You can trace this highbrow hamburger trend back to New York butcher and star of the Food Network's Meat Men, Pat LaFrieda. He's the third-generation meat cutter behind Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors, which supplies Shake Shack with its daily fresh-ground meats. He also does it for Dandelion, as well as Starr's restaurants Butcher & Singer, Jones, and Continental. Known affectionately as the "Magician of Meat" for the custom-ground burger blends he has developed for Minetta Tavern and the Spotted Pig in New York, and Pub & Kitchen here in Philadelphia, he has raised the bar for burgers by combining different prime cuts, in some instances even adding pricey dry-aged beef.
"It's like freshly ground spices or freshly ground coffee; it just tastes better," LaFrieda gave as an explanation for why fresh-ground beats prepackaged burgers. "When I'm eating one of my burgers, the flavor is like I cut the center of a rare roast beef out and ate it. It's sweet, and has such a positive freshness to it that you just can't get in something that was ground days ago."
Chef Matt Levin loves LaFrieda's burgers, but he prefers to grind his own in his kitchen at Square Peg, allowing him to control exactly what goes into them. "It's just like buying whole fishes," Levin says. "You know what you have. You saw the fish, you know what it looks like. It's the same thing. You see the pieces of meat; you know what's going into your burger."
And what's good for professional kitchens can be just as good when applied to backyard grilling. It's no secret that supermarket ground beef and frozen burger patties are loaded with low-quality meat scraps, and often, until recently, included the reviled "pink slime" and other questionable additives. Grinding your own beef cuts out any uncertainties about what might be in it.
All that's needed is access to a butcher, a meat grinder or food-grinding attachment for a KitchenAid stand mixer, a little sense of culinary adventure, and a hunger for hamburgers.
LaFrieda's basic blend combines equal parts of beef shoulder, the fattier clod portion of the shoulder, brisket with the deckle fat attached, and boneless short ribs. The shoulder brings a sirloin-like flavor to the mix, while the clod's inter-muscle fat keeps the patty from drying out on the grill. Brisket adds depth and some bite, or firmness, to the texture. And the short rib lends a richness that amplifies the mixture's beefy qualities.
LaFrieda uses whole muscles when making commercial quantities of ground beef, which means grinding an entire 25-pound clod is no problem at all. For homemade burger blends, talk to a butcher about which cuts he has available that include the clod. Cuts like clod roast, shoulder center roast, blade roast, top blade roast, cross-rib roast, top blade steaks, and flat irons can all be used as substitutes, provided they are well marbled.
At Cuba Libre, chef Guillermo Pernot makes a blend of equal parts skirt steak, pork shoulder, and chorizo for a Cuban-style burger known as a frita. He seasons it with paprika, cumin, and pepper.
"By grinding the meat yourself, you get a better burger," Pernot said. "It has some sort of structure to it, but doesn't have any of that dry density of, like, a McDonald's burger."
Jason Cichonski, the hotshot chef behind the trendy restaurant Ela, is so committed to serving the freshest possible burger that he makes only 10 a day for his happy hour. His blend uses equal parts sirloin and short rib. To that he adds a secret blend of seasonings to bring out and enhance the umami quality. Though he wouldn't divulge what exactly goes into his burger, he did offer some tips (and a recipe) for a close copy. He says adding things like Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, and bourbon will boost the umami factor. But he cautions that just a little bit goes a long way.
"I think less is definitely more for a burger," Cichonski said. "You don't want too much seasoning, because then it starts tasting like a meatball or meat loaf."
At Square Peg, Levin prefers a simple brisket-based burger. His daily grind is a 70 to 30 percent mix of deckle-on brisket and beef kidney fat. He likes the brisket's rich beefiness, and toothy texture. He says the kidney fat, a harder fat, doesn't melt out of the burger as easily, and helps make the brisket tender while cooking.
"What Shake Shack does is out of bounds; those burgers are crazy good," Levin said. But even the places using "old-school crappy burgers" are adding upscale touches like beautiful Bibb lettuce, Niman Ranch smoked bacon, aged cheddar cheese. "And it's taking, like, fast food to white collar," he said.