Beef, fat and fire: How to build a better burger

For burger chef Josh Kim, falling in love with the humble beef patty opened the door to a world of science. By the time he launched his SpOt Gourmet Burgers truck in 2012, he had long since learned to press a thumb-sized dimple into the center of each burger to prevent it from puffing when the proteins contracted, and knew what it meant when the juices started to cascade over the top like a sizzling, bloody waterfall.

He also crafted his signature barbecue burger, inspired by the flavors of a backyard cookout: a 6-ounce ground sirloin patty, cooked to a perfect medium temperature with a warm pink center and crisp, salty sear on the outside, and topped with bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, pickles, crunchy red coleslaw and his own blend of sauce on a potato roll from Conshohocken Bakery.

There’s no trick to making a phenomenal burger, Kim said, but many backyard grillmasters could benefit from a few tips. For instance, make the patties the day before and leave them in the fridge overnight. Avoid using high heat. For the love of God, don’t press down on the meat while it’s cooking.

“When I started grilling, the burger to me became the most iconic American food,” said Kim, who in 2015 opened a SpOt restaurant on the 2800 block of Girard Avenue in Brewerytown. “But it’s also the most abused and misunderstood sandwich out there.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Josh Kim prepares a SpOt burger at SpOt Gourmet Burgers in Brewerytown.

Kim, who gets his meat from butcher Carl Venezia of Plymouth Meeting, urged home chefs to seek out quality beef from local butchers instead of supermarkets. Chef Eli Collins, of a.kitchen, said grilling enthusiasts can also try befriending local chefs in hopes of buying raw patties from them. Elsewhere, he said, ground meat options are getting better all the time with stores like Primal Supply and La Divisa meats.

Using fresh-ground meat means you can get a cut with less fat and the flavor won’t suffer, chefs said. Justin Swain, who serves up burgers at the southern-inspired Rex 1516 on South Street, said a leaner blend, like 85/15, will also reduce the likelihood of flare-ups during the grilling process.

When it comes to the patties, Kim seasons with no more than kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, and shapes them the night before. Swain recommends pressing the beef lightly; overworking it will cause some of the fat to melt, he said.

Swain and Kim opt for 6-ounce patties, but thin patties are enjoying resurgence at plenty of local restaurants such as Butcher Bar and Royal Boucherie. Collins, who put Pub and Kitchen’s double burger on the map before moving to a.kitchen, favors stacking two 3.5-ounce patties that cook quickly. At a.kitchen, it’s served with a dijonnaise blend made from whole-grain mustard, pickle relish, and lettuce and cheese on a High Street on Market sesame roll.

“I find the meat is actually less juicy with a thick grilled burger,” he said. “It just makes sense. It’s the burger I grew up eating, and a lot of other people did, too.”

Camera icon CRAIG LABAN / Staff
The burger at a.kitchen.

Working with fire can take practice, Kim said, and striking a balance is key. Too hot, and the meat will char to a crisp. Too low, and it will start falling apart. If you don’t have a griddle, Kim recommended cooking burgers in a cast-iron skillet atop the grill.

Cooking a 6-ounce burger — about the size of a pool cue ball, then pressed about three-quarters-of-an-inch thick — to perfect medium requires the faith and patience to give it about three and a half minutes on each side without touching it, Kim said. Press a thumb-sized dimple into the center and then back off.

“We have protein, water, fat, blood,” he said. “We’re cooking with all of that together, and we just have to let the science guide the way.”

As it cooks, the juices work their way out, first glistening on the sides of the burger and eventually pouring out through the top, pooling under the meat if it’s on a griddle or skillet. It’s a good rule of thumb to wait until there’s about a minute left before adding the cheese, Kim said, then closing the grill lid to help it melt.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Some build-your-own burger bar suggestions by Justin Swain of Rex 1516.

There’s no end to the toppings and garnishes that can enhance a burger’s flavor, but Swain advised getting everything prepared before you start to grill. Slice the tomatoes, cut the lettuce, cook the slices of bacon first.

“And don’t try to cook bacon on top of a burger,” Swain said. “Or on the grill. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Choose the right texture of cheese is important, Collins said, because some melt better than others. His forever go-to is Cooper’s sharp American, for its creamy saltiness. And he prefers mayonnaise or garlic aioli over ketchup.

When it’s done, Collins recommends getting the burger onto the bun the instant it comes off the grill so the juices will hit the bread during the resting process. And when you’re ready to eat, he said, make sure you hold the burger over your fries.

“I still say that the juice that builds up on the plate from the burger, the aioli and the cheese is one of the best sauces you can have anywhere, period,” he said. “It’s a mother sauce. It tastes like everything you want.”

SpOt Burger coleslaw

Makes 4 quarts

1 small head red cabbage, about the size of a coconut
1 small head green cabbage
1½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sugar
⅔ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon celery seed
Dash of cinnamon

  1. Chop cabbage into thin ribbons using a sharp knife or mandolin.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine mayonnaise, sugar, pepper, celery seed and cinnamon.
  3. For the dressing, add half of the vinegar to the mayonnaise mixture and stir until smooth. Add more vinegar until it reaches the consistency of a thin batter. For thicker dressing, use less vinegar.
  4. Add dressing to cabbage slowly as desired, depending on volume of cabbage. Not all dressing will be needed. Set in refrigerator for at least one hour before serving.

— From Josh Kim of SpOt Burger


Josh Kim's bourbon BBQ sauce

1 cup bourbon whiskey
½ cup minced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups ketchup
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 clove
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon liquid smoke

  1. Add bourbon, onions and garlic to a medium saucepan over high heat.
  2. Bring to a simmer and reduce to low.
  3. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Increase heat to high and add remaining ingredients, stirring constantly until it comes to a boil.
  5. Immediately reduce heat to low and simmer for another 15 minutes.

— From Josh Kim of SpOt Burger