chicken stock.) So we need to figure out how to give our poultry a little boost. This can come in the form of a few additives. Mushrooms are a great source, and we’ve already added some for texture. We could stop there, but why not try experimenting with things like soy sauce, Parmesan or fermented bean pastes? Keep in mind that you might change the texture if you are adding more liquid. Sounds like a lot of work, but once you get the flavor and texture you desire, your turkey or chicken burger will feel right at home next to its pasture-mates.
In the spirit of inclusivity, we’re going to make sure we’ve got everyone covered at your mixed burger grill. But we’re not going for one of those multi-ingredient, dense patties. We’re going back to the mushroom (yes, I know mushrooms aren’t technically vegetables). And since you may want to use portabellas in your turkey or chicken patty, here’s a suggestion: Use the stems for the poultry and save the caps for here. Now, this isn’t going to be the cheese-stuffed, fried sensation of the ‘Shroom Burger from Shake Shack, but it’s simple to cook and light-years beyond all those boxed afterthoughts in both flavor and texture. You might want to marinate your mushroom caps for a bit — I like a bit of vinegar and some salt and pepper. I’ll grate some Gruyère for the topping, and that’s all the prep you need. Grill for six minutes on the top of the cap, then another six for the other side before giving it a quick flip and a sprinkle of cheese. Feel free to use whatever condiments you’d like, but between the flavor of the mushroom and the cheese, I don’t think you’ll need much.
Now you’re ready to start burger month off right!