The Way to a Memorable Burger Is Through the Patty

Burgers May Be a Ubiquitous Summer Staple, but They Don't Have to Be Predictable


The Wall Street Journal    July 2, 2014 6:55 p.m. ET

Burgers may be a ubiquitous summer staple, but that doesn't mean they have to be predictable. "It's really an opportunity for a chef to show some style and creativity," says Kevin Hickey, executive chef and partner of Bottlefork restaurant in Chicago.

Mr. Hickey, who has friends over for cookouts in his backyard once or twice a month in the summer, says his first focus in creating a memorable burger is the patty. "I'm all for creativity and adventuresome creations, but the most important part about a burger is having the right fat content so you have a juicy burger," says Mr. Hickey, who is also partner and director of food and beverage for Rockit Ranch Productions in Chicago.

Mr. Hickey admits to being a purist when it comes to patties, using just beef, though he makes sure to buy the best quality grass-fed ground meat he can find. He generally avoids mixing in other kinds of meat (such as pork or veal) because different meats sometimes cook at different speeds, making it difficult to have an evenly cooked patty.

While some cooks like to marinate the meat, he believes in sprinkling on just a little salt and pepper. "I want to taste that meat taste, that fat taste, the char. I'm not interested in adding too many seasonings to that," he says.

Sometimes, though, if Mr. Hickey is using leaner ground beef, he may raise the fat content (and the burger's juiciness) by adding ground bacon to the mix. "Lean-ground grass-fed beef has a wonderful flavor, but it doesn't necessarily make the best burger, so I'll make patties using 70% of that and 30% ground slab bacon," he says.

If Mr. Hickey wants to serve something out of the ordinary, he'll sometimes cook lamb patties with Middle Eastern seasonings. "Lamb has a wonderful flavor, but it needs a lot of help when it comes to the fat department," he says. "Take yellow onions, grate them on a box grater to a liquid pulp and mix that in with the ground lamb" to increases the patty's juiciness, he says. "Add salt, pepper, sumac, garlic, and that makes a fantastic burger."

Sometimes, Mr. Hickey turns to ground chicken or turkey, but once again you need to add something to the mix that "mimics the fat content" of fattier beef, he says.

"Grind tomatoes or liquefy red onions and mix that in with the turkey and chicken, then add seasonings and spice so the burger has some life to it," he says. He often uses minced fresh herbs such as sage, thyme and rosemary with poultry patties.

One important thing with meat patties: Don't overmix the meat. "In most restaurants you're going to use the dough hook on a pastry mixer to mix the meat. You don't want the speed up too high or the fat will start to cook slightly," Mr. Hickey says. "That changes the texture," possibly making the patties tough. "You want gentle careful blending."

condiments and toppings

Various condiments and toppings used in chef Kevin Hickey's burgers. 

For vegetarians, Mr. Hickey makes meatless patties by puréeing beans (black beans and chickpeas work well) and combining this with diced vegetables, quinoa and whole beans or cooked lentils. The purée, which should make up about 20% to 25% of the patty, forms a base that binds the ingredients together.

Regardless of the type of patty, Mr. Hickey likes to make them the day before or at least 12 hours ahead and stick them in the fridge "so it's solid—you don't want it wet and falling apart." Once guests arrive, he takes them out and immediately starts cooking them, with the meat ones on the grill and the vegetarian ones on a cast-iron griddle. Veggie burgers are more likely to stick to a grill and will cook better on a flat surface, he says.

Before guests arrive, Mr. Hickey often sets out an array of condiments so people can create their own burger. There's bacon, iceberg lettuce, tomato and various sauces, as well as fried eggs, which he cooks up on the griddle while grilling the burgers. One way he shows extra creativity is by making his own sauces and condiments, such as a mustard.

Cheese is a key consideration. "You want to buy a great cheese with considerable fat content so you have great melt on it," says Mr. Hickey, who likes cheddar, smoked cheddar, blue cheese or cheddar-blue blends. Steer clear of tough aged cheeses that may have great flavor but work better for eating on their own, as they may not melt as well, he says Sometimes, he makes a thick cheese sauce, combining cream, "a very young creamy cheese" and a little cornstarch.

Burgers get cooked on one side of the grill, buns get toasted on the other. 

The bun is essential as well, says Mr. Hickey. It should be just the right size for your patty. "You don't want to fall into the trap of, 'Where's the beef?' if you have a tiny burger and a giant bun," he says. Conversely, "if your burger is bigger than your bun, it looks great in the picture but it's not so easy to eat as it tends to get very messy."

