Crafting More-Bountiful

March 1, 2003

15 Min Read
Crafting           More-Bountiful

March 2003

Crafting More-Bountiful Burgers

By Nancy BackasContributing Editor

Hamburgers are arguably the one dish that defines American eating. Yes, we are concerned with lower-fat eating; yes, our palates are becoming more sophisticated. But today, a burger exists to fit almost every palate and dietary desire.

Burgers came to this country in the 1800s, introduced by German immigrants as steak served Hamburg-style, and appeared on the menu at New York’s famous Delmonico’s as early as 1833. Today, burgers run the gamut from thick to thin and are composed of everything from soy to ostrich to top-of-the-line (and expensive) Kobe beef — and everything in between.

Burgers have driven beef sales for a very long time. NPD FoodWorld CREST research, conducted in November 2001 by The NPD Group, Inc., Port Washington, NY, reports that beef remains the most popular entrée served in restaurants. The study found that 8.2 billion hamburgers and/or cheeseburgers were served in commercial restaurants in 2001; that burgers dominate beef selections in restaurants, accounting for 75% of all beef entrées served; and that almost 60% of all burgers are purchased in a restaurant (though the buyers consume 65% of those burgers off-premise).

Tough times seem to play a role in burger consumption, too. In a Jan. 15, 2003, article on burgers in The New York Times’ Dining Out section, Danny Meyer, an owner of the Union Square Café in New York, says that, in a shaky economic atmosphere, “a juicy, two-fisted hamburger provides comfort and certainty.” But what defines that burger? How does the foodservice industry build a better burger, growing business for juicy profits?

What’s the beef?If we’re talking about the conventional hamburger, beef rules. A great burger starts with fresh, ground, well-marbled meat. Dianna Stoffer, CEC, corporate chef, Certified Angus Beef LLC, Wooster, OH, says the standard lean-to-fat ratio is 80% to 20%. Ground chuck from prime beef is the gold standard, but chefs have been known to grind rib-eye steak to order for a richer beef flavor.

When quality is the selling point and patrons are willing to pay a premium price for their hamburgers, some operators opt for all-natural Certified Angus Beef burgers produced with no growth hormones or antibiotics. For example, Back Yard Burgers, Inc., Memphis, TN, recently switched to black Angus beef after focus groups chose that variety hands down. Though the company raised the price of its burgers $0.50, sales jumped almost immediately by 10%, proving that, even in a soft economy, quality can win. TGI Friday’s, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Carlson Restaurants Worldwide Inc., now serves a “natural” Angus-beef burger, too. A study conducted by Harris Interactive/Yankelovich Partners, Rochester, NY, for TGI Friday’s found that 63% of consumers preferred the all-natural version over the conventional one.

Taking the beef-quality issue one step further are operators who serve Kobe-beef burgers. Kobe beef comes from Japan and is touted by the Japanese as the best beef around (and also the most expensive, at $100 per pound). The animals are fed a diet of soybeans, barley and beer, and are massaged everyday with sake to push the surface fat into the muscles. The cattle also remain in pens to minimize exercise. This pampering ultimately results in well-marbled, tender meat. Phil Romano’s new Dallas-based Who’s Who Burgers serves a 1/2-lb. cheeseburger made from 100% beer-fed Kobe beef for $9.50; at Old Homestead in New York, one can really splurge and order a Kobe-beef burger with lobster, mushrooms and microgreens on a Parmesan twist roll for a whopping $41.

While some restaurants can afford the time and effort to grind their own meat or serve more-expensive products, the vast majority of operations buy hamburgers preformed and frozen, and, often precooked — for both labor and food-safety reasons.

However, precooked burgers tend to have a warmed-over flavor (WOF). To combat WOF and add more beef flavor to hamburgers, The Eatem Foods Company, Vineland, NJ, has crafted a beef and/or meat flavor that complies with USDA specs for burgers. USDA prohibits the addition of water, extenders or binders when calling a product “hamburger.” The product — a dark-brown paste concentrate of sirloin beef, including beef juices that have been seasoned to add additional flavor — is designed specifically for ground beef to improve the taste of hamburgers and maintain consistency from batch to batch.

