Anatomy of a Burger

But not just any burger—a very thoughtful burger.
Ben's Chili Bowl

On the subject of hamburgers I have traditionally kept the conversation at the thick vs. thin level. (In short, a thin burger is about the composition of the sandwich; a thick burger is an excuse to eat a big-ass piece of meat.) But after having the magnificent burger at New York City’s Irving Mill the other night—seared and crunchy, juicy and beefy, earthy with a mellow, ringing fattiness—I realized there was something more going on here, something beyond a simple matter of dimensions. This was a special burger. I would date this burger.

I imagined talking to chef Ryan Skeen about his creative process would be like talking to an auteur on his contribution to the French New Wave cinema, but it turns out that Skeen is unassuming, smart about his food, but not really a burger nerd. “I don’t really care that much about the burger,” he said, in fact, before explaining that he wants to approach everything with an attention to detail. “The simplest things on the menu should be the best things on the menu. If we set our expectation level there, we won’t let anything slide.”

Skeen’s burger evolved out of a prototype from his previous restaurant, the accidental product of economy. There, working with a menu that featured braised beef cheeks and hanger steak, he collected the trim from these cuts and ground them together, liking their earthy flavor and the idea of turning scraps into a menu item.

But then at Irving Mill he got ambitious. “There’s nothing wrong with trim—that’s what sausage makers have always used,” he said. “But I started thinking that using whole cuts would make it a more...” he paused, searching for the word. “…It would make it meatier,” he finished, saying that word as he meant it—a complement.

We talked about the burger from all angles: the type of meat, the grind, and the cooking method. It’s not necessarily difficult to make, but it is considered and thoughtful, clearly the product of someone who cares.

The Mix

Working off of a classic ratio of 70% lean beef to 30% fat, Skeen pushes the limits by making the lean not so lean, and really rocking the fat:

35% Whole beef cheeks: “I really love their liver-y, almost gamey flavor,” Skeen said. Typically a cut for long, slow cooking, the cheeks’ toughness becomes a subtly resilient texture once ground.

35% Flap meat: One of the more unfortunately named foods in our language, “flap meat” is sometimes called “bavette” or, more specifically, “bavette d’aloyau.” Got that? Now, this is what you really want to know about it: It’s a cut from the belly that’s under the flank steak, buried below a few layers of fat. What’s a few layers of fat among friends? Skeen loves the marbling of this cut, essentially a boneless short rib.

30% Pork fatback: We didn’t really discuss this. We just acknowledged that it was there and then went silent with reverence. But it’s because of the fatback that every bite ends with a round, lingering richness.

Grinding and Packing

One of the things about this burger that struck me was its loose, almost delicate texture. “That’s because of the grind,” Skeen said, “and we don’t overhandle it.” He first grinds the cheek and the flap through a coarse die, pushes the fatback through a fine one, then combines it all, sending it through a coarse grind again so that the three parts come together thoroughly. He packs it straight from the grinder into one-inch-thick, seven-ounce patties that just hold together and, consequently, come apart delicately when chewed. The coarse grind allows the chunks of meat to retain some individuality, and because the meat is barely touched once ground, proteins don’t get a chance to intertwine, locking it all together in a tough net.

Seasoning and Cooking

Rather than seasoning the mixture before forming, Skeen salts and peppers the meat to order, just before cooking and sears it hard in a steel pan, which gives the entire surface a chance to brown and form a crust. There is no substitute for the straight-up crunchiness that comes out of direct contact with very hot metal for an extended time.

Toppings and Assembly

Skeen serves this burger on a soft, grilled bun with cheddar, lettuce, onion slices and pickles with mayonnaise on the side. I am a fan of these things, but I think this burger above all others needs nothing to tag along for the ride. And in any case, it’ll be gone in two minutes anyway, so why would you want anything to distract you?

So that’s the Skeenburger, deconstructed. Go ahead, try it at home.

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