BURGERS FROM SCRATCH
With the exception of my work, I am not what you might call a process person. I don’t make jam, pasta or bread, the last layer cake I assembled looked demented, and I will never, ever get around to organizing the wedding photos.
Which is why the sudden desire to grind meat for burgers at home took me by surprise. Perhaps it was the blade steaks we had last week—they were so good, they left us with an unfashionable craving for more beefy flavor. Perhaps it was the imminent arrival of summer funfunfun. Or, perhaps, perversely, it was the various food safety issues that have been in the news lately.
At any rate, I really wanted a juicy burger, and liked the thought of knowing exactly what cut I was getting. I passed up lean sirloin—overzealously trimmed of excess fat, it would result in dry burgers—for a firm, well-marbled beef chuck roast that had a shaggy, dazzling-white strip of fat running through its middle. For good measure, the butcher threw in some extra beef fat on the side.
Later that day, I took a look at The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, by the great San Francisco chef Judy Rodgers. She’s a big believer in salting meat to enhance the texture and help it retain moisture. While cutting the roast into 1-inch cubes, I removed the gnarly bits of connective tissue and some of the oddly shaped pieces of fat in the middle of the roast. Then I sprinkled the meat with salt, stuck it in a zip-top bag, and put it in the refrigerator until the next day. Rodgers doesn’t say to wash off the salt before grinding, but, feeling a little guilty, I gave it a rinse, then blotted the cubed meat dry with paper towels.
I wish I could tell you I broke out my grandmother’s meat grinder, the one she used for to make the best ham salad I’ve ever tasted, but since I’ve always had countertop-challenged kitchens, I sold the dratted thing at a stoop sale years ago. Instead, I used the KitchenAid stand mixer and the food grinder attachment, fished out of the tackle box Sam has dedicated to every KitchenAid accoutrement in existence.
After scrupulously cleaning the grinder and the bowl, I chilled them while I scrubbed down the kitchen counter and thoroughly washed my hands. We all know about the risk of pathogens in ground meat (the USDA recommends using an instant-read thermometer to correctly gauge doneness in burgers), but believe me, there’s a bumper crop of them in the home kitchen as well. How long has that sponge been sitting by the sink? I thought so. Throw it out.
The reason I chilled the grinder and bowl is that old adage about making pastry—”keep it cold and keep it moving”—applies to grinding meat as well. In both cases, you want the fat to stay solidified while you’re working. Flakiness in a pie crust, for instance, comes from tiny patches of cold fat between the layers of dough; by the time the fat starts to melt in the heat of the oven, the dough has already begun to set. The liquid in the dough turns to steam, which pushes the layers apart. Rarely does a science experiment smell so delicious, unless you happen to have burgers cooking away on the grill. The small pieces of cold fat in ground meat melt during cooking, too, resulting in a burger so succulent, the juices run down your chin.
The KitchenAid food grinder is a piece of cake to assemble, and in no time, I had ground the meat, along with a few indulgent pieces of the extra beef fat, through the coarse die. It extruded very cleanly in the beginning, but about halfway through, its texture abruptly changed from crumbly to mushy. Thanks to Rodgers, I knew to turn off the machine and disassemble it; sure enough, there was a stringy, sinewy tangle wrapped around the blade. Some minutes later, with the gismo cleaned and reinstalled, I was back in business. Soon I switched the coarse die for the finer one and fed the meat through the grinder once more. I gently mixed the meat with my hands to more evenly distribute the fat. Again, I was reminded of pastry dough: The meat felt malleable, not greasy. Back into the fridge it went, until it was time for supper.
Choosing the right meat is one secret to fabulous burgers; another is to avoid overhandling the meat. If you knead and compact it into dense patties, it will stay dense. Use a light hand to form patties ¾ to 1 inch thick, and they will puff during cooking and become juicy. Resist the urge to press the burgers with a spatula while on the grill; you’ll smash those lovely juices right out of the meat. And treat burgers with the respect you’d give a steak: Let them rest after cooking, to give the juices a chance to redistribute themselves evenly.
As to the perfect degree of doneness, you are on your own. Personally, I like a burger that comes down solidly on the medium side of medium-rare. Sam, who grew up eating steak tartare and who, as a child, used to lick the bowl after his mother put together a meatloaf (which just makes me go all wobbly inside) is more daring. If you stick with chuck, though, and handle it lightly, you will discover that even burgers cooked well-done stay beautifully moist.
Now, of course, I’m wondering what other uses I can find for the meat grinder. I wish I had my grandmother’s recipe for ham salad.