All week long, Eater has been celebrating the best of Philly's restaurant burgers. But before we wrap things up, we're switching gears: We polled a few local experts for some insight into how they like to make burgers at home, so you can step up your game in the kitchen.
There's no specialized equipment required or directives to custom-grind expensive cuts of meat within, and you don't necessarily need any outdoor space for a grill. Here now, simple advice and strong opinions on everything from buying meat to topping your burgers, from the people who know best.
How to Choose and Buy Meat
Without good meat, you'll never have a good burger. But just because many chefs custom-grind choice cuts for their restaurant creations, that doesn't mean you need to splash out on anything crazy to make a juicy and flavorful burger.
Chef/butcher/charcutier Nick Macri, owner of La Divisa Meats in the Reading Terminal Market, says that "fresh ground beef with good fat content" is what matters — "ask your meat monger what he can do for you," he adds.
Butcher Bryan Mayer of Kensington Quarters takes it a step further: "If I see a chef grinding up something like a hanger steak, I think that's the most appalling thing," he says. When you run a whole-animal butcher shop like his, you have a limited number of every cut, and you use every last piece in some way. What ends up being ground is the trim — and while leftover scraps may not sound like the sexiest choice of meat, Mayer says they're ideal for the purpose. "Many of the most flavorful parts end up in there — like shank meat, which you either need to braise forever or grind — and I can add a little of this and a little of that to get some variety and just the right fat content."
The ground beef in the case at Kensington Quarters is about an 80/20 blend (that is, 80% lean and 20% fat), which everyone we talked to agreed will make a good burger. And it's the exact same beef that gets sent over to sister restaurants Prohibition Taproom and Cafe Lift, where the chefs put it to use in their own burgers.
Grass-Fed or Grain-Fed?
Mayer insists that it's important to find a butcher that specializes in 100% grass-fed beef ("from cows that spent their whole life out on grass," he cautions — "grass-fed" on a label doesn't necessarily mean the animal was pastured and eating grass all along the way).
However, even as pastured beef has gained in popularity, many burger enthusiasts feel that it leads to an inferior end result. Grain-fed beef, it's been argued, has a richer flavor and is more generously marbled, providing the necessary fat content for a great burger. "That's bullshit," Mayer says bluntly. As to fat content, he says, that's controlled during the grinding — the end result contains as much fat as desired. And, he says, grass-fed animals (cows or otherwise) are slaughtered much older than their typical grain-fed counterparts, which gives them more time to develop flavor by working their muscles. A conventionally raised cow is typically slaughtered around 16 months, according to Mayer, while a pastured animal may be anywhere from 24 to 30 months old.
Go Beyond Beef
Of course, you can make a burger out of pretty much anything, but some beef alternatives are more appealing than others. "Pork burgers are weird, I think," says Macri. That's a pretty strong statement from someone who sells and uses so much pork, so while there may be some good pork burgers out there in the world, it's not a top recommendation.
Both Macri and Mayer agree that lamb is the way to go. And you don't need to be afraid to use it, or unsure of what to do with it. Macri says he'd cook a lamb burger in just the same way he'd cook a beef one, and he finds "no need to add fancy stuff to your lamb burger," either. "It's delicious the old-fashioned way. The need to put feta or goat cheese on a lamb burger never made sense to me."
That said, if you want to try something more unique with your lamb burgers, Mayer suggests adding a mixture of mustard and capers right to the patty. "This isn't original to me — I think it might have been from an Alton Brown recipe, actually, I'm not sure — but it's the best combination." (We couldn't find a similar-sounding recipe from Brown, but here's one from Ted Allen, via Serious Eats.)
Mayer, who sources goats from Stryker Farm in the Poconos for the shop at Kensington Quarters, also says goat is a more unusual choice that makes a great burger. Again, it can be treated much like beef or lamb.
How to Make the Best Burger
When it comes to cooking advice, we enlisted a little additional help, from the Sbraga Dining crew. They've had burgers on the brain more than usual, as Juniper Commons just debuted its first cheeseburger as part of a menu redesign, after a long process to get it right. The kitchen reportedly made ten variations and held a blind tasting before settling on the one that is currently on the menu, in the search for an ideal classic. (We also have a real weakness for the pimento cheeseburger at sibling spot The Fat Ham.)
Not surprisingly, given the gorgeous custom grill that's the centerpiece of their kitchen, the cooks at Juniper Commons agree that grilling gives the best flavor to a burger. And generations of backyard cookout enthusiasts would likely back them up on that.
But you don't need a grill, and many people would argue it's better not to use one anyway. Macri and Mayer agree that the ideal way to cook a burger is in a cast iron skillet. Mayer shuns the grill intentionally, because "you want the burger to sit and cook in its own fat. On the grill, it leaches out and then drips right through the grate."
