For the past two-plus years, I’ve devoted most Fridays to showcasing a different burger on a blog called, not surprisingly, Burger Friday (find it at startribune.com/tabletalk). After tackling more than 85 burgers of all stripes — from four-star dining rooms to food trucks, and every possible restaurant iteration in between — I’ve picked up a few chef-driven pointers for preparing burgers at home.
What I’ve learned is that in the end, it all comes down to two components: the patty and the bun. Mess either one up, and it’s back to the starting gate.
First, the patty. Chefs frequently create their own ground beef blend, often incorporating the delicious scraps of premium cuts. Since most home kitchens are not equipped with meat grinders, consumers rely upon ready-made ground beef formulas from supermarkets and butchers.
Here’s a tip: Select the lowest percentage lean ground beef available. The lower the number, the higher the fat content, and fat is the secret to a juicy, flavorful burger. Go no higher than 85 percent lean. If 75 percent is available, grab it.
Another one: Forget about the Weber, or Big Green Egg, or whatever grill sits in the backyard. A burger’s best friend, according to more chefs than I can count, is a cast iron skillet, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that a skillet allows patties to baste in their own juices.
Seasoning is strictly a matter of personal taste. At her Butcher Salt food truck, owner Jean Hutar doesn’t grind her own tailor-made blend of cuts. “We use an ordinary ground beef, and we make it extraordinary,” she said, by sprinkling sea salt (infused with rosemary, sage, thyme and marjoram) into the ground beef before it’s formed into patties.
Joe Rolle, chef at Il Foro in Minneapolis, relies upon a superfine sea salt that he mixes, 50/50, with toasted and finely ground black Tellicherry peppercorns. The burger’s patties start as 5-ounce meatballs, and they’re seasoned just after they’re smashed into patties on the stove. “We’re taught to season both sides of proteins,” he said. “But the patties are only seasoned on one side, because that fine sea salt penetrates the beef so well.”
Speaking of smashing, that’s the technique used by Andrew Ikeda at Lake & Irving in Minneapolis.
“It’s counterintuitive, I know,” he said. “At the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], we were taught that if you ever take the back of a spatula to a patty, the patty will lose moisture. But on a hard flattop, it doesn’t.”
Back to seasoning. At HauteDish in Minneapolis, chef Landon Schoenefeld follows the same sprinkle-on-top practice, using a blend of sea salt, black pepper, dried rosemary, powdered onion and garlic.
Fernando Silvo of Harriet Brasserie in Minneapolis thinks ahead, mixing ground beef with salt, pepper and bay leaves and refrigerating it for 24 quietly transforming hours before removing the bay leaves and forming the beef into patties.
Some chefs add in fat content. At Wise Acre Eatery in Minneapolis, chef Beth Fisher lays slab bacon in the skillet while she’s cooking patties.
Schoenefeld fries his burgers in butter. And at Bar Lurcat in Minneapolis, chef Adam King adds butter, and lots of it, into the ground beef. It’s melted in a pan and used to sweat onions and fresh thyme. From there, King folds in eggs, salt and pepper and, yes, more butter, adding the mixture into ground beef and forming it into patties. It’s a method that initiated with original chef Isaac Becker and one that Becker continues at his own 112 Eatery in Minneapolis.
Thomas Boemer, chef at Revival in Minneapolis, is a firm believer in burgers composed of two thin-ish patties vs. a single thick one. The reason: mathematics. Each patty has two sizzling sides that come to life on that hot flattop, and four sides of flavorful char are better than two, right? Absolutely.
The all-important bun
Here’s a fairly universal sentiment: No burger bun should go untoasted. Or unbuttered, for that matter. That’s the belief of Carrie McCabe-Johnston of Nightingale in Minneapolis.
“If you’re having a burger, then let’s go all the way and really have a burger,” she said with a laugh.
It’s easy: Just give the (buttered) bun a short toast in that hot skillet.
For my money, the Twin Cities’ best burger bun is now baked at Rustica in Minneapolis, a buttery, deeply golden beauty that holds up to the rigors of a juicy patty but still maintains a melt-in-your-mouth quality. The bakery also makes them available at Seward Co-op, Linden Hills Co-op and Clancey’s Meats & Fish, all in Minneapolis. Expect to pay about $4.50 for four.
My favorite supermarket bun hails from Whole Foods Market (six Twin Cities area locations), a soft, super-eggy brioche bun from Euro Classic, an East Coast frozen-foods specialty company. They run about $6 for six buns. A close second are the store’s own challah buns; they’re sturdy, yeasty and slightly sweet, and average $5 for a six-pack. I’m also a fan of the well-made buns from St. Paul’s Saint Agnes Baking Co., available in many Twin Cities food co-ops.
Or, bake them yourself. It’s easier than it sounds, particularly if you follow the recipes from my colleague Kim Ode and her monthly Baking Central series: crackle-topped Dutch Crunch Buns (find it at strib.mn/1oSPGYF); Pretzel Buns (strib.mn/1cTdVNx) and a classic formula (strib.mn/1KFQckf).
More burger tips:
• Dress it right. For the “secret sauce” on his famous burger, Vincent Françoual at Vincent in Minneapolis blends mayonnaise, ketchup, Tabasco and chopped cornichons.
• Char it up. To encourage the formulation of a tantalizingly browned crust, Solveig Tofte of Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis swipes mustard across the uncooked patty just before it hits the stove.
• Go American. During my burger survey, I’ve encountered all kinds of cheeses, including Gruyère, Brie and four-year-old Cheddar. Still, the current vogue for good old American cannot be overstated. “It’s the No. 1 choice for a burger,” said Schoenefeld. “It’s the meltiness of it, and the nostalgia. And it’s American.” At HauteDish, Schoenefeld always doubles up, using two slices.
• Start at the bottom. Keep the lower half of the bun from growing soggy by placing pickles, lettuce or other vegetables in between the bun and the juicy patty.
• Watch the calendar. Tomatoes and burgers? Of course, but only when tomatoes are at their peak. For the other 10 months of the year, forget it.