The Burger Pro: Cara Nicoletti
Occupation: Butcher at Brooklyn's Foster Sundry by day, celebrated author by night. Her book, Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, is a series of personal essays on her favorite works of literature—and all the wonderful recipes they inspired her to make.
Her Burger Rant: "I feel like things have gotten out of hand and crazy at restaurants with all these super-luxury burgers!"
Her Ideal Burger: "I'm a burger purist. I want it to be no-frills. I want salt and pepper, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions. Done."
Why Nicoletti is the Queen of All Things Burgers: Not only is she a butcher—which puts her on the front lines of everyone's burger needs, worries, and desires—she's a fourth-generation one! This stuff really runs in her family. "I started working in kitchens, then somehow ended up finding my way back to butchering—much to grandpa's dismay, but here I am."
Here, Nicoletti shares all the pearls of wisdom she's picked up from years of teaching everyone how to make the best burgers at home.
Mastering the Burger Blend
"I've really given this a lot of thought," says Nicoletti, with a chuckle. "I think burger blends might be a scam to try and sell cuts at higher prices." In other words, don't get talked into getting pricier cuts of meat like filet mignon or short-ribs added. "Basically, you want cheaper cuts in your grind because you won't be able to tell the difference. Ask for pieces that come off the chuck and off the round, which are the shoulder and the leg," says Nicoletti.
The Most Important Part of a Burger
"I would say more important than cut is your fat ratio," urges Nicoletti. "People always want to go learner than they should! If you're eating fully grass-fed beef, you want to do a 70% lean to 30% fat, which sounds super-fatty—and it is—but you want to keep your burger from drying out."
And if you don't have a local butcher-turned-author to turn to for nailing down the perfect burger specs, don't fret, Nicoletti has a solution for that, too. "Try to buy grass-fed or grass-finished beef," she says. "That's going to have the most flavor. It's not a flavor that we're really used to as Americans since we grew up eating grain-fed beef, but it's a really good way to get more flavor in your burger." She also notes that most prepackaged beef at your local grocery store will have the fat ratio labeled, so "don't buy anything 90% lean to 10% fat."
Keeping the seasoning on the outside helps to get that crispy crust—a hallmark of a great burger.
Getting the Seasoning Right
"A lot of people want to work salt and pepper into their patty and seasoning," explains Nicoletti. "What you actually should do is season it on both sides right before it's about to go on the grill." Keeping the seasoning on the outside helps to get that crispy crust—a hallmark of a great burger.
Burger Pitfalls to Avoid
"Overworking your patty is a common mistake," says Nicoletti. "People want to slap it all around and over-form it, but that makes it sort of dense and chewy." (Meanwhile, under-working the mixture will result in it crumbling and falling apart.) Instead, gently work the meat into your hands as you're forming the patty, keeping the back and forth between them to a minimum, "six to eight times," suggests Nicoletti.
Another note from a burger purist: take it easy on the seasonings! Stick to salt and pepper. "Everyone wants to work garlic and Worcestershire sauce into their mixture," says Nicoletti. "But I would say, if you're getting good meat that tastes good, that's kind of the point of a burger!"
"I don't ever want to see fruit on a burger. Nobody needs pineapple on a burger!"
Topping Dos and Don'ts
But first, the bun: "I personally feel very anti-brioche buns," says Nicoletti. "I like a cheap potato bun, because you want it to get the tiniest bit soggy to soak up all the juices." As for toppings, find a cheese that melts well, like American or Gruyère—otherwise, a blue cheese like Stilton is a solid move, too (especially when paired with velvety caramelized onions). Another fun combination to try: Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and more caramelized onions.
"I don't ever want to see fruit on a burger. Nobody needs pineapple on a burger," exclaims Nicoletti. "Sometimes people will try to get crazy and put prosciutto or ham on it, or corned beef—no, there's already a patty of meat on here!" And don't get her started on marinara sauce with mozzarella: "This is a burger, not a weird meatloaf sandwich."