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Buying burgers

You know how important burgers are, and the stats back you up: 77 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, California, sees an uptick in burger spending by restaurants. 

You know how important burgers are, and the stats back you up: 77 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, California, 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 percent 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. Cyrogenic 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.

DIY 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. For fresh burgers, a period no longer than one to two days should elapse between the time the patties are packed at the plant until they reach your kitchen; they should be used within seven days. Frozen burgers shouldn't be more than three months old.

Step 2

Unwrap patties and note 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 interior is brown, the packer may be trying to hide older meat. Frozen patties should not show any 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. 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.

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.

Burger world

Operators are differentiating their menus with burgers ground from non-traditional meats. Suppliers offer veal, lamb, pork, bison and venison products in both bulk and patty form to accommodate this trend. There’s also the custom blend route. Lobel’s Meats grinds together hanger steak and skirt steak, mixing in fat trimmed from shell steaks. Roma Packing offers combos of beef, veal and lamb or beef, pork and veal and recently began selling patties with mild or hot spicing profiles and specialty cheeses, like gorgonzola.

Turkey burgers are a growing item on operators’ order lists, J&D Foodservice finds. According to the National Turkey Federation, these are ground from boneless, skinless turkey; the composition may be all breast meat, all thigh meat or a blend. 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 seasoning variations including Italian, Southwestern, Cajun, barbecue and taco/nacho.

Meatless patties come in several formulations, depending on the manufacturer. Gardenburger, which claims 41 percent of the foodservice market, began with its “Original” patty—a blend of mushrooms, onions, brown rice, spinach and cheese. Now they offer black bean, fire-roasted vegetable, pure vegan and other varieties.
 On the value-added side, companies like Advance and Cargill offer fully cooked grill-marked burgers. Newer in the market are mini-burgers or “sliders.”




Handle with care 

Extra precautions are necessary when handling any kind of meat in the restaurant kitchen, as animal foods have a greater tendency to harbor harmful bacteria. Ground meats are especially vulnerable. During grinding, more of the surface area is exposed to pathogens that can rapidly multiply. E. coli 0157:H7, the deadly bacterial strain, is of particular concern with ground beef products. Here’s why:

E. coli can colonize in the intestines of animals and contaminate the muscle meat from which burgers are ground. This bacterial strain produces large quantities of a toxin that can cause severe damage to the lining of the human intestine.

It takes a very small dose of E. coli to cause serious illness and even death, especially in high-risk groups like children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

E. coli can survive cold refrigerator and freezer temperatures. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service advocates cooking burgers to an internal temperature of 160°F. to kill the bacteria. Use a thermometer to gauge doneness; patties may be pink or brown inside but not cooked thoroughly.

“It’s the operator’s responsibility to remind customers that undercooked beef can pose a risk,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Washington, D.C. She suggests posting a warning on the menu or a restaurant wall pointing out the hazards of eating rare burgers.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is testing ways to make prep and cooking surfaces more bacteria-resistant. Researchers have sanded, grinded, polished and applied electrochemicals to stainless steel; the electropolishing treatment showed the greatest reduction in pathogen growth. These results can impact future restaurant kitchen design.

Also on the drawing board is the Rapid Test for E. coli. ARS scientists, in conjunction with Igene, a biotech company in Gaithersburg, Maryland, have developed an immunomagnetic-electrochemiluminescent test to detect E. coli in as little as 25 grams of ground beef. The test is easy to administer and 100 times more sensitive than other methods.

Smart sourcing also goes a long way to ensuring bacteria-free burgers. Buy from a trusted supplier who conducts documented testing. Some distributors are also USDA-certified meat processors and run government-regulated inspections. Once cartons of ground meat are delivered, don’t let them sit unrefrigerated.

In the Kitchen

E. coli can spread from raw meat juices to other ingredients and cooked foods through cross-contamination. It’s essential to reinforce these safety rules to staff:

  • Wash hands thoroughly before and after handling ground meat.
  • Don’t reuse packaging materials from ground meat.
  • Use hot, soapy water to wash utensils, countertops and other surfaces that have come into contact with raw ground meat.
  • Trays or containers that have held raw ground meat shouldn’t be used to hold cooked burgers or other cooked foods.
  • Do not partially cook burgers ahead of time to hold and finish off for service. Semi-cooking gives harmful bacterial the chance to multiply to the point at which complete cooking will no longer destroy them.

