The Meat of the Matter

You know how important burgers are, and the stats back you up: 77% of beef eaten out of the home is in the form of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Burgers are now being made with proteins other than beef; chicken, turkey, tuna, veal, venison, bison and soy are showing up between the buns. So what should you be buying to set your burgers apart and produce the most bang for your buck?

Ground beef alone—still the No. 1 burger choice—offers many options. Characteristics include fresh vs. frozen, ratio of lean to fat, beef grade and patty size. Mark Ford, president of J&D Foodservice, a broadline distributor and meat processor in Fresno, California, sees an uptick in burger spending by restaurant operators. The cost of the raw material isn’t changing that much, but his thousand or so customers—57 percent of which are restaurants and 70 to 80 percent of whom offer burgers—are willing to spend 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 for buyers.”

When purchasing pre-formed patties—the burgers purchased by most big users—there are several factors that impact quality.

Beef type/grade: Personal taste and budget dictate the type of beef a restaurant specifies for its patties. 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.” Most foodservice burger patties are graded “choice”; “prime” burgers are available only from a few select meat wholesalers. Operators who demand prime often grind it themselves from prime beef pieces and trimmings.

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.

Products labeled “beef patties” or “beef patty mix” may contain water, partially defatted chopped beef or beef tissue, fillers, binders, beef fat and organ meats. The more ingredients added, the lower the beef content and the price. Some processors offer beef patties with soy protein to extend the “meatiness” of the burger. These have to be labeled as “soy added” products.

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, when the beef is blended and mixed. Then it is ground for a second—and usually final—time through smaller plates. Bone chip and gristle eliminators are typically used during the final grind.

For a finer “burger” grind, the meat is ground through smaller plates with 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 to be sold fresh or frozen. 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 20 to 30 minutes of grinding to lock in freshness and flavor,” he says.

Patties are frozen primarily by two methods. Mechanical freezing forces very cold air at high pressure and intensity over the individual, unpackaged product. Cyrogenic freezing passes individual patties through tunnels where liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide is used as the freezing agent. Both freezing techniques produce the more desirable IQF (individually quick frozen) 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 local purveyors to get the best product ground the day of delivery.” J&D delivers fresh patties to its customers three times a week to keep stock rotating and wholesome; Roma does the same but also offers vacuum-sealing to extend shelf life.

Size: “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 one of J&D’s most popular specs, 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 formed into round shapes, but oval, square and natural or “home-style” are other choices. Operators can also spec a scored or perforated surface; this allows for faster freezing and cooking.

How to spec turkey

Turkey burgers are a growing item on operators’ order lists, J&D Foodservice finds. Manufacturers including Perdue Farms, Jennie-O Turkey Store and Carolina Turkey (aka Butterball) supply these poultry patties to foodservice. According to the National Turkey Federation, these are the foodservice specs for sourcing turkey burgers:

• Uncooked burgers are ground from boneless, skinless turkey. The composition may be all breast meat, all thigh meat or a blend; dark meat produces a more flavorful, juicy burger while white meat boosts appearance.

• Patties are pre-formed in a round shape. IQF product weight is 3.3 to 5.5 ounces per patty, packed 30 to 50 patties per case. Some producers market a larger 7-ounce white turkey burger.

• Uncooked burgers are available plain or in several flavor variations, depending on the processor. These include Italian-seasoned, Southwestern-seasoned, Cajun, barbecue, taco/nacho and grill-flavored. Added ingredients might include salt, dextrose, beef flavor, carrageenan and black pepper.

Other goings on inside the bun

Operators trying to differentiate their menus are adding burgers ground from non-traditional red meats. Suppliers offer veal, lamb, pork, bison and venison products in both bulk and patty form to accommodate this growing trend. Specialty meat purveyors and wholesalers are the best source for these burgers; expect to pay more than you would for beef or turkey—they can run as much as $8 per pound.

Then there’s the custom blend route. Mark Lobel of Lobel’s likes to grind together hanger steak and skirt steak, mixing in fat trimmed from shell steaks, for top customers. He also recommends buying porterhouse tails from your supplier and grinding them up into signature burgers. To make veal burgers, he prefers the neck and shoulder parts to keep them moist. “Play around with the fat content, too,” he advises. “Most times 80-20 works best, but with some cuts, 85-15 is better.”

Roma Packing also offers custom pre-blends combining beef, veal and lamb or beef, pork and veal. Lombardi recently began offering pre-seasoned patties, some with mild or hot spicing profiles, others with the addition of specialty cheeses, like gorgonzola or Maytag blue. He’ll also grind grass-fed beef, if a customer requests it.

Meatless patties come in several formulations, depending on the manufacturer. They may be based on soybeans, grains, mushrooms, mixed vegetables and combinations of these and other ingredients.

Gardenburger, which claims 41 percent of the foodservice veggie burger market, began with its “Original” patty—a blend of mushrooms, onions, brown rice, rolled oats, spinach and mozzarella and feta cheeses. Now the company offers black bean, fire-roasted vegetable, soy, pure vegan and several other burger variations. Early in 2007, larger patties with bolder flavor profiles should hit the market.

Right now, Gardenburger patties are 3.4 ounces each, frozen and packed 48 to a sleeve for foodservice. Like other veggie burgers, they are fully cooked, and can go from freezer to flat-top grill or charbroiler in minutes.

Companies like Advance Food and Cargill Meat Solutions offer time- and labor-saving pre-seasoned or grill-marked burgers through distributors. These are frozen patties that either require complete cooking or are fully cooked. Newer on the market are value-added mini-burgers that tie into the “sliders” trend.

Do-it-yourself product cutting

Several criteria apply when evaluating fresh or frozen ground meat patties. Our experts—George Lombardi of Roma Packing, Mark Lobel of Lobel’s Meats and Mark Ford of J&D Foodservice—offer these guidelines:
Step 1

Note the production code date stamped on the carton or package. For fresh burgers, a period no longer than one to two days should elapse between the time the patties are formed and packed at the plant until the date they reach your kitchen door; they should be used within seven days. Frozen burgers shouldn’t be more than three months old.
Step 2

Unwrap patties and note the color, texture and aroma. Fresh burgers should be cherry red and consistent in texture throughout with no off color or smell. The center may be redder than the outer layer and the meat will still be wholesome; if the reverse is true and the interior is brown, the packer may be trying to hide older meat. Frozen patties should be consistent in color throughout with no traces of gray or freezer burn. Ice crystals should be absent or minimal.
Step 3

Cook the burger as you normally would, on a flat-top grill, charbroiler or other method. IQF patties should be cooked from the frozen state; other frozen patties may be thawed first. Fresh patties should be cooked without freezing first. Keep seasonings to a minimum—just a little salt and pepper—and cook to desired doneness. (The USDA suggests an internal temperature of 160°F to destroy harmful bacteria; insert the thermometer in the center of the burger.) Frozen patties will naturally take longer to cook.
Step 4

Taste the burger plain, without ketchup or other condiments. Check for juiciness, flavor, shrinkage and consistent texture. Cooking patties at lower heat reduces shrinkage.

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