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Ground meat, demystified by butchers.

Gowri Chandra
May 31, 2018

There are two main things you need to know about burger blends: First off, more expensive isn’t necessarily better. (Wagyu, for example, is totally wasted in a burger—more on that in a bit.) Secondly, there is no one right way to do things because everyone has different preferences for fat ratio and flavor. But what we—or rather, the butchers and chefs we talked to—will say is this: There are certain rules of thumb to follow to figure out how to create your preferred type of burger consistently and excellently every single time. And, obviously, a huge part of the experience of a burger comes down to the type of meat, or meat blend, you use.

To help us navigate the overwhelming combinations and permutations therein, we’ve enlisted the help of Walter Apfelbaum, a butcher with three decades worth of experience. He's currently the executive butcher at Detroit steakhouse Prime + Proper.

Read on for his tips on how to select the optimum burger blend.

First rule: Just because you can splurge on Wagyu for a burger, doesn’t mean you should. Actually, just don’t.

If you’ve spent bank for American or Japanese wagyu (P.S., Apfelbaum loves buying his at Costco), the last thing you want to do is grind it up. As chef David Walzog points out, the marbling in wagyu—the very thing that makes it so prized—loses its value when you obliterate its texture in a grinder. (If you really want to do justice to that fine, fine wagyu, just cook it as a whole piece of meat.)

That said, if you have leftover trim from, say, wagyu steaks, this is when you make sliders. “I’m on the same page [as many chefs about wagyu burgers],” Apfelbaum says, “But unfortunately when you have wagyu, you have trim, and the last thing you want to do is throw away that trim. I’ve seen guys do it and I cringe every time. I’d rather eat that as a slider, because it’s so fatty and so rich that, personally, I don’t want that as a burger because I don’t want to be taking these huge bites of that. It’s too much.”

In fact, ditch the more expensive cuts altogether.

Andrew Sutton, head butcher at Curtis Stone’s Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant in Los Angeles, agreed that people have a misconception that the best steak money can buy automatically makes the best burgers as well. 

“I think people make too big a deal about exactly what cut is going into ground beef,” he says. “People come in and they’re like, ‘I want to grind ribeyes, I want to grind New Yorks.’ Ribeye is really delicious as a steak, but as ground beef… the flavors that you’re getting in beef are a function of muscle structure and fat content. I think it’s more important that you’re using muscles that get a lot of work and so have more flavor. And then it’s about getting the fat content right.”

If you’re grilling burgers outside, you want a higher fat ratio than if you were pan-frying.

Your cooking method, as it turns out, influences the type of beef you should choose. This makes sense, but it’s something that a lot of people don’t think about.

You’re going to want a higher percentage of fat if you’re grilling, because you lose a lot of the fat on a grill when it drips through the grates. More fat will help create a juicier burger and a better crust.

“If you’re going to be cooking outside,” he adds, “I would give you an 80/20. I could even get away with a 70/30 because there’s going to be a lot more fat in it to keep it really juicy. And cooking on the open fire, you want more of the fat to help create that really beautiful crust.”

Another reason to choose a less fatty blend when cooking indoors, according to Apfelbaum: All that melted fat won’t set off the fire alarm when it reaches its smoking point.

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If you’re pan-frying your burger, go with 85/15 and work in more fat from there.

“I’m not going to give you an 80/20 blend if you’re going to be cooking inside,” Apfelbaum says. “A lot of guys will grind what’s called a 'gooseneck,' which is towards the back of the animal, because it’s leaner. You can get away with a 85% or 90% [fat] if you’re cooking in a cast iron.”

Sutton is a fan of fattier blends, and he recommends 70/30. Just goes to show that tastes can vary significantly even among industry experts, and those tastes are legitimate.

Apfelbaum’s recommended cut for pan-frying burgers indoors? Eye of round.

“It’s really really nice, there’s not a lot of fat. You can tell them to grind the eye round with the knuckle that’s part of it, and that knuckle has a little bit more fat because that muscle is used more. And that’ll be like an 85% or 90% blend. You’re getting an amazing flavor.”

If you're grilling your burgers outside, go with chuck. Fortunately, it turns out to be the cheapest. 

“Personally, I just tell them to grind me the chuck roll,” Apfelbaum says. “And it’s the cheapest cut.” (Bear in mind this is a man who has the finest of imported Japanese Miyazaki beef at his fingertips at Prime + Proper—and it was actually rated higher than Kobe at Japan’s very own Wagyu Olympics. So if this fancy butcher prefers chuck, that’s saying something.)

Chuck is from the well used shoulder muscle and is definitely a leaner cut, although chuck steaks can have a lot of flavor.

“Most people don’t know that you can even tell butchers that you want chuck steaks,” Apfelbaum says. “They’re amazing and they’re cheap, and the flavor you’ll get from them is just incredible. And that as a burger is really fatty, really rich, and tons of flavor. And you don’t need to go into all these fancy blends like brisket.”

Give aged beef a try. 

Don’t go for anything less than 21 days, which is less than the standard anyway: “I would say, anything [aged] less than 21 days is not going to be very noticeable in a burger,” Sutton says. “Most places that are doing dry aged will probably do it from 30 to 35 days, and you can really taste a difference in ground meat at that point.”

Sutton’s go to recommendation: 100% dry-aged chuck with a 70/30 fat percentage, cooked medium.

Remember that you can really customize your blends. Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher to tweak them!

For example, say you find ground chuck steak too fatty for the grill—you can always ask butchers to make it leaner, Apfelbaum advises. “A lot of times they’ll add something like an eye of round just to lean it out."

They want to customize things for you—that’s what they’re there for. Take advantage of their expertise.

Don’t be afraid to order a few cheaper cuts and play with the proportions in your kitchen, either.

“You can go and get a pound of chuck roll ground, and a pound of eye of round ground, and you can literally make your own blend,” Apfelbaum says. “You can do like 75/25, and mix it and see where you want to be.” (He’s referring to 75% chuck roll, and 25% eye of round.)

Still overwhelmed? Just go to the butcher counter at Whole Foods or Costco and ask for help. 

Apfelbaum recommends going to Whole Foods (where he was once a butcher) or Costco as opposed to your average chain grocery store. “If you just walk into a grocery store and some kid behind the counter is going to listen to his boss who’s like, ‘This is on sale because we’ve got to sell it,’ a lot of times that’s what they’re going to do,” he says. “They’re going to push what they need to sell because they’re dealing in mass quantities.”

Apfelbaum adds, “I know that I can go to a counter at Whole Foods, and I know I can talk to a butcher, or guys who are learning to be butchers. A lot of times, when we go shopping at Costco, even the Costco guys—you can grab one of them, and they know. You’d be surprised the quality of product you can get at Costco.”

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