Another way to combat WOF is with the addition of plum puree. Tests with dried plum puree in hamburgers (with plum puree replacing 3% of the ground beef), conducted by USDA for the school-lunch program, found that plum puree does improve hamburger flavor. Students rated the burgers equal to or better than fast-food-chain versions. Plum puree also provides additional benefits: it helps burgers retain moisture and replaces some of the fat in beef patties, creating a more nutritional product. (For more information, see the December 2001 Food Product Design special supplement, “Dried Plums Solve Meat-y Issues.”)

A leaner alternativeFat content in burgers has been the biggest sticking point for burger consumption, and foodservice operators and manufacturers have discovered a number of ways to improve the burger’s nutritional profile. Historically, leaner varieties can be dry and less flavorful. But new improvements in beef production and product development have faced those problems head-on.

Plum puree has been one way to cut down on fat content while also retaining moisture and flavor. In a study conducted by Medallion Laboratories, Minneapolis, for the Sacramento, CA-based California Dried Plum Board, cooked hamburger patties using USDA dried plum puree were found to be significantly moister than the control burgers. Dried plums contain a high percentage of sorbitol and fiber, which are natural humectants, and malic acid, a flavor potentiator. Other dried fruits, such as cherries and raisins, have similar properties — though the active components are at a lower concentration than in plum puree.

Adding soy to a burger product in proportions of 50% beef to 50% soy extends the benefits of soy protein, and also cuts down on the fat and cholesterol content without compromising flavor. Linda Funk, executive director for the Urbandale, IA-based Soyfoods Council, says one way to serve soy products is to combine them with beef or other meats. “Noncommercial foodservice, especially colleges and universities, are primed for trying the combination beef/meat alternative,” she says. “They are already using the meat alternative straight for the vegetarian students, so it’s not a big leap to try this.” She also asserts that if the fast-food folks would be open to taste tests, they’d discover how well the combination really works.

Noncommercial types are not the only ones looking to sell acceptable low-fat burgers. In California, Mark Avila and Steve Keenum, with the help of foodservice consultants and a proprietary process they describe as “leading-edge production techniques,” developed a lean-beef burger that weighs in with a fat content of only 5.8% — about 15 grams of fat for a fully dressed burger — compared to the 40-plus grams of fat in a typical quick-service offering. Their aim was not to develop a low-fat burger that would taste good, but to create the tastiest burger, period (that just happened to be low-fat). In addition to the low-fat burgers found at Encino, CA-based TOPZ® Corp. locations, turkey and veggie versions are available, as well.

It’s no longer a novelty to serve burgers made out of turkey, bison, seafood, bean or soy — especially since burgers made from these products can provide flavorful, interesting alternatives to beef. For example, 19% of foodservice operators surveyed by the Washington, D.C.-based National Turkey Federation in its 2002 Tracking Study reported offering turkey burgers on the menu. The lower fat profile of turkey makes it especially appealing to non-red-meat eaters.

Bison, or buffalo, another low-fat alternative, also is gaining favor in the burger world. An all-natural, hormone-free product, bison meat has a high moisture content, which results in a juicier burger with a lower fat content than beef. “What we suggest operators do is to form the burgers with a looser texture,” says Chad Bullinger, vice president sales and marketing, North American Bison Cooperative (NABC), New Rockford, ND. “Burgers that are hand-formed have a better texture, creating air pockets within the burger so it retains its juiciness. The air pockets create an internal steam factor, so the quality is increased.”

Atlanta-based Ted’s Montana Grill takes that advice to heart. Employees hand-pack burger patties after the final grind of the bison meat is done at the restaurant. Health Express Grill, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, also has had success selling lower-fat bison burgers. It offers versions topped with smoked chipotle sauce, in addition to a 1/3-lb. lean sirloin burger topped with lite mayonnaise; a turkey burger; a veggie burger; and a Boca™ burger from Glenview, IL-based Kraft Foods, Inc.

