Note: You may already know J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (of Good Eater) 'round these parts from his previous burger exploits—making the Blumenburger and his 8-hour 12-burger binge. We're pleased to announce that he'll stop by every other week to give the comprehensive Kenji treatment to burger recipes this new column, The Burger Lab. In his inaugural post he analyzes eight kinds of beef cuts to find his ideal burger blend.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

There's nothing new about blending different cuts of meat to make a better burger. But despite all I've read, and despite the fact that I've been fiddling with burger blends at least a few times a week for the past couple of years, I've yet to see a good, thorough, scientific analysis of what actually makes the best burger. Is it fat content? Texture? Flavor? Presumably all three, but what does one cut have to offer over another? Why mix three cuts instead of two? Would a fourth cut make it even better?

Due to the intense marketing efforts of liquor distributors, most whiskey drinkers in this country (myself included) tend to favor single malts as the pinnacle of expression of the form. But we're doing ourselves a disfavor. Surely blending whiskeys—that careful balancing act to achieve the perfect mix of high notes and low notes, of sweetness and smokiness—is a job equally impressive and intricate if not more delicious than distilling the spirit itself? And if the whiskey industry has Master blenders to manage their blends, surely the burger—a food with an equally noble heritage and devout following—requires just as much attention.

To this end, I decided to do a tasting of "single-malt burgers, carefully noting what distinguishes each cut from the rest, as well as cataloguing all the flavors that come under the umbrella term "beefy," in the hopes of coming up with the ultimate blend. The Blue Label Burger, if you will. I pulled out my boning knife and meat grinder, and headed to the butcher, determined to master the art of burger blending.

In choosing cuts of beef that could go into the burger, I first made a broad decision: This was to be an everyman's burger. Fancy-pants burgers exist, but they are contrary to the spirit of the sandwich. There would be no dry-aged cuts, no special breed cows, and nothing that is more suited for a steakhouse in my blend. Burgers, like good charcuterie, are about taking the cheap and ordinary, and converting it into the sublime. For this reason, I set an upper limit of $8 a pound for the cuts in my mix, which narrowed down my options to eight cuts: sirloin, chuck, short rib, skirt steak, hanger steak, flap meat, brisket, and a surprise entry—oxtail.

Sirloin ($5/pound)

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Location: Top half of the cow, towards the back, just before the rump.
Alternatives: Butt steak, sirloin butt, sirloin steak, center-cut roast, culotte steak.
Fat Content: Low.
Flavor: It's often sold as the more expensive pre-ground option to chuck at the supermarket, though I'm baffled as to why. It is extremely tender, but lacks the fat necessary to keep it juicy. Its flavor offers a slight sour grassiness and nuttiness, but it's more of a blank canvas than a beef bomb.

Chuck ($4 /pound)

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Location: Top half of the cow, just behind the shoulders.
Alternatives: 7-rib roast, blade steak, flatiron steak, round bone roast
Fat Content: High.
Flavor: Chuck is like burger meat designed by committee: It's got a good lean to fat ratio, it's well-balanced in flavor, but it lacks real character. As a single meat, it makes the kind of burger that's tough to find fault with, but won't have you sucking the juices out of your napkin when you're done. If you've got only one choice to make at the butcher, this is the one to go with.

Skirt Steak ($8/pound)

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Location: Lower half of the cow, running from the plate to the flank. Cut from the cow's main daphragm muscle.
Alternatives: Fajitas meat, Philadelphia steak.
Fat Content: Low.
Flavor: This chef's cut can be a little difficult to track down in some areas. It has a strong, gamey flavor, and a distinct sourness. The texture in its whole form is rope-y, requiring you to cut it thinly against the grain. When ground, it acquires a slightly gritty texture that on its own, comes across as an almost dirty or dusty quality.

Short Rib ($5 /pound)

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Location: Short sections of rib with attached meat, cut from the front half of the cow, just below the loin.
Alternatives: Braising strips (boneless short ribs).
Fat Content: Very high.
Flavor: Extremely rich and nutty, with no grassiness or sourness at all. This cut is all umami, and is quite overwhelming on its own. The high degree fine marbling helps it stay moist even when the burgers are cooked beyond medium-rare.

Flap Meat ($6/pound)

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Location: From the back of the short loin—where porterhouse and T-bones come from—but closer to the belly of the animal.
Alternatives: Top sirloin tips, beef sirloin tips, sirloin tip steak, bavette d'aloyau.
Fat Content: Moderate.
Flavor: One of the most savory cuts around, with a substantial, chewy texture. Like short ribs, it lacks offsetting grassy notes, but unlike short ribs, it also lacks fat. Ground on its own, it has a grainy texture that crumbles more easily than some finer-grained cuts.

