Burgers are big business. The top 75 limited-service burger chains generated sales of more than $65 billion in 2010, according to Technomic. While the big three—McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—accounted for the majority of those sales, up-and-comers such as Shake Shack, Five Guys and Smashburger are increasing their share with burgers that promise more freshness and flavor, along with a touch of nostalgia. Non-commercial operators also are feeding the buzz, creating innovative burgers by using nontraditional fillers between the buns.
At Masonic Village, a retirement community in Lafayette Hill, Pa., Chef Thomas Tannozzini features such variations as a Mississippi Mud burger, made with a stout beer mushroom duxelle, pickle-tomato slaw and a spicy pimento cheese spread.
Tannozzini says toasted buns are the key to a good burger. Besides adding flavor, they are typically less soggy. He adds that the bun-to-filling ratio has to be just right.
The bread should cover the patty but not be too big, and the patty should be thin enough to allow diners to appreciate the toppings as well as the meat, Tannozzini says.
“If you’re putting cool toppings on a burger you want to be able to taste all those things.
“When you hand make patties, you don’t want to beat them up too bad,” he adds. The chef suggests tossing meat mixtures briefly to avoid dense and tough burgers. He’s also a fan of making an indentation in the middle of patties “because that’s where they puff up. The heat pushes the juices to the center.”
“When you start seeing a little bit of blood on the top” of the patty as it cooks, he explains, “that is going to be about a medium hamburger. I don’t like a hammered” or overcooked burger.
On a typical day Tannozzini serves between 120 and 160 residents and staff. Generally, he keeps to standard-size burgers rather than sliders. “It’s hard enough to cook a [regular size] burger right,” Tannozzini says. “It’s hard to flip a mini burger and get the right toppings on them.”
If you can’t beat ’em: “We make a really damn good burger,” says Chef Steven Burke, of the 89,000-student Austin Independent School District in Texas. “We make our own patties and buns.”
Burke’s technique to make uniform patties is to first shape the meat in balls. He sprays the spheres with oil, places them between parchment paper and uses a sheet pan topped with a heavy object, such as a #10 can, to flatten the burgers.
Seniors at Austin ISD are allowed to leave campus, and Burke says a popular lunch spot is a restaurant that cooks burgers on an open-faced broiler. In an effort to create a similar effect, Burke says he decided to use a gas-flame oven that was actually purchased to cook pizza. The oven has a conveyor belt that cooks 15 patties in six minutes.
“We want to get that browning effect,” Burke says, referring to the open-flame cooking. “They are perfectly cooked burgers each time.”
Burke serves burgers at a gourmet burger bar with myriad fixings, such as hot cheese sauce with chilies, and housemade fries. Adding to the allure, some of Burke’s sandwich toppings are homegrown. Each campus has gardens, from which Burke and his team can use lettuce for the burger bar. The burgers are one of the most popular meals served at the district, he adds.
Better with bacon: At the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, a Chartwells account, Catering Chef Flint Adams creates a special burger by mincing raw bacon and adding it to the ground beef before forming it into patties.
“Everything tastes better with bacon,” Adams says, noting that in addition to adding flavor and fat, the minced bacon seasons the beef so no extra salt is needed.
Adams starts with 80/20 (meat/fat) ground beef and, in addition to adding the bacon, liberally seasons it with cracked black pepper—one teaspoon per pound of beef. He then sears the patties in a very hot skillet.
“When you sear it, it caramelizes in the pan and it holds all the juices,” Adams adds. “If you finish in the oven it cooks uniformly.”
The bacon burger is topped with melted goat’s cheese and a balsamic-rosemary mayonnaise.
Non-beef burgers: A good burger doesn’t have to be made with beef, however. At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Executive Chef Barry Greenberg says he has found success with several beef alternatives.
One such burger, a bratwurst version, has done very well at the university’s catered events. Greenberg grills the patty-shaped sausage meat and serves it on a pretzel roll with sauerkraut and course-ground mustard.
“Bratwurst burgers are pretty popular in the Midwest,” Greenberg explains. But the bratwurst burgers aren’t the only alternative patty Greenberg has tried. A few years ago he rolled out a turkey burger flavored with Parmesan cheese and a chiffonade of basil. Grilled zucchini, eggplant slices and Muenster cheese top the burger.
“Ground turkey doesn’t have a lot of flavor, so you have to do a lot to it,” Greenberg says. “The vegetables and cheese keep the moisture content high.”