Burgers made from firm-fleshed fish are gaining favor, especially with nonmeat-eating consumers who eat fish. In New York’s Marseille, chef Alex Ureña makes a seafood burger of salmon, shrimp and scallops, topped with harissa mayonnaise.

Ostrich is gaining popularity as a burger option, too. After having a meal of ostrich steak in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, Matthew Lamb, director of operations for Danvers, MA-based Fuddrucker’s, decided to try ostrich at some of the chain’s restaurants. The product was added to the menu at 11 locations in northern Virginia with resounding success. Because of the low fat content, Lamb suggests his guests order their ostrich burgers medium-rare to medium. As with the company’s other burger offerings, the ostrich meat is ground right at the restaurant.

Perhaps the hardest sell is the nonmeat vegetarian burger. Some are made from beans, while others consist of textured soy protein. But when Miami-based Burger King Corp. starts selling veggie burgers, you know acceptance has begun. The newest vegetarian varieties have the texture and flavor that, closer than ever before, mimic their beef counterparts.

Safety firstOne of the biggest concerns across the board for the foodservice industry is serving safe food. Beef, especially ground beef, has received extra attention after E. coli O157:H7 breakouts at several restaurants raised the alarm. Meat producers and foodservice operators have become especially diligent in their effort to prevent foodborne illnesses. One result has been new regulations that restrict the serving of very-rare beef, especially when ground.

The FDA/USDA recommendations are to cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160ºF until the middle is no longer pink. That translates to a well-done burger, so higher-fat burgers with a meat-to-fat ratio of 80% to 20% fare better under the new regulations. Adding ingredients such as prune puree, chopped onions, tomato juice or Worcestershire sauce to lower-fat beef helps retain the moisture that is otherwise lost when cooking the meat to 160ºF. Once cooked, ground-beef patties should be refrigerated as quickly as possible, stored in shallow counter pans no deeper than 2 in. for rapid cooling. To reheat precooked ground-beef products, cover and heat to 165ºF or until the meat is hot and steaming throughout. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Denver, recommends turning ground-beef patties over at least once and not pressing patties with the spatula, which causes juices to express out of the burger. Operators can successfully cook ground-beef patties from a frozen state, which helps minimize microbial growth that may happen if the meat is thawed.

Another benefit of using prune puree in both beef and turkey burgers is that the puree suppresses growth of E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria organisms. Daniel Y.C. Fung, Ph.D., department of animal sciences and industry, Kansas State University, Manhattan, conducted antimicrobial research on prune puree in ground meat at the ratio of one tablespoon dried plum puree per pound of ground meat. One tester noted that the puree worked so well, “I actually enjoyed eating a well-done burger.” The results showed that, in addition to the fact that bacterial growth was stopped, the beefy taste in the ground-beef burgers was better and the burgers had a fresher flavor the next day.

After the 1993 E. coli breakout that occurred at San Diego-based Jack in the Box, Inc. restaurants, International Dairy Queen, Inc., Minneapolis, became more concerned about food safety in its own units, and its R&D department began looking for ways to improve food safety. One of the first things the company did in 1993 was make it mandatory that all its suppliers test products for E. coli using an outside lab. A negative test was necessary before Dairy Queen would accept the supplier’s product. The company also required that its operators cook all meats to 165ºF.

Electron-beam irradiation offers another method to prevent bacteria from appearing in food. The technology has gotten a bad rap, but much of this is due to misunderstanding. This relatively new process scans packaged products with a high-speed electron beam, breaking the DNA chains of bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses. The process kills bacteria instantly or renders them harmless and unable to reproduce.

Dairy Queen is looking at irradiation as an additional way to improve food safety. Company executives attended a seminar conducted by San Diego-based SureBeam Corp. discussing irradiation, and in February 2002, Dairy Queen began testing electron-beam-treated hamburgers at two Minnesota stores. While the burgers still have to be cooked to 165ºF, the results have been very positive. One noticeable benefit was that burgers were no longer overcooked. Previously, operators were overly cautious about cooking the patties long enough, and often ended up overcooking the meat and serving a dried-out product.

