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Holly Ebel: Where’s the beef?

August 29, 2018

It doesn’t seem fair that the Labor Day weekend is already here — this summer was way too short. It also signals that summer cookouts will soon be replaced by soups and stews. But not quite yet. There is still time to enjoy the grill’s greatest hits, like steaks, ribs, and that all-time favorite, hamburgers.

Those all-beef patties are one of the favorites to grill and to order out. Everyone it seems loves them. So much that most of us eat three a week. I don’t know who counts, but estimates are that Americans consume 50 billion a year.

Interestingly, most of the burgers are ordered at a restaurant or a fast food spot, though they are definitely a favorite for backyard cooking. Why do we love them so much? Because they are so tasty, so easy to eat and, at home, quick to cook, either in a frying pan or on the grill.

Toppings also add to their appeal, and that is where chefs and home cooks have gone wild. The classic toppings of onion, tomato, lettuce, pickles, ketchup and mustard are still our favorites, but these days other items are being added. You can have avocado, pineapple, bacon, a fried egg, coleslaw, mushrooms, pickled jalapeno, all sorts of cheeses — from goat to American — even Fritos for crunch.

That’s just for starters. There’s more. Forget the regular plain hamburger — all sorts of ingredients are being added to the actual meat mixture. Take a look at the burgers in the meat cases at Hy-Vee and Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe and you’ll get the idea.

So what makes a good burger? The meat. While there are variations, the best, according to chefs and butchers I spoke with, seems to be a 80/20 ratio of beef to fat. Evan Timm of Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe says they offer 80 or 85 or 90 parts beef to fat. Federally inspected every day, they grind the whole muscle for their meat and each one is hand-made.

There are, however, other ground beef options for you to try. A combination of flank steak and boneless short ribs makes for good flavor and texture. A butcher can do that for you. Another combination is 3 parts beef to 1 part pork. Not as popular but still a favorite for some are bison and venison burgers.

And a great burger doesn’t have to be made with just beef. You can have ground chicken or turkey as well as ground lamb and even fish. Try a salmon burger sometime.

In these days of hot spices on everything, it’s advised that home cooks keep their burger seasonings simple — salt, pepper, maybe a shake of garlic powder and a splash of Worcestershire. Definitely no fillers — this is a burger you’re making, not meatloaf.

As you form the burgers, don’t handle the meat too much. Form a ball and then gently flatten it out. If it’s pouring outside and you can’t grill, a cast iron skillet is a fabulous way to achieve burger nirvana.

A burger needs a bun, a foil for the meat. Here it is your personal choice and there are many: pretzel buns, ciabatta, Kaiser, onion. Can you guess what most prefer? Store-bought soft and squishy hamburger buns. Pepperidge Farm makes a good one.

Don’t feel like grilling again but want a good burger? Rochester has many choices. Newt’s has been known for its burgers for years. Then there is Forager’s, Chester’s, Canadian Honker, all make good ones. On a friend’s recommendation I had one at Pescara, where I usually have mussels. It was terrific.

New to the burger scene is Hot Chip, in the former ZZest space on 16th Street. Inspired by chef Justin Schoville, there are 10 burger choices, all with various toppings. The house burger consists of two 4-ounce patties served on one of the best toasted buns you’ll ever have. Also available are six other choices focusing more on vegetarian ingredients.

I had the No. 2 burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo, a combination that has been my favorite since I was 10.

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