I recall there was only one burger, you could specify the toppings or have it "all-the-way". Ones with mayonnaise were called "sissy burgers". The buns were toasted, and these guys had no fries or onion rings... all you could get were bags of Frito's and some other chips. You could also buy a jalapeno pepper in a wax paper bag that was stapled to a poster-board sitting by the cash register. If they had soda pop, I don't recall ever having one because I always got a chocolate malt. It was a real treat going out for one of these burgers, not because we didn't have good burgers at home..... but because it was a grand experience for a seven year old. And also because of those malts.
Because burgers start off, for the most part, as kind of a plain sandwich, it's not uncommon to see many varieties of them, however..... mostly the differences are focused on different toppings. You know the drill. Some places have signature burgers with names like the Wild West, or The Hawaiian. Other places let you add your own toppings from a list of 8 or 10 items. Then there are the franchise burger places that have a nationwide menu which might include double and triple patties, bacon strips and extra cheese. Sheesh, these are worse than a pizza with eleven different toppings. Only in America right? The last steer out of the gate in the burger rodeo are the burger bars or "burger bistro's" that are opening up in trendy neighborhoods. Here you can get a $30+ gourmet burger and choose from fifty kinds of beer to wash it down with. Good? I would hope so. Are these for me? No way...
So, the quest for the perfect burger begins. What am I looking for? Good texture, beefy flavor, even doneness and lot's of moisture would be a good place to start. Once I achieve that, the addition of a few fresh toppings, and of course a bun and I'm good to go.
For starters, it's all in the beef, everything else compliments the beef. If the beef is not good, the burger won't be good. There is all kinds of beef out there, but I'm going to break it down into two main categories. Store ground and home ground. If you can grind it at home, do so.
GRINDING TIPS: Keep the meat very cold throughout the entire process (grinding, seasoning, forming and holding before cooking. This will help with moisture retention. You can add a little cold water or some minced onion to the meat for more moisture.
Pro-Tip: Don't over process your meat by grinding it too fine. Instead of grinding through a coarse plate and then a fine plate, try grinding it through the coarse plate twice.
Pro-Tip: When forming your patties, be gentle and keep compression to a minimum. The patties should be handled enough to shape them, and firm enough to keep them intact during cooking. Some folks will use two forks to when forming and shaping patties.
REGULAR GROUND BEEF
This is the standard in the supermarket. It comes from pieces of meat that can't be sold as something else and from trimmings from a variety of cuts. About your only choice with regular ground beef is the fat content. It will be marked 70/30, 80/20, 90/10 or something along those lines. The first number represents the amount of lean meat, the second number represents the amount of fat.
SPECIAL GROUND BEEF
The next step up on the ground beef ladder is meat ground from a particular muscle or muscle group. Ground round, ground sirloin, ground chuck all, and ground brisket come from a particular area of a beef. These choices are common in the meat case or at your butcher shop. You can also grind these at home.
Ground chuck is usually 15% to 20% fat.
Ground sirloin and round is usually 10% to 12% fat.
Ground brisket will be 20% + fat.
It is possible that USDA Choice meats will have too high of a fat content for burger. USDA Select meat is often a better value for grinding.
CUSTOM GROUND BEEF BLEND
This is a high end choice. You won't find these "blend" options in the meat case, and it will be special order for the butcher shop. Unless they are doing something like this for a restaurant customer, you will have to supply the ratios. But just like the special grind, it's really easy for you to grind this at home. I'm going to give you some recipes to get you started. Don't be afraid to experiment.
1. 50% brisket - 50% sirloin
2. 50% chuck - 50% sirloin
3. 33% brisket - 33% chuck - 33% sirloin
4. 40% chuck - 40% boneless short ribs - 20% brisket
5. 50% sirloin - 25% chuck - 25% brisket
One thing to consider is supplementing some flank steak for brisket. For example #1 calls for 50% brisket and 50% sirloin. You could make that 25% brisket, 25% flank, and 50% sirloin.
BUFFALO & BISON BURGER
Well, it's the same thing. It's technically bison, and of course there are some varieties like beef-a-lo, but for the most part bison is buffalo and buffalo is bison. It's a wonderful option to have because it's lower in fat than most beef burger and has just a hint of wild flavor. I live in the heart of buffalo country and can honestly say buffalo burger is an excellent value. I enjoy buffalo burger as much as other upscale cuts like steaks or tenderloin roasts. Sometimes I use it in sandwiches, but usually I make a hamburger steak with it.
Seasonings are about the same as ground beef, it's best not to season heavily as you risk hiding the natural buffalo flavor. Because of it's lower fat content, I also recommend cooking it medium rare to keep it as moist as possible. In fact I like to add a little water or beer to the ground meat (I do the same thing to sausage). Some finely chopped onion blended into the meat will add some moisture and flavor.
These could be one of the most under burgers there are, a real sleeper. Lamb has a unique flavor, and it will take a variety of seasonings. Garlic, onion and rosemary are good choices, but don't be afraid to add in some heat from chilies or peppers. Beer or water are good liquids to mix into the meat before forming patties. Finely chopping the onion will work fine, but for some reason I like a coarser chop for lamb burgers.
Ground pork from the shoulder (butt, Boston butt) is an outstanding ground meat to season with salt and pepper and cook on the grill. In addition to being flavorful and moist it combines well with melted cheese and grilled onions. A pork patty-melt is wonderful. All-in-all pork burgers are a nice change-up from beef hamburgers. We often see ground pork made into sausage, which is fine... Sausage sandwiches are great. In fact when I make my link sausage I will reserve a few pounds and package it in bulk just for sausage burgers. My favorite seasoning recipe for pork burgers is the "Farm Sausage" on my sausage page. It's mild enough that it can be complimented with a slice of onion and some mustard on a hamburger bun.
WILD GAME BURGER.
I guess venison is the most popular game meat around, but in my neck of the woods we also have pronghorn (antelope), elk and moose. When your animal is processed it's common to wind up with quite a bit of ground meat. Not everyone is partial to wild game so some hunters I know play a game called "hide the wild flavor". In other words, they use that burger in spaghetti sauce, chili or in summer sausage. The best advice is to not overcook or over season wild game burgers, and tell folks up front you are serving wild game. Sausage is a great way to utilize your ground wild meat. I will often mix 60% wild game to 40% pork to improve the fat content and add moisture.
HOW TO COOK A BURGER
I guess the two main choices are pan fried or grilled. Both have advantages and as long as the grill or pan is not too hot either one is a good choice. I do like to brush or spray a light coating of oil on the pattie before cooking to insure against sticking. Be sure and let the pattie firm up before the first flip, then turn as needed to balance color and doneness.
If I want some smoky flavor, I'll start my burgers off with a raised direct or an indirect set-up, then finish closer to the coals. Otherwise, a medium-high bed of coals works fine.
A shake or two of Worcestershire sauce toward the end of cooking is a nice flavor bump. Any cheese should be added 3 or 4 minutes before the burger is done, and I'm not just talking about a slice of cheese.... try some blue cheese crumbles. Rest your burger just like you would a good steak.