Hanger Steak ($7/pound)

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Location: "Hangs" between the last rib on the cow and the loin
Alternatives: bavette, hanging tenderloin, butcher's steak, often misspelled "hangar" steak, but it's beef, not a bloody airplane.
Fat Content: Moderate.
Flavor: This butcher's cut is loved by chef's for its gaminess and inexpensiveness. It has a distinct, almost cheesy, rancid overtone (in a good way). Its biggest drawback is its gritty, crumbly texture when ground, and the lack of high notes in its flavor profile.

Brisket ($7/pound)

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Location: From the belly region of the front half of the cow.
Fat Content: Depending on butchering, moderate to low.
Flavor: Extremely grassy and sour, with a distinct aroma of iron and liver. A little grainy when ground, and completely lacking in rich, savory notes. It's no wonder this cut is often pickled for use a corned beef or pastrami—it tastes almost pickled on its own.

Ox-Tail ($4/pound)

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Location: Do I really need to clarify?
Fat Content: Ridiculously high.
Flavor: Immensely savory, with richness, nuttiness, and gaminess to spare. Thanks to the diligent work of flies, this muscle is used constantly throughout the cow's life, and as a result, is about as flavorful as they come. It's as if the cow swallowed an entire other cow,* compressed it, and shoved it all into its own tail. Fattiness that doesn't just blur the line between delicious and over-indulgent, but gives them both a miss, jumping straight into the realm of obscene. It leaves a coat in your mouth reminiscent of drinking a beef-flavored candle.

*Legally not possible since the mad cow scare.

Creating the Blend

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Through this tasting, I discovered that beef has four basic flavors:

  • Nutty: Comes across as a cheesy, almost parmesan-esque flavor.
  • Grassy/sour: Where beef gets its high notes. Can come across as a slight metallic, iron flavor.
  • Rich/umami: Different from fattiness, and gives you a full, meaty sensation in your mouth and on the back of your tongue.
  • Gamey/livery: In the wrong context can come across as almost rancid, but in moderation can add depth to an otherwise boring blend.

In order for a burger to invoke that sensation that we describe as "beefy," all four of these flavor components need to be in balance. My first line of thought was to try and pick just two cuts of meat that offer a good cross-section of these flavors, and provides ample, but not overwhelming fat. To this end, I tried various blends consisting of short ribs or oxtail (for rich, nutty flavors), combined variously with skirt steak, hanger, and brisket (for high notes and gaminess). Immediately, oxtail was right out—it was simply too much for my mouth to handle. Though the flavor of the short rib blends were alright, they brought me to my second important discovery—texture.

Finding the Right Texture

20090923cooking.jpgIn all three mixes, the gritty, crumbly texture of the cuts I was mixing in with the short rib was ruining the overall burger. I thought that perhaps grinding it twice, or grinding it with a smaller die would solve the problem, but no good—these rough-grained cuts have a hard time holding together once ground. The only way I could get the burgers to form properly was to massage them and press them into submission, at which point grittiness was replaced by toughness, an equally undesirable state of affairs.

That's when I realized—perhaps sirloin does have a use after all? Though it's not too flavorful on its own, it's very tender, and binds extremely well. I ground up a new batch of meat, this time mixing in one part short rib and brisket (the best tasting of the previous blends), to two parts sirloin. Much better—the burgers held together perfectly, and had a nice mix of textures: the tenderness of the sirloin, combined with the slight, steak-like chew of the short rib. And with the brisket only making up a quarter of the mix, its crumbly texture was completely eradicated. Unfortunately, gone too was a lot of the flavors. Since sirloin is so bland, the flavor of the short rib and brisket that came through was still perfectly balanced—there just wasn't enough of it.

I found that I could increase the ratio of short rib and brisket to sirloin up until they were all in nearly equal parts (any more than that, and cohesion issues resumed), giving me the best burger blend yet, but I knew there was something better out there. Then I realized—the oxtail that I had so quickly dismissed out of hand might actually be useful. With its intense savory/nutty/gamey flavor, as well as its great fat content, could I use it in place of the short ribs to boost up my beef? It worked perfectly. Now that it was only a bit player in a larger mix, its intensity was largely played down, perfectly tempered by the bland tenderness of the sirloin, and the high notes from the brisket.

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In retrospect, it all seems so obvious: oxtail in a burger? Of course! But like all good things in life, this burger blend is still a work in progress, and every time I play with it, I discover something new. Anybody else out there have any good burger-grinding tips? I've tinkered with adding suet and bone marrow for added fat, but have yet to seriously document the efforts in an organized way.

Continue here for The Blue Label Burger Blend »

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