SlideshowThe Burger Lab: A 60-Day Dry-Aged Home-Ground Prime Rib Burger (That You Will Probably Never Make At Home)
It's time for another round of The Food 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. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Burgers made with aged meat are making big inroads into the New York burger scene (and I presume around the country as well). Places like, say, Minetta Tavern and their infamous Black Label Burger have not only introduced people to the power of a bit of aged funk in a good burger, but have actually created a fervor for it. Is it possible to recreate some of that magic at home?
The short answer is, unfortunately, no.
To get dry-aged flavor into your burger, you need to start with dry-aged meat. And I'm talking real dry aged meat; The kind that's been stored in the open air for at least 45 days or so to really develop some flavor. When dry-aging a steak, the purpose is twofold: to tenderize (which occurs within the first 21 to 28 days), and to intensify flavor (which doesn't really start happening until after 21 days and continues well into 8+ week territory).
With a burger, tenderization is not really an issue—the stuff gets ground up anyway. It's really only flavor you care about, which means that you need to start with meat that's been aged at least a few weeks, preferably longer.
This meat is expensive. At a standard New York butcher or high end supermarket, aged rib steaks, New York strips, or Porterhouse steaks (the three cuts typically sold aged) are in the $25 to $30/pound range, and somehow it just feels wrong to cut up a beautiful steak just to grind it.
So what do the fancy burger joints do? Well, when you trim a ton of meat the way, say, Pat LaFrieda does, you end up with a lot of trim that's actually still quite edible; it just happens to be in small pieces or come from muscle groups that aren't as desirable as those that come in a high end steak. This trim and muscle can then be collected and ground, packing dry-aged flavor into a burger without quite the sticker shock of a dry-aged steak.
That's all well and good, but it doesn't leave much hope for home cooks who don't have first dibs on Pat LaFrieda's prime rib trim.
So here's the truth: I'm not even going to pretend that anyone is going to actually make this recipe start to finish from scratch, or even from not-scratch. It's just not practical unless you own a restaurant or are planning on aging 80 pounds of beef yourself and saving the trim to make a half dozen or so burgers. So you can consider the slideshow above to pretty much be straight-up food porn.
How did I manage to do it, you ask? Well, I aged 80 pounds of beef myself and saved the trim.
The thing about aged beef is that the outer layers are the funkiest. The very exterior is generally inedible and must be discarded. But the creamy white fat in the fat cap should have a deep, rich, almost blue cheese-like aroma, and that aroma will get ground right through your burgers, flavoring them. Because trim comes from the fatty outer areas, the burgers you end up with are very rich. I'd guess upwards of 30 to 35%.
I figured with the strong aroma of the meat that grilling, with its equally powerful smoky/singed flavors, would be the best bet, but it proved to be a method that was a bit too flavorful. Most of the funk of the aged beef was lost in the char of the grill.
Smashing was much more successful. Pressing thin patties down hard into a hot surface to give maximum browning and crispness brought out the flavor of the meat while leaving it nice and juicy.
But my favorite method was to cook the burger in a cast iron skillet. Perhaps it's because dry-aged flavor is something I associate so strongly with steaks that it seems wrong to treat a dry-aged burger as anything else. It comes out with a beautifully crisp crust with plenty of nooks and crannies left behind by rendering fat for gooey cheese to melt into.
Because of the amount of fat in the patty, the method makes a ton of smoke, so make sure you've got your fans on full blast, or, better yet, work outdoors by heating your cast iron skillet over a roaring hot coal fire.
I'm the kind of guy who likes to keep his toppings simple. Onions, pickles, American cheese, and special sauce are my jam. As are Martin's potato rolls.
Let the drooling commence...
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.