You could buy cellophane-wrapped burger patties languishing on styrofoam trays at your neighborhood supermarket. But are you serious—like really serious—about hamburgers? Then it’s about time you head to your local butcher shop and work with the staff to create a custom burger blend.
Before you get started, you’ll want to acquaint yourself with the fundamentals of good burger-making. You might assume that that fancy, expensive cuts like ribeye and filet make the ultimate blend. But according to “Meat Prophet” Tom Mylan, head butcher at The Meat Hook in Williamsburg, this logic is way off. “I don’t believe in bedazzled blends that use fancy cuts—it’s a total waste of money,” he says.
Mylan recommends a well-mixed blend of cheaper cuts with an optimal lean-to-fat ratio. He also encourages you to find a passionate butcher who uses high-quality beef and will help you create a blend to your specifications.
Read on to master the art of burger blending, with pro tips about cuts, fat-to-lean ratio, creative add-ins, and more. Nearly all of today’s most coveted burgers come from proprietary blends, so why shouldn’t you have your own?
1. The fat content
Fat equals juiciness and flavor, which is why the lean-to-fat ratio in ground beef is critical. “If you want a good burger, 70/30 is definitely the way to go,” says Mylan. He explains that 30% fat is ideal if you want to cook your burger anywhere from medium-rare to medium-well.
If you plan to cook your patty anywhere outside of that range, Mylan recommends tailoring the amount of fat accordingly. “If you like your burger well-done, it should be more like 40% fat,” he says. “If you want it to be really rare, you would bring down the fat content, because you don’t want a lot of un-rendered fat in your burger.” (Go with 80/20, or 90/10 for a black-and-blue burger).
2. The grind
Have your butcher grind your meat twice through a medium blade. “This gives the burger the right texture; it will have those individual pieces of meat that are going to make you go, ‘Oh my God, this is kind of like I’m eating a steak.’” Grocery stores attempt to hide the amount of fat in the meat by grinding it over and over into a fine pink paste, because people are afraid of fat. But fat is your friend, especially when it comes to delicious hamburger patties.
3. The cuts of beef
Don’t believe the “bedazzled blend” burger hype. Using fancy cuts of beef is not important and kind of a bullshit move, according to Mylan. What is important is making sure the meat is high-quality and comes from mature animals, and that your blend has the right fat content.
Use cheaper cuts of beef from harder-working muscles, like chuck or round. Why? These cuts have more myoglobin, Mylan says, and myoglobin is what gives beef its “beefy” flavor and red color. Each cut will contribute its own flavor and textural nuances, and you can play around with different cuts to bolster the flavors you prefer.
Here are some go-to cuts to use for your custom burger blend:
- Chuck: This is the primary cut at The Meat Hook when it comes to burger blends. The muscles at the top of the shoulder, where the chuck is found, are interspersed with small weavings of fat throughout. This gives the burger a great “steak-like, but giving” texture. What’s more, the chuck is a hard-working group of muscles, so you never have to worry about blandness.
- Round: Round has awesome flavor, but is generally very lean. Adding short rib to the blend—to give it a 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio—is the move.
- Brisket: The meaty part of the brisket has tons of flavor and is super beefy, because it’s a muscle that’s used every day.
- Navel: Mylan, who is a huge Shake Shack fan, says, “I would guess Shake Shack uses navel in their blend, because it gives the burger a sort of weird, kind of creamy, buttery flavor.”
- Short rib: This is the kind of rich-tasting fat that will stay intact and not render out as quickly or easily as other fats found on the animal. Ultimately, this helps the burger stay moist.
4. The Meat Hook Custom Burger Blends
Mylan has a sense of humor. In response to the hype over proprietary patties, he created Meat Hook burger blends that took the meaning of “fancy custom blend” to the next level. One blend incorporates bacon, one incorporates pastrami, one uses 100% dry-aged beef, and the last incorporates bacon, cheddar cheese, and sour-cream-and-onion potato chips. Wild, we know.
House blend: 70% lean muscle (chuck or round) ground with 30% fat (navel, short rib, or brisket).