A "good quality bun" is important, Mr. Hickey says. "You want some substance to it that is going to hold up to your burger but something that's light enough that it's going to be a nice eating experience." Brioche, challah, whole wheat or soft pretzel buns work well, he notes. Sour dough, kaiser rolls and baguettes may be too chewy and tough for a pleasant biting experience, he adds.

Five Tricks

  • To make lean-meat burgers juicier, add ground slab bacon. For ground turkey or chicken, use tomatoes, red onions and fresh herbs.
  • Refrigerate patties overnight.
  • Cheddar and blue cheeses melt better than aged cheeses.
  • Brioche, challah, whole wheat or soft pretzel buns work well and always toast your buns.
  • Puréed beans can help keep vegetarian burgers together.

"Always toast your bun," says Mr. Hickey. He does this quickly on the griddle as he grills his patties. "You're going to have a great juicy burger with melting cheese on it, beautifully ripe tomatoes, lettuce and condiments—all these things are going to make the bun wet. If you have a nicely toasted bun, you've got a chance of it not falling apart. It's going to eat much better."

Finally, when it comes to assembling burgers, more isn't more, Mr. Hickey cautions. In fact, sometimes he makes a special sauce combining the various condiments he likes on his burger so he can have just one thick schmear instead of several layers, which can make a burger unwieldy to bite into. "I like everything on my burger but it becomes a real pain—tomatoes slide off and the lettuce gets all wet and chewy," he says.

Instead, he mixes together mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, relish and diced tomatoes, then folds shredded lettuce into it.

"There's a real art to the perfect burger. A nice messy burger is awesome but it can be hard to eat," he says. "The perfect burger has got to be a great bite from the first bite to the last."

Cheese Sauce

4 oz. to 1 lb. sharp white cheddar, shredded

4 oz. to 1 lb. cream cheese

4 oz. to 1 lb. heavy cream

25 to 100 grams sodium citrate

2 oz. to 1 cup puréed piquillo peppers

2 to 4 oz. hot sauce

Bring all ingredients, except the shredded cheese, to a boil, dissolving all cream cheese. Whisk in the shredded cheese, Purée, chill and store.

Beer Mustard

½ cup yellow mustard seeds

½ cup brown mustard seeds

½ cup olive oil

1 cup 312 Beer or any wheat beer

¼ cup Banyuls vinegar or wine or sherry vinegar

¼ cup lemon juice


Soak the brown mustard seeds in the beer overnight. Lightly toast the yellow mustard seeds in a skillet and then transfer to a coffee grinder and mix into a powder.

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Adjust salt as desired. Store in glass container as the mustard may interact with metals.

Pickle Relish

8 pickling-type cucumbers, finely diced

4 large red peppers, finely diced

6 shallots, finely minced

¾ cup kosher salt

2½ cups sugar

2 tsp. mustard seeds

2 tsp. celery salt

1 tsp. ground allspice

1 tsp. ground cloves

1½ cups apple cider vinegar

Cover the cucumbers with salt and refrigerate overnight. Drain the cucumbers well the next day and combine with all the other ingredients. Place in a saucepan on the stove and cook for about 30 minutes or until thick.

Balsamic Ketchup

2 tubes of tomato paste

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and julienned

1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled

4 oz. bourbon

1 28-oz. can of tomato purée

2 tbsp. dark brown sugar

½ cup Balsamic vinegar

1 tsp. cayenne

1 tsp. ground star anise

½ tsp. celery salt

½ tsp. ground allspice

½ tsp. ground cloves

½ tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

Dijon mustard, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Caramelize onions, add garlic, tomato paste, sugar and Dijon mustard, and all the spices, get a little color on the whole mixture and then add bourbon and vinegar. Reduce and add the tomato purée.

Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth, pass through a fine sieve if your blender isn't powerful enough to make the mixture smooth.

Transfer to a saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store in refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 month.

Spring Lamb Burgers

Makes six 6 oz. burgers

36 oz ground lamb shoulder

1 grated onion

1 tbsp. garlic, minced

½ tsp. cayenne

1 tbsp. paprika

2 tbsp. sumac

2 tbsp. salt

Finely grate the onion with a box grater and mince garlic. Combine the three spices in a sauté pan and lightly toast over medium heat.

Combine all ingredients, working them all together with your hands. Let the warmth of your hands loosen the fat and evenly distributing it.

Form into perfect 6 oz. balls and then flatten them into ¾-inch patties.