It turns out it’s all about the fat. And on this, experts concur — the most popular and flavorful ratio of lean to fat comes in at 80/20.
Paul Vaccari, owner of New York City’s Piccinini Brothers, which sells to restaurants as well as individuals, says his most popular mixture for hamburgers is an 80/20 ground chuck. “That is what produces that juicy, flavorful burger people look for,” he said.
Vaccari says he does have customers who ask for a 90/10 leaner mix, or who go in the opposite direction and ask for 70/30. “People with health concerns generally ask for a leaner profile, but that burger can be on the drier side,” he said. For those who want something fattier, Vaccari notes the 70/30 ratio can be a bit more flavorful, but creates a “sloppier and messier burger.” Like other butchers, Piccinini Brothers can create a “custom flavor profile” by adding other meats such as brisket, short rib or an aged meat to the chuck.
“People love burgers because of the fat feel,” said Ashraf El-Gharby, owner of Halal Cuts Taco and Meat Shop in Irving, Texas. “You see people who are very health-conscious, but there is just something about burgers.”
El-Gharby, who has a master’s in food science, said a good burger’s appeal is “a function of the fat.” He calls 80/20 the “magic mix,” and says he’s typically grinding “a nice marbled chuck.” El-Gharby and other butchers urge consumers to buy burgers that have just been ground. “A good burger has a nice mouthfeel that envelops your taste buds,” he said.
“When I do want a hamburger, I want a proper one,” said Mark Rosati, the culinary director of Shake Shack. Rosati says the chain, in working with New York City butcher Pat LaFrieda, learned that “the concept of what a burger can be is really a science,” and the ideal burger involves variables like fat content, cut of meat, the cooking temperature and the way the meat is ground. At Shake Shack, the lean/fat ratio generally comes in at 80/20.
Rosati says Shake Shack tries to source its meat locally, when possible. He urges consumers to “experiment, educate themselves, and go on a pilgrimage with their butcher to create the right blend.” Rosati said he never buys meat that’s been pre-ground, but he notes that people are often intimidated about talking to butchers. He says it’s fun to play around with different cuts of meat in a burger. “You can look at it as a winemaker would make a cabernet,” he said. “You can add touches of different meats to change a burger’s flavor profile.”
Two California butchers ― Angela Wilson, owner of San Francisco’s Avedano’s, and Israel Feuerstein, owner of Los Angeles’ The Rabbi’s Daughter ― relish the chance to work with customers. “When consumers have a butcher grind meat, they have the option of making alterations,” Wilson said. For her, however, the ideal approach is just good old-fashioned chuck at the 80/20 blend. “When I’m grinding meat for a burger, I usually start craving one.” She said she does get customers who have read a recipe in a newspaper where someone is using different blends of beef, and that prompts them to ask for customization. “But for me, I think simplicity is best.”
Feuerstein said he generally recommends the 80/20 blend when people are cooking their burgers medium to medium rare. “If they’re cooking them more well-done, I suggest closer to a 75/25 mix.” Feuerstein also said the best meat for hamburger is chuck, and he’s observed that the popularity of cooking shows has led more customers to talk about “mixing it up with different blends.”
Now what about our health?
When it comes to eating hamburgers, consumers get the green light as long as it’s in moderation. Julia Denison, a registered dietician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Magee-Womens Hospital, said, “The main thing we should be getting from eating is enjoying our food.” Denison said the percentage of fat definitely affects flavor — “so a burger isn’t worth it if it’s super dry.” She said the 80/20 ratio is what’s typically recommended, and limiting yourself to one hamburger a week is best.
Amy Peck, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Katonah, New York, agrees. ”If you’re going to eat a burger, then enjoy it,” she said. “Hopefully it’s only an occasional treat, so you may as well commit to making it the best-tasting version possible.” She recommends ground beef that’s either an 80/20 or 85/15 ratio for the juiciest and tastiest burger, and if you can spring for the cost, 100% grass-fed beef is a healthier option. “It has an improved fat profile, with less saturated fats and more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed cattle,” she said.
Camas Davis, founder of the Good Meat Project, also touts the benefits of grass-fed beef: “It is leaner, but I find the flavor is much more nuanced than grain-fed; there’s a terroir in the burger like you find in wine.” Davis said the benefit of working with a butcher is that they can add more fat to the grass-fed mix to bring it to that 80/20 sweet spot. “The quality of the fat is also different with grass-fed,” she said.
Butchers and nutritionists alike say that as the price of beef has gone up, they’re seeing their customers and clients make some changes. “I’m seeing even burgers are becoming somewhat of an indulgence,” El-Gharby said. Feuerstein said his customers are buying sliders for children, rather than full-size burgers. “But,” he said, “I think especially in the summer, home cooking replaces dining out as people are able to entertain outdoors.”