The pan should be "screaming hot," per Mayer's directive. If you're not clear on how hot is hot enough, consider Macri's feeling that cast iron is a must regardless of the fact that "the ensuing smoke storm sets off the smoke alarm and freaks out the dog." (How he deals: "Take the batteries out of the alarm — but don't forget to replace them later, either. Be safe, kids!") Heat the skillet on high, he says, then reduce to about medium before you add the patties.
How to Prep Your Patty
Here, answers vary, though there's a basic consensus that seasoning is important and you should never overwork the meat. The word from the Juniper Commons kitchen is that you should mix the seasoning in (very gently, using a fork) and be generous with salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Macri, meanwhile, suggests you simply salt the patty after forming, which results in even less handling.
If you handle the meat too much, your burgers will be denser and tougher than you'd probably like. (Mixing the meat extensively is how sausage gets its unique texture and binds together, but that's not what you want in a burger.) Keep it loose — "forming it just enough so it holds together," per the Sbraga crew — and your burger will thank you. "The more craggy spots you have, the more places for fat to pool and crisp things up while it cooks," elaborates Mayer.
As far as portioning goes, none of our experts were proponents of monster patties, though you can adjust the size to your preference. Macri likes a six-ounce patty, which he says also keeps the math simple: "One and a half pounds gets you four, so you can eyeball it if you don't have a scale. And why would you make less than four burgers?"
Mayer also likes a thinner burger, saying four to six ounces will suffice. And in his favorite cooking method, there really isn't any patty prep — for an ultra-simple "1-2-3 burger," he just adds a ball of meat to his pan, waits one minute, smashes it down, waits one more minute, than flips it and cooks it on the other side for a final minute.
Macri is a bit more precise. He suggests forming your patties by pressing each portion of meat between "two of those deli cup lids you have left over from a winter's worth of takeout orders you endured because you hate the cold." And be sure to "get all your pressing aggression out now," because you won't be smushing the burger down at all later while it's cooking. (It's worth noting that there's a big difference between smashing the patty once before searing, as Mayer does, and smashing it repeatedly throughout cooking. The former is a question of preference, but you should never do the latter.)
Though not totally necessary, one favorite trick of Macri's is to smear the patties with mayonnaise before cooking, which "gives them a great crust." (As an aside, he says he also uses this technique for fish.)
Timing the Cooking
Whether you're using a skillet or a grill, Mayer and the Juniper Commons cooks agree that a patty of medium thickness will likely take anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes per side. Macri says you should cook on the first side until you see the edges getting brown, then flip and cook for "maybe five more minutes" on the second side. But "don't be scared to use a meat thermometer; I won't judge," he says, adding that if you bought good meat to begin with there's no need to fear a rare burger.
If you want cheese on your burger, Macri prefers to add it "just a minute or two before you are going remove the burger." And because "half-melted cheese sucks," he goes on, "place a slice on top, drop a few tablespoons of water in the pan, and cover it so the steam melts the cheese."
Once you pull them from the heat, you need to let them rest. Macri says to pull them to a paper towel to sit briefly, and "use this time to assemble your burger."
Topping and Assembling the Perfect Burger
Of course, you should customize your burgers according to taste, and nothing's stopping you from adding just about anything you can dream up. But the experts we talked to have some pretty strong opinions, and they all lean toward keeping things classic.
For Mayer, the perfect burger is as simple as it gets. "I want to taste the meat. It's not a salad; it doesn't need lettuce," he says. "And if you used good meat, it shouldn't need a lot of help from all kinds of, you know, fried eggs or condiments." Still, he finds it hard to say no to cheese, and will also make an exception for bacon.
At Juniper Commons, the consensus was that the best burger was all-American, with "tried-and-true yellow American cheese," lettuce, tomato, onion, and maybe some pickles. But a good burger sauce doesn't hurt, and making your own at home is a fun way to add some variety. As an example, they suggest playing around with a "BLT sauce," made by emulsifying a little bacon fat with mayo and a little tomato paste and vinegar. It's not far off from familiar burger sauces that mix mayo and ketchup, but adds a little more smoky flavor.
Macri likes lettuce and red onion — "both shaved thin so they don't slide out" — and even more mayo. As far as cheese goes, Macri thinks American is great, but "if you don't want to feel guilty," he suggests either Birchrun Hills Farm's Fat Cat or Doe Run's Seven Sisters.
A bun can make or break a burger, and our survey resulted in slight variations: "a white bun or potato roll," from Juniper Commons; "a brioche bun or a potato roll" from Mayer; "a kaiser or potato roll" from Macri, who thinks brioche is too rich to go with a fatty burger.
It's possible to quibble over the finer details, but the takeaway seems clear: When in doubt, you can't go wrong with a Martin's potato roll.