A few word about making your own burgers … or learning to embrace the Pareto Principle of fat

In so many things, you’ll find the truth in the 80/20 rule, also know in some circles as the Pareto Principle. In business, one of the rules of thumb is that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. Or that 20 percent of people control 80 percent of wealth.

In burgers, there’s an 80/20 rule. It’s less of a rule, than a way to look at what you’re doing.

Before the crazes of the low-fat and the low-carb yo-yoed people to confusion about what was good for them, there was the hamburger. Noble. Innocent in all this posturing. Just making its way in the world today, taking everything its got.

But let’s put a stop to some of this goofiness. Let’s talk …

A burger is flavorful, and most meat, in and of itself, has flavor because of a combination of meat and fat. If you’re kind of reluctant to discuss fat, sensitive or whatnot, then call it meat and “moisture.”

Fat, itself, is a form of sugar that is stored. When it’s cooked, the sugar caramelizes. And us human beings, well, we do love us some sweeties.

So, when meat is cooked, it needs some fat in it; or more specifically to make it edible, it needs moisture. To little moisture, and you have the equivalent of a hockey puck … think beef jerky.

But it also needs fat because it adds flavor, and it needs fat because it’s also a source of hydration. Long story short, have you ever cooked boneless chicken on the grill? Those cluckers will dry out faster than a shamwow, unless you add more liquid (marinate), mix something with the meat that mediates the process of drying out (mixing in sauces, cheese or whatever) or cook very slowly (which breaks down the connective tissue in muscle slowly).

Fat is a friend … to a degree. Some fat. Too much fat and you end up with something that resembles bacon. Or at best, a nice steak. At worst, it becomes a radioactively-reduced version of the original.

Today, unless you get your meat from a special source and can custom-order it, you have a few options at your local grocer. The numbers are probably familiar:

  • 73/27 (beef)
  • 80/20 (chuck)
  • 85/15 (round)
  • 90/10 (round or sirloin)
  • 93/7 (sirloin)

There are older names for these mixes, ground beef, ground chuck, ground round, ground sirloin. But with regulations that required more transparency in what’s in the package, you now get percentages … and hopefully more confidence in the quality of what you’re buying. In the end, the numbers above refer to the percentages of lean(ish) meat and fat in the mix.

Like everything, you’ll get a bunch of different opinions about what the best mix to use is. Some people will try to get to a custom mix. In general, you don’t want too lean or too fatty.

For me, I usually use 80/20 if I just get a pound or two of meat. But if I’m making a lot, I’ll mix, because my experience is the 85/15 can be a bit too lean by itself. If I mix some outside liquid (pesto, cheese, ground mushrooms, etc.) in the meat, 85/15 will probably work, because I’m introducing additional liquid into the meat.

My advice, shoot between 80/20 and 90/10, depending on your needs, but experiment. See what works best for you.

And like all good cliffhangers, just realize all we’ve discussed now is the meat. You can throw a big old communist monkey wrench in this depending on temperature and length of cooking. You can turn your good, reliable Adam Smith-ian 80/20 rule into the next Stalin-managed five-year plan.

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