The 'better burger' craze launched the trend of mixing cuts and meats from different protein sources. (All photos by George Motz)

Chef-inspired burgers complement consumers’ desire for fresh, premium and gourmet. The culinary twist comes not only from the wide array of toppings and buns, but also from the meat itself. In fact, blending meats for burgers is one of the hottest trends in cities such as New York and Chicago.

Blending different cuts of meat to make a better burger is not new, according to Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats, Harlem, NY. But it is becoming more common and also something that many culinary professionals are using to create a name for themselves.

George Motz, author of “Hamburger America”, a state-by-state guide to some of the best burger eateries in the country, has taught a course on hamburgers at New York Univ. and Princeton, and consulted for many hamburger restaurants. He explains that the concept of blending different cuts of meat, or even different species, to make hamburger has been going on forever. “But no one really took note,” he says. “Only recently have Americans started taking the hamburger more seriously.”

This is because today’s foodies want to know what goes into their food, including their burgers. They want to know how changing different variables impacts the cooked burger.

Starting with the meat

As with anything, junk in equals junk out. To make a quality burger, you must start with quality meat. Many pre-made, packaged burger patties sold in supermarkets or cooked at fast-food restaurants are made with beef trimmings ground up with fat, inexpensive by-products of the butchering industry. Such burgers lack the rich depth of flavor and consistency that you find in burgers made from ground whole-muscle cuts, which is what is usually used to make premium burgers.

George Motz, author of "Hamburger America" has taught courses on hamburgers at New York Univ. and Princeton.

Whole beef chuck is the most common cut used in premium burgers. In fact, Motz believes the best burgers are made from the standard 80-20 chuck blend.

“It consistently makes the best burger,” Motz says. “If you go higher fat, even just to 75-25 percent, expect a grease fire. With less fat, like 90-10 percent, the burger is easily overcooked. Sirloin might make a healthier burger, but it should be left for steak.”

Not all chuck is the same. “There are different parts to chuck, and butchers can select different parts to grind and blend to create different flavor profiles,” he says.

“But if you want something a little different, grind up some brisket or short rib,” he says. “Twenty to 25 percent of either, blended with 80-20 chuck, provides a different taste and texture. Both cuts add some sweetness and some richness. Brisket and short rib cook differently than chuck, but when blended together can make for a complex flavor profile.”

This blend combines the buttery flavor of the brisket with the richness of the short rib and the traditional beefy flavor of chuck. The end result is a juicy burger exploding with layers of flavor.

“We first observed the trend of mixing cuts and meats from different protein sources popping up on boutique restaurant menus as a result of the ‘better burger’ craze,” says Casey Baker, marketing and foodservice trends specialist-Cargill Value-Added Meats, Cargill, Wichita, Kan. “Many small, independent restaurants were mixing proteins to create unique, signature burgers. Since then, we’ve received numerous customer inquiries for a variety of burger blends, including chicken/beef, prime rib, pork/beef and sirloin/chuck, amongst others.

Motz says the best way to cook a burger is to scoop the meat onto a hot flat pan and use a spatula to flatten it into shape.

“In addition to the better-burger trend, restaurants became interested in the idea of adding different proteins as a way to offset the high cost of beef,” she adds. In response, the company has created a number of products involving beef burgers blended with different meats and cuts.

“So, the blended products serve two purposes. First, they are a high-end, gourmet product for better burger consumers,” Baker says. “For others, it is a value product. Our goal is to collaborate with our customers to find innovative solutions that meet their needs for protein offerings while adding value to their business.”

Motz does not suggest blending meat from different animal species (i.e., bison, cow, deer, elk, etc.) into one patty. “They cook at different rates and also react to heat very differently,” he says. “The only species that mix well are beef and pork.”

The same thought process holds true for adding other ingredients into ground meat. “Other than maybe a little salt, adding other ingredients to raw ground meat is just a bad idea. It’s no longer a burger. It’s meatloaf,” Motz says. “Plus, the burger cooks at different rates, which means other ingredients in the center cook differently than ones on the surface.”

For example, raw onions touching the skillet might burn while the ones in the center stay crunchy. This, however, is not true with blending meats and other ingredients for use in sausages.

“Even how you grind the meat makes a difference,” Motz adds. You can choose between fine, medium and coarse ground meat for adjusting the burger’s texture.

As one would think, a fine grind delivers a smoother bite and mouthfeel because most of the tough fibrous tissue, also known as sinew, is ground up. A coarse grind, on the other hand, has a rougher and chunkier texture because the meat is in larger pieces and there’s sinew. Medium is in between the two.

Looks do matter

Consumers will judge a burger by its appearance, which is impacted by how the meat is ground, how the patty is formed and how the patty is cooked. Burgers can be baked, broiled, fried or grilled. According to Motz, a flattop pan or skillet works best, but he recognizes not everyone likes this method, or simply that today’s foodies want to explore alternative cooking methods. To satisfy this curiosity, Motz will soon publish a second book on burgers. This one is a cookbook that discusses cooking methods and outcomes.

In his opinion, the best way to cook a burger is to scoop the ground meat onto a hot flat pan and use a spatula to flatten into shape. “The next best option is to hand pat the burger into shape,” he says. “Machine-compressed burgers are typically vacuum packed, and that lack of air can make for a dense burger.”

Cooks must remember that for maximum food safety, USDA recommends cooking burgers to an internal temperature of 160°F. This typically takes from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness and size of the burger.

Once that burger is cooked, it becomes a canvas for all sorts of toppings. That’s another story.

Donna Berry is a contributing editor from Chicago and is the owner of Dairy & Food Communications.