Fact: If there's one way to instantly up your burger game and join the big leagues, it's to grind your own meat.
Freshly grinding meat, whether you do it yourself or ask a butcher, allows you complete control over flavor by blending different cuts (who knows what bits and pieces are in pre-ground packaged beef?). It offers superior texture with more loosely packed patties and a more open, juice-trapping structure. Finally, it's far safer, as any bacteria and other baddies introduced to the middle of a beef patty don't have a very long time to start multiplying inside the meat.*
*You can even briefly dunk the cut whole into a pot of boiling water to sterilize it before grinding.
But here's a question I get a lot: How coarsely should you grind that meat? I tested meat ground to two distinct levels with three different types of burgers to find out.
My KitchenAid Meat Grinder Attachment comes with two different grinding plates: one about 3/8ths of an inch, and the other 1/4-inch. For this testing, I used plain beef chuck which I cut into 1-inch cubes before chilling in the freezer (along with the rest of the grinder) and running through the grinder.
I started by grinding all of it through the 3/8ths-inch plate...
...then re-ground half of that mix through the 1/4-inch plate.**
**The photo makes it look like the coarsely ground beef was much fattier, but that was only the beginning of the coarse batch, which I then mixed together thoroughly with the rest of the grind to evenly disperse the fat. Both grinds had identical fat contents in the end, or at least as close as I could manage to get identical.
Test 1: Smashed Patties
For my first test, I cooked two identical four-ounce pucks of beef using my Smashed Burger technique.
The pucks of beef were placed in a hot carbon steel skillet, then pressed down firmly with a spatula to brown before being scraped up, flipped, cooked briefly on the second side, and slipped into a bun.
While both patties ended up juicy and fatty inside (it's hard not to when a thin patty like that sizzles in its own rendered fat), the finely ground patty had a superior crust.
With smashed patties like these, the goal is really to maximize contact between the meat and the pan in order to encourage as much Maillard browning as possible before the meat becomes hopelessly tough. Because the finely ground meat is more malleable and less coarse, you can smash it more easily, improving contact, and thus browned flavor.
Test 2: Pan-Seared Fatter Patties
For this round, I formed larger six-ounce patties, which I cooked in a hot cast iron skillet, flipping the patties every 30 seconds or so until they developed a nice crust and a medium-rare interior (I measured them with a thermometer and brought them up to 125°F before pulling them out of the pan).
In this case, the coarsely ground patty won out. Both were plenty juicy, but the fine-ground patty was a little too dense for my taste—I want my burger to almost fall apart in my mouth, filling it with its warm, beefy juiciness.***
***I just read that sentence again and can't decide if it's something I want or something completely ew. Probably want.
The coarse patty, on the other hand, had nice meaty chunks in it with pockets of juices that oozed as I chewed.
That's a fine looking patty right there!
Test 3: Grilled
This time around I formed the same six-ounce patties (making sure to make a slight indentation in them to keep them flat as they cook) and grilled them over a bed of hot, hot coals to the same medium-rare internal temperature.
I was surprised at how different the internal results of the grilled patties were from the pan-seared. I mean, I know they come out different because on a grill juices and rendered fat drain away from the patty instead of collecting like they do in a pan, but the difference was pretty striking.
Tasting it made the difference even clearer. Grilling simply leads to dryer patties than pan-searing, though of course there's no other way to get that smoky grilled flavor into meat.
The coarsely ground patty was the driest of the bunch, despite its pink medium-rare center. As fat and juices render out, they simply leak away and fall onto the hot coals below, leaving the meat dry like a rung-out sponge. With a finer grind, on the other hand, the fat is emulsified into the lean more thoroughly, ensuring that it stays trapped in place even as it begins to liquefy.
For a grilled burger, as with a smashed patty, a finer grind is the way to go.
With that out of the way, it may finally be time to tackle the eternal question: toppings on top, or underneath?
But first, we feast!