Photos by Donna
I published almost two years ago, at the end of summer—a chance email today thanking me for the technique. So I thought let's put it up again at the start of grilling season. I'm not always real quick on the uptake, but I eventually get around to the right way, and the right way for perfect (and safe) is to grind your own meat and make sure to include the right amount of fat (I don't believe that the cut is that critical).
Yes, I still buy ground beef occasionally but when I want to make a really good burger, I always grind the meat myself. Why go to the trouble? For a half a dozen reasons, all of them important.
First and foremost: taste and texture. When you grind your own, you can regulate the amount of fat you include; your hamburger should contain 20 to 30 percent fat for a juicy succulent burger. I can season the diced meat before grinding it so that the burger is seasoned uniformly throughout. And I can use the large die so that it's got real bite to it.
Importantly to me, when I grind my own, I know it hasn't been contaminated by any of the bad bugs that can get into ground meat these days at big processing facilities, or even through carelessness in the meat department of my grocery store. Provided I give the whole muscle a thorough rinse and pat it dry, I can eat the ground meat as tartare or serve it to my kids as rare as they want it.
Big question: Is the cut critical to the final burger? Not as critical as the ratio of beef to fat. Beef is beef and, unlike pork, beef tastes like beef no matter where it comes from on the animal. I know people will disagree. I'm a co-author on two cookbooks coming out this fall, Ad Hoc At Home and Michael Symon's Live to Cook, and both include hamburger recipes that recommend specific cuts. The chefs involved have tasted various blends and insist there are marked differences. I believe the only critical ratio is the meat to fat, so I buy a nice fatty relatively inexpensive chuck steak, and that gives me a great burger every time. Short ribs will give you a great burger as well. So will sirloin and brisket if you've got the right amount of fat.
The large die is critical to good texture and bite. I want to be able to chew my burger, not have it fall apart in my mouth or be too dense. I send the meat through the grinder twice. Why? To make it sticky. The second grind develops the myosin protein which helps the meat stick together without your having to overwork the meat. I want a light burger, not a heavy one that's been kneaded and squeezed to death.
One last point: Just as with sausage, it's very important to keep the meat very cold all the way through shaping, which helps to ensure juiciness and a good texture.
After that, the only thing left to do is cook it right. I think they're best over very hot coals, a few minutes per side, then removed to the cool side of the grill and covered for a couple minutes more, then rested for about five minutes. Serve with with fresh tomatoes and lettuce, with melted onions, with a fried egg on top. Put some homemade potato chips beside it and a freshly grilled burger you ground yourself is a fantastic, simple, satisfying meal.