“What I love about a burger is it’s the purest expression of quality meat," says Jake Dickson, owner of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in New York’s Chelsea Market. While veggie burgers and portobello-mushroom creations can be tasty diversions or healthful alternatives, sometimes only ground meat — formed into a plump patty and sizzling on the grill — will do for a true burger-lover.
Unfortunately, many people consider the meat to be too bland to make a burger satisfying on its own, so they augment it. And that’s usually what pushes burgers into calorie-bomb territory. A 3-ounce cooked burger, made from “85/15" ground beef (that’s 85-percent lean, 15-percent fat), has about 200 calories and 12 grams of fat, about half of which are undesirable saturated fats. “People then dress up their burger by draping it with cheese, or even stuffing cheese into it," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. That adds more calories and saturated fat. Bacon? More of both. And don’t get us started on wacky toppings, like fried eggs.
The secret to getting a truly delicious, lean burger is to make the meat the star attraction so you can minimize (or eliminate) greasy, fatty add-ons and sugary sauces.
To best accomplish this, you need to turn back the calendar a few decades and return to a time when home chefs didn’t just buy a hunk of ground beef at the supermarket and slap it into patties (or buy preshaped, frozen beef patties). They had several varieties of different meats to choose from at their butcher shop, and their butcher would grind and blend those different meats to create a burger with the freshest flavor and toothsome texture.
Luckily, it’s not hard to do this today — even though the local butcher shop is a long-gone memory in most American towns. Follow our tips, and we promise that the results will be more than worth the extra effort.
Find a grinder
The easiest way to get custom-ground meat is to find a specialty grocery store (or a butcher, if one still operates in your vicinity) that will grind meat for you. That will deliver the best results. No dice? You can try using a light touch with a food processor, but it takes practice to get the right consistency, and the results can really depend on how your food processor handles meat. If you grill often, consider buying a home grinder (such as the $125 electric Maverick Meat Grinder, MaverickHousewares.com). Home chefs who spring for a meat grinder find that they use them a lot more than expected. If you get a manual model, it’ll give you a great arm workout, guaranteed. And nothing makes a burger taste better than working for it.
Ask your butcher to go “three times through the coarse plate"
Making your burger taste more substantial and meaty relies on two things — texture and flavor. If you have a butcher at your disposal, use this expert tip. “Most meat passes through the grinder twice — once through a coarse plate and once through the medium plate. Ask your butcher to go ‘three times through the coarse plate’ and you’ll get a noticeably chunkier burger," says Dickson.
Chill before grinding at home
If you’re using a home grinder, cut the meat into 1-inch cubes, then chill it in the freezer until it’s semifrozen. “Chilling is the key," says Dickson. “If the meat is warm, many home grinders will smear it into meat toothpaste." For the best results, you’ll want to pass the meat through the grinder three times, chilling it again in the freezer between each pass. Dickson recommends using a combination of chuck, brisket and sparerib meat (in equal parts) for your go-to backyard burger, unless you want to go fancier and…
Add some steak
You’d have to be rich, crazy, or both to turn pricey filet mignon, strip steak, or rib eye into hamburger fodder, says Dickson. But there is one exception: “While grinding up expensive steaks is normally pointless to me, the addition of dry-aged steak to your blend brings a new dimension to burgers," says Dickson. Add a piece of dry-aged steak that will amount to 20 percent or more of the total hamburger meat, and “you have something really special," he says.
Try an ethnic inspiration
According to Steven Raichlen, host of Primal Grill on PBS, every culture has its own version of a burger. “Unlike American burgers, which are all about toppings, many international burgers have interesting flavors woven through them," says Raichlen. Try Raichlen’s take on cevapcici, a Balkan specialty, adapted from his book Planet Barbecue (Workman, 2010). Grinding the meat yourself (using the tips above) will provide the best results, but you can also buy ground meat to make this recipe easier.
In a large mixing bowl, combine:
- 8 oz. each of ground beef, pork and veal, the last of which has fewer calories and half the fat of 85/15 beef.
- 1/2 a medium onion, grated
- 3 tablespoons chopped, flat-leafed parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon each of ground coriander, black pepper and baking soda (garlic and hot peppers are other options)
- 1/2 cup reduced-sodium beef stock, or water
- Knead the meat mixture thoroughly and form it into eight sausage-shaped patties, about 1 inch by 2 inches.
- Refrigerate the patties for at least an hour, then grill until cooked through (about 6-8 minutes per side).
- Serve two patties in a whole-wheat pita, topped with chopped onion, tomato and green pepper.
Go on the lamb
Lamb is roughly comparable to beef in calories and saturated fats and can add distinctive flavor to your burger. It is, however, more expensive. “I make lamb burgers more than beef burgers because it is a great, full-flavored product," says Dickson. His tip: Make burgers that are a mixture of 30-percent lamb meat and 70-percent beef, and get that big flavor for less cash.
Squeeze in some sausage
Once you’ve ground some quality beef (or bought some ground beef, if you want to take the modern shortcut), you can easily make a variety of flavored burgers by using different types of sausage. Choose one of your favorite lean sausages, remove the casing and mix it thoroughly with the ground beef. “It’s so easy, like a ready-made flavor pack for your burger," says Dickson. He often uses merguez lamb sausage flavored with chili peppers and harissa for this trick. If you use sausages made with chicken, turkey, or pork, make sure you cook the burgers thoroughly (to an internal temperature of at least 160˚F).
Blend some bison
According to Rod Wieder of Backyard Bison in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, ground bison can be about 90- to 93-percent lean, comparable to the leanest ground beef. That means a 3-ounce patty of grass-fed bison has just 150 calories and 7 grams of fat, only 3 of which are saturated. And of course, it has a distinctive flavor. Because bison can be pricey and difficult to find, you may want to mix it with ground beef or ground turkey. Without the fat, bison burgers cook much faster than beef, says Wieder, so don’t wander away from the grill. When the burgers are lifting off the grill, and the juices are running clear, they’re close to done; the temperature should reach 160˚F.
“Most people don’t describe the meat as gamy, but as a touch sweeter, so I like to use a reduced-sugar ketchup on the burgers," says Wieder.