The meat of the matter

You know how important burgers are, and the stats back you up.

Seventy-seven percent of beef eaten out of the home is in the form of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Burgers made with proteins other than beef are also a growing trend. So what should you buy to set your menu apart?

Mark Ford, president of J&D Foodservice, a broadline distributor and meat processor in Fresno, CA, sees an uptick in burger spending by restaurants. The cost of the raw material isn't changing much, but his thousand or so customers, 70% to 80% of whom offer burgers, are spending more for quality.

"Many customers choose a restaurant based on the quality of their burgers," says Ford. "Consistency of quality is the most important consideration." With pre-formed patties, the burgers purchased by most big users, there are several factors that impact quality.

Here's the beef
Tops in cost are burgers made from American Kobe beef followed by Certified Angus (a brand, not a cattle breed) and ground sirloin, round and chuck (those identified by a muscle primal). Chuck is the meat most commonly ground for burgers because it's fatty and juicy, says Mark Lobel, co-owner of Lobel's Meats in New York City. But, he adds, "a blend of ground chuck and ground sirloin produces a burger that's both juicy and full of flavor."

USDA standards dictate that products labeled "ground beef," "hamburger" or "pure beef" must be 100 percent beef. They can come from any portion of a boneless carcass and contain a combination of beef cuts. "The more chuck in the blend, the more my customers like it," reports Ford. Prices for J&D burgers range from $1.69 per pound for regular all-beef patties to $2.75 per pound for Angus beef.

Lean:fat ratio
Purchasers can specify regular or coarse ground; fat content, unless specified, does not exceed 22 percent. The leaner the beef, the less a patty will shrink, but fat adds flavor and juiciness. J&D sells three formulas; Ford feels his 80-20 lean:fat patties offer the most versatility and balance.

The composition of the burger is adjusted after the initial coarse grind. Then it's ground for a second, and usually final, time through smaller plates. For a finer "burger" grind, the meat is ground through 3/32- to 1/8-inch diameter holes.

Fresh vs. frozen
After the final grind, the product is either packaged in bulk or formed into patties. Years ago, fresh was the norm, but these days, blast-frozen patties dominate because operators don't like to handle fresh inventory, says George Lombardi, director of sales for Chicago-based Roma Packing Company. "The burgers are frozen within 30 minutes of grinding to lock in freshness," he adds.

Patties are frozen by two methods. Mechanical freezing forces very cold air at high pressure and intensity over the unpackaged product. Cryogenic freezing passes individual patties through tunnels where liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide is used as the freezing agent. Both techniques produce the more desirable IQF patties.

Although most restaurants buy frozen patties, both Roma and J&D have a roster of "fresh-only" customers, especially among smaller chains and independents. "Fresh-ground gives operators more control over price and quality," says Lombardi, "and they can partner with purveyors to get the best product ground the day of delivery."

Sizing it up
"Bigger is better" seems to be the trend in burger buying. Size specs go according to the number of patties per pound; 3:1 (three patties per pound) is a popular spec, although some restaurants are now requesting 2:1; 4:1 is common in the QSR segment. Non-commercial operators and kids' menu buyers may go as small as 10:1.

Patties are usually in round shapes, but oval, square and natural or "home-style" are other choices. Operators can also spec a scored or perforated surface for faster cooking.

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