AP FOOD: Better burgers are about the blend

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There was a time when I liked burgers based mostly on their toppings. I might order a Swiss cheese and bacon burger, or one topped with blue cheese and caramelized onions, and that, I thought, was where the flavor was.

Then I realized I could make my own burger blend with better quality cuts of beef. This changed the way I make and eat burgers.

When I am making my own blend, I choose bits of short rib, brisket, hanger steak and ribeye. All the rich cuts. Add a bit of aged beef too, and you get a swoon-worthy, slightly funky, slightly nutty aroma and flavor.

Today, you can buy these specialty burger blends already made and conveniently packaged in 1-pound “bricks” or pre-made burgers. When you are shopping, follow the advice of meat scientist Diana Clark from Certified Angus Beef: For a thick, gourmet-like burger, look for a blend of 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. “The extra fat is going to melt and make a juicy, tasty burger.”

There are many butchers who sell burger blends online and at grocery stores. My favorites include Pat LaFrieda and Schweid and Sons. I have purchased the pre-made burgers, but I prefer the bricks because I can make my signature square burgers from them easily.

The meat is vacuum-sealed, which means it is as close to fresh as you can buy without grinding it yourself. With vacuum-sealed meat, the oxygen is almost eliminated, so the rate of deterioration is much slower. Fresh meat wrapped in brown butcher paper will last a maximum of three days refrigerated, while vacuum-sealed meat will last up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator and much longer in a freezer.

To make square burgers from the bricks, carefully remove the meat from the packaging and, using a fine serrated knife, cut it into four equal, quarter-pound shares. I round the sharp edges of each square in my hands, as I would soften a lump of clay, being careful not to make it too round. I want to keep the thick square shape. After it is smooth and even, I make a depression in the center so the burger will cook evenly and not puff up like a meatball.

Because you are buying premium ground beef blends, you don’t need to add anything to make it taste great. A generous sprinkle of fresh-ground black pepper and coarse kosher salt is all you need. My ratio is 1 teaspoon Morton Kosher salt to 1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Mix the salt and pepper together and season both sides of the burger.

I like to place my burgers on the grill for about 3-4 minutes per side for a thick patty like this one. You will get great grill marks, and the middle will still be medium-rare to medium. If you buy the pre-made patties, cook them a little less because they are not as thick as my homemade square burgers.

If you don’t have a grill, or you run out of gas, these are equally good made in a cast-iron pan. Preheat the pan on your stovetop over medium-high heat, and the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t put anything in the pan — no butter, no oil. Once it is hot enough for a drop of water to dance across the surface, place the four patties on the hot cast-iron skillet and let cook for 2 minutes or until the burgers develop a good crust. Flip them and let cook on the stovetop for 2 more minutes. Then place the skillet with burgers in the pre-heated oven for 5 minutes.

If you’re making cheeseburgers, add the cheese during the last 2 minutes of cooking. Remove the burgers to a platter and let them rest for five minutes.

In this stripped-down version of my current favorite burger, less is more. A good blend eliminates the need for most traditional condiments, but if you crave them, use them. For me, the perfect bite is a dill pickle chip, melty American cheese and the hot crusty burger between a potato bun.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling, barbecue and Southern foods expert, and the author of four cookbooks. Her website is www.elizabethkarmel.com.