Fat Kid Blend: 70% lean muscle (chuck or round) ground with 30% bacon trimmings. This blend is meaty, smoky, and slightly sweet. Mylan suggests a lighter-smoked, breakfast-style bacon.
Fat Kid Blend, “World of Warcraft edition”: Fat Kid Blend with sharp cheddar cheese and sour-cream-and-onion potato chips mixed in. “If you’re an antisocial stoner agoraphobe, this is for you,” writes Tom Mylan in The Meat Hook Meat Book.
Hypertension Blend: 75% lean muscle (chuck or round) ground with 25% pastrami
When Mile End Deli first started out, owner Noah Bernamoff was trying to figure out what to do with all of his smoked-meat scraps. He came to Mylan and proposed that they grind up the smoked meat to use in burgers. The rest is bovine history. (Tip: Not all pastrami has the “point”—or the fattier part—but it’s ideal to use the point when making this blend.)
Dry Age Blend: 100% dry-aged steak trimmings
As beef dry ages, it loses liquid weight, leaving behind protein with more concentrated flavor. As it dry ages, it also undergoes an enzymatic reaction—”similar to what happens when you’re turning soy beans into miso,” says Mylan—which increases umami and makes the meat taste even meatier.
A few ways Meat Hook employees describe burgers made from the dry-age blend: “This is the best burger you’ll ever have”; “Smells like mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts”; “Accept no substitutes.”
5. Shaping the patties
Do yourself a favor and buy a hamburger patty maker ($15-$20 on Amazon). Mylan recommends using ⅓ pound (or 6 oz) of meat for each patty. “Any more than that is gross, and if you use any less than that, it’s hard to hit medium-rare.”
If you’re working without a patty maker, be gentle when you shape your patty and do NOT slap it back and forth between your hands; if you do this, you’ll overwork the meat and the muscle fiber will bind together (trust us, this isn’t a good thing). When you don’t overwork the meat, microscopic gaps will remain in between the little pieces of beef. As you cook the patty and the fat renders, the fat will go into those tiny microscopic voids, making your burger a whole lot juicier.
Steps for shaping your burger (using a patty maker):
1. Place a piece of plastic wrap over the patty maker, and put ⅓ pound ground beef on top of the plastic.
2. Cover with a second piece of plastic wrap and press down. Now you have a perfectly-shaped patty.
6. Seasoning the patties
When you’re using a great burger blend, the patties need nothing more than kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Salt the patties liberally a half an hour ahead of cooking them, and leave them out to come to room temperature; this will let the salt migrate from the exterior to the interior.
“If you have access to Martin’s potato rolls and you don’t use them, you’re a fool,” says Mylan. There’s no need to toast your buns, but if you do, slather some mayo on pre-toasting.
Mylan makes “special sauce” from ketchup, Kewpie mayo, and chopped dill pickles (don’t use sweet pickles, and don’t use relish). Use a little bit more mayo than ketchup—eyeball it until it looks like the right color. (Pro tip: Turn your “special sauce” into “comeback sauce” using this NYT recipe.)
9. Commandments for Cooking Burgers
- If you’re not grilling your burgers, use a cast-iron pan.
- Use a dry pan (with no butter or oil in it) to cook your burger.
- If you insist on cooking with fat in the pan, use butter or tallow. NEVER use olive oil (it’s the wrong flavor).
- Do not constantly flip your burger—you should flip it three times.
- Don’t press down on your burger while cooking it, or you’ll squeeze out the juice.
Steps for cooking the burger patty (to medium-rare):
1. Heat your pan over medium-high heat. Place your burger into the pre-heated, dry pan. When your patty achieves a golden-brown crust on the first side (after about 3-4 minutes), flip it over. Cook until the other side develops a crust (another 3 minutes), then flip it once more and add cheese.
2. Immediately cover the pan with a lid to melt the cheese.
4. After about 30 seconds to a minute, lift the lid and place the patty onto your (pre-sauced) burger bun.
10. What about lamb and pork burgers?
“Beef is the king of burger meats,” says Mylan.