Dairy Queen is planning to rollout the treated burgers in 90 more stores this year, making pamphlets available to consumers at every store to explain the irradiaton process. “The key has been education. We trained our employees to be able to describe the technology in simple ways. What we have found is that once the process is explained to the consumers, acceptance increases,” says Dean A. Peters, director of communications. “The last thing someone wants is for their two-year-old to get sick from eating a burger.”

Embellishing the burgerThe fun with burgers — whatever their base — is what one does to them to make them interesting, even downright exciting. Everyone has his own idea of what the best burger entails. Size is one consideration; some believe the bigger the burger the better, even enjoying that it overwhelms the bun and that the burger’s juices drip down the side of the hand. For example, the Six Dollar Burger™ from St. Louis-based Hardee’s Foods Systems, Inc. is made to be messy. Others believe a smaller, thinner patty is more likely to create that perfect balance of bun, meat, topping and condiment.

Jim Doak, CEC, director of menu development and innovation, Applebee’s International, Inc., Overland Park, KS, says a good burger has the right amount of meat to bun: “It should not have too much meat, have the right amount of bread, and be tender to the bite and juicy. It also has to be easily customizable; onion rings — not diced — so the guest can take them off.” He also believes that the burgers should be easy to eat, something he makes sure happens at Applebee’s. “We build our condiments on the bottom and put only cheese and bacon on the top. Our burgers are built so that they are not too sloppy,” he says.

Applebee’s cooks up an 8-oz. patty that falls somewhere between thick and thin, designed to cook fast enough that it doesn’t dry out. The company’s two most-embellished offerings are the Cowboy Burger, topped with barbecue sauce, bacon, cheese and crispy onion peels; and the Portobello Swiss Burger, featuring grilled cheese, and marinated and grilled portobello-mushroom slices. Turkey burgers are in about 20% of its units now, and veggie burgers are found in some locations — mostly in California, where there is the most demand.

Applebee’s uses raw red-onion slices for more-consistent sweetness, but some swear onions for burgers should be caramelized or grilled. Condiment choices are very personal, though most restaurants serve burgers with lettuce and a slice of tomato. Fuddrucker’s allows patrons to add guacamole or chili to any burger, in addition to bacon, grilled or caramelized onions, and cheese.

Buns can range from the soft ones seen in most fast-food units to crusty sourdough, light-textured brioche — even hearty rye bread gets a chance. Should the bun be toasted? Most restaurants do toast the buns, which helps keep meat juices from soaking in. Cheese toppings range from the pedestrian American, Swiss or Cheddar, to blue or feta for more ethnic flair. Some more upscale chefs stuff burgers, spice them exotically (a burger made with Moroccan spicy lamb sausage — flavored with cinnamon, coriander and cayenne — and salmon) or top them with inviting (and expensive) ingredients, such as truffles.

Back Yard Burgers offers a Blackened Burger, cooked on a hot plate with Louisiana-style blackened seasoning seared into the meat; a Hawaiian Burger with teriyaki and pineapple; and a Miz Grazi™ Burger, an Italian version that features a seasoned hot-pepper sauce. Fuddrucker’s serves a Southwestern Burger topped with guacamole, bacon and Monterey Jack; a Hot Rock Burger topped with bacon, chipotle barbecue sauce and Cheddar cheese; and the Works, with bacon, mushroom and American cheese. The chain also allows patrons to choose a 1-lb., 23-lb., 1/2-lb. or 1/3-lb. beef patty. Even Dairy Queen, not known for its burgers, offers the DQ Ultimate, a 1/3-lb. hamburger loaded with bacon, cheese, pickles, lettuce, tomato and its Ultimate sauce.

The bottom line is that burgers are individual. Smart operators have learned to cater to consumers’ preferences. One of the ultimate American comfort foods has grown from humble ground beef on a bun to a meal that can accommodate almost any diet. There is something special about biting into a hot burger with just the right combination of flavors — a little sweet, a little spicy, a little cold, a little hot. Just don’t forget the fries and milkshake on the side.

Nancy Backas is a Chicago-based freelance writer and chef. She has been writing about the foodservice industry for 20 years and can be reached at [email protected].

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