Price Outlook

In the cattle industry, the production cycle determines beef supply and to a large extent, prices. Data from Omaha, Nebraska-based Advanced Economic Solutions shows that in 2006, beef production rebounded from 2004 lows, increasing by 6.4 percent. Bigger cattle numbers, higher feedlot inventories and minimal exports combined to push prices downward slightly.

“The outlook for the next few quarters is similar. We’re looking for higher production and weaker prices to continue into 2007,” says Ken Matthews, an economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. Although prime and choice steaks and sub-primals are in smaller supply due to increased demand by high-end steakhouses, that won’t affect burgers.

Supply is also high because of a tightening export market. “When Japan stopped importing American beef because of Mad Cow disease, Australia and New Zealand stepped in,” says George Lombardi of Roma Packing in Chicago. “Even though the ban has been partially lifted, it’s a challenge for us to recapture that market.”

What happens next has a lot to do with the corn farmers—they will produce corn for whomever will pay the most, Matthews explains. Corn is used both in animal feed and the production of ethanol. Although grass-fed cattle now constitute less than 2 percent of the market, Matthews sees it growing. Grass-fed beef is perceived as a healthier, more environmentally sound choice for many Americans. And when that beef is ground, enough fat can be added to create a burger that’s juicy and flavorful.

Ideation: Between the buns 

Back Yard Burgers
Memphis, Tennessee
Item: Charbroiled Texas Jack Burger
“Everyone talks about ‘quality’ but we stand by our word,” says Lattie Michael, founder and CEO. Coarse-ground Black Angus beef, purchased as frozen patties, goes into every 1/3-pound burger. Back Yard tops it with pepper jack cheese, onion and jalapeño straws and Miz Grazi Hot Stuff—a kicky pepper sauce.

Lilly’s Restaurant
Louisville, Kentucky
Item: Lamb Burger with aïoli and watermelon pickle
“The lamb burger alternates with bison on my menu,” reports chef-owner Kathy Cary. It’s ground from the shoulder and leg with a fat content of 15 to 20 percent; some is sourced locally but most is from Jamison farm in Pennsylvania. “Lamb burgers can be cooked medium-rare with no food safety issues,” Cary says.

The Counter
Santa Monica, California
Item: Burger with cheese, four toppings and housemade sauce
“We buy all-natural chuck and grind it fresh, in-house, every morning, then patty it by hand,” says founding partner Jeff Weinstein. For his 1/3-pound standard burger, he starts with 7 ounces of beef that cooks down to exactly 5.3 ounces. Fried pickle chips, sweet potato fries and onion strings are go-alongs.

Public Restaurant
New York City
Item: Venison burgers with sweet-sour tomatoes, miso buns
“You can use any cut of Cervena venison for this recipe, but
I like the leg—it’s more affordable than the loin,” says chef-owner Brad Farmerie. To keep the lean venison moist, use meat that’s coarsely ground, pack it loosely into patties and cook over a medium flame to medium doneness—no further.

Ruby’s Diner
Newport Beach, California
Item: American Kobe Slider Combo
“We contemplated doing a slider for a long time,” says Doug Cavanaugh, CEO and founder. “American Kobe beef was a great way to upgrade our burger program.” The perfect bun for these premium mini-burgers turned out to be King’s Hawaiian original sweet rolls for their size and texture.

New York City
Item: Signature Veal Burger
“Choose the right cuts and you’ll get a veal burger that’s leaner than beef but just as juicy,” says Mark Lobel, owner and cookbook author. He grinds the neck and shoulder together and inserts frozen garlic-herb butter into the center of the patty so “the topping is inside.”

Burger trendwatch

The NPD Group, a market research company, polled 2000 consumers to learn about burger eating in casual restaurants. What they found is that people prefer bigger burgers and those topped with cheese. When it comes to rolls, burger fans seem to be open to baguettes and other non-traditional breads as well as the usual buns.
Trend-tracking firm FoodWatch partnered with NPD to share additional burger insights:
•Ketchup is still the #1 condiment, but popular flavor partners include Ranch, bacon and barbecue
•Emerging flavors include orange, ginger, garlic and parsley
•Flavors gaining awareness are cilantro and Caesar
“New flavors and toppings are a great way to make a menu staple like hamburgers fresh and exciting,” comments Michele Schmal, VP foodservice for the NPD Group. “As casual dining operators explore ways to grow,
it’s good to remember that Americans love to try new twists on old favorites.”

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