The Burger Lab

Burger recipes and cooking tips from J. Kenji López-Alt.

The Burger Lab: Salting Ground Beef

It's time for another round of The Burger Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

WARNING: This article contains graphic images of burgers being smashed, maimed, cut, tortured, and otherwise destroyed. The material is not suitable for children, pregnant women, or individuals who show an undue degree of compassion for ground beef.

DISCLAIMER: Before I get any comments along the lines of, "ugh—why are all those burgers overcooked? I'm a tough guy and like my meat bloody rare," I'd like you to know that this week, I'm bending to the wills of several readers who requested more coverage of medium-and-beyond burgers. This one's for you guys.

With all that fine print out of the way, start by taking a look at the two burgers below, then tell me which one you'd rather eat.

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Both of these burgers were made from the same cut of beef (chuck eye) from the same cow (Bessie), cut and trimmed the same way, ground on the same grinder (KitchenAid) with the same die at the same temperature (3/16-inch, well chilled), formed with the same hands (mine) to the same weight and size (5 ounces, 4.5-inches across), cooked in the same skillet (cast iron) at the same temperature (ripping hot) for the same amount of time (4 minutes total), and sliced open with the same knife (very sharp).

So why does option left look and taste like a tender, juicy, well-textured beauty, and option right, like a solid, rubbery object that would look more at home on an alien autopsy table?

It all has to do with this:

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

NaCl—regular old table salt.

Before the explanation, let's step back a bit.

Methods for Salting Burger Patties

When it comes to seasoning, burger cooks fall into two camps: those that season only the exterior of the patty just before cooking, and those that work the salt and pepper right into the meat. I've always been a member of the first camp—it's just the way I was taught to make burgers, and I've blindly followed the method since then. Then I got to thinking: French training emphasizes the importance of seasoning every component of a dish so that every bite is well-seasoned. So shouldn't a burger be better if you season the meat before forming the patties? Or better yet, even before it's ground so that the salt is evenly distributed throughout the entire burger instead of concentrated on the exterior? Could all those other burger cooks actually be right?

This week I decided to test the matter scientifically by running three different patties through a gantlet of tests—tests that it truly pained a burgerphile like myself to witness. Fortunately, the final results settled the issue in my mind once and for all.

We've already seen the magic that salt can do to meat proteins in our turkey brining story; now let's take a look at what it can do to burgers. The three groups of patties I formed were all made from 100% ground chuck, which I bought as a single roast and treated the following ways:

  • Patty 1: Seasoned only on the exterior just before cooking.
  • Patty 2: Seasoned by tossing the ground meat and sauce in a metal bowl before forming the patties.
  • Patty 3: Seasoned by salting the cubes of beef before passing them through the grinder and forming patties.

Just to reiterate, each testing group was treated exactly the same with the exception of the point at which they get salted. The amount of salt was the same: 1 teaspoon kosher salt (the equivalent of 1/2 teaspoon table salt, or 2% by weight) per 5-ounce patty.

Now, on to the testing:

Test 1: Grind Strand Length

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On the left is what batches one and two (neither of which are salted until some point after being ground) look like as they exit the die on the grinder. On the right is batch three, which was ground after being salted.

Already, the difference is quite clear. While the grind on the left is made up of little pieces of meat no more than a half-inch long or so, the salted grind forms long worms of beef—up to three inches or longer!

Just as salt dissolves some of the meat proteins on the exterior of a hunk of turkey or pork in a brine, salt will dissolve the proteins on a cube of beef. Once dissolved, the proteins can much more easily cross-link with each other. Essentially, the meat becomes more "sticky" to itself, allowing it to stick together and form these long strands.

Test 2: Patty Structure

20091211-salting-meat-bent-composite.jpgFor the next test, I formed the beef into 5-ounce, 4.5-inch wide patties. At this point, note that prior to forming the patties, batch two had salt added to the bowl of ground beef, which was worked into the meat via gentle tossing. I tossed batches one and three in their bowls in the exact same manner that I tossed batch two in order to eliminate any variables and ensure that any differences in texture are solely a function of the salt and not of the mechanical action of working the salt into the meat.

After forming the patties, I gently lifted each one and draped them over a wooden rod 3/8-inch wide, and 1/2-inch high.

Again, the difference is clear:

  • Patty 1 started to split apart, reveling a loose interior with not much internal cohesion.
  • Patty two also started to split apart, but just barely—it is much more supple and cohesive.
  • Patty three showed no signs of splitting. The surface of the patty remained completely intact, despite being pressed out by half an inch.

Here's a pretty close approximation of a burger's structure: try to imaging the patty as being made up of hundreds of tiny balls of beef. Each one of these balls of beef is covered in strips of velcro (exposed proteins), most of which are closed up, but some of which are open. The exposed pieces of velcro help one piece of meat stick to the other, lending the burgers a bit of cohesion. Salt causes many more of these strips of velcro to open up (it dissolves proteins), creating many more sticky surfaces, and making it much easier for them to stick to each. The balls stick together more closely and tightly, and the result is a patty with a much more resilient, tight structure.

Up to this point, it was clear to me that deciding when to salt your meat makes a huge difference, but as of yet, I'm still unsure which way is better. Do I want more cohesion in my burgers? Would the extra support perhaps help fat stay locked into the patty as it cooks, or give it a better mouthfeel as I chew it?

On to the carnage:

Test 3: Blunt Impact (I.E. Smashing to Bits)

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Ideally, I would have built a set of robotic teeth to chew these burgers with the exact same force to determine how tough they are, or at the very least, I should have chewed them myself, but I figured for the sake of my sanity and the stomachs of readers, I should find a more photo-friendly method of testing.

To that end, I dropped a 6.5 pound LeCreuset Dutch oven from a height of two feet directly onto each patty after slicing them in half to examine their internal structure. For the record, this is an awful lot of impact. It should give a pretty good indication of how the patties are going to break down in your mouth.

N.B.: You are advised to drape your kitchen in protective plastic before attempting to recreate this experiment at home. Juices will fly.

  • Patty 1 was completely splattered. Juice hit walls, aprons, and forearms three feet away. Tenderness rating: high.
  • Patty 2 was mildly misshapen. It could still be picked up in a single intact piece. Tenderness rating: moderate.
  • Patty 3 showed no visible deformation. A small amount of splattered juices, but it was almost as if the pot bounced right back off of it. Tenderness rating: low.

Conclusion

So what's the moral of the story? Unless you like your burgers with the resilient bouncy texture of a sausage, refrain from getting the meat anywhere near the salt until just before you cook it. In a way, this totally makes sense. Sausage meat is seasoned well before grinding in order to perform this very function: breaking down the meat proteins to form a tighter, more cohesive structure.

A burger's joy lies on the other end of the spectrum. A loose, coarse, open structure is a desirable characteristic, allowing the meat to break down into small pieces in your mouth, while providing plenty of hiding spots for hot juices to collect inside the patty, ready to gush and dribble out the moment you bite into it.

Still want more evidence? Take a final look at the same two burgers from the beginning of the story, this time head-on.

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Not salted until just before cooking = loose, tender meat.

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Salted before forming the patties = resilient, sausage-like texture. Great for charcuterie, but sorry monsieurs, it just won't fly here in America.

I claim a conclusive victory for the "salt just before cooking" camp, and as a reward for making it through all those photos of wasted burgers, I leave you with the following porn:

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About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org, about sustainable food and cooking..

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