Finding the best beef for the best burgers

Kent Schoberle, the head butcher with Thistle Meats in Petaluma, grinds the perfect ground beef for a burger.



In "Weber's Big Book of Burgers," author Jamie Purviance lists five easy steps to achieving "burger brilliance."

Those steps include seasoning the ground beef thoroughly, dividing it into equal-sized patties and making an indentation on top so the patties don't bulge.

But if you really want perfection from your burgers, Purviance said, you also need to buy freshly ground beef, preferably from a butcher you trust.

That's no problem for Sonoma County residents, who can now source locally raised beef from a couple of artisan butcher shops that opened just this year as well as from high-quality butcher departments at several local grocery stores. At Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa, long-time butcher/owner Rian Rinn grinds local, grass-fed beef daily along with more affordable grain-finished beef, which costs about $2 less per pound.

"We grind it all here, sometimes from round, sometimes from chuck," he said. "Good hamburger is ground at a really cold temperature. It's two times ground, first through a quarter-inch hole, then run through a 16th- or 18th-inch plate."

When grilling grass-fed hamburgers, Rinn always takes pains not to overcook the leaner patties.

"I like mine pretty rare, so less cooking time is better," he said. "As a rule of thumb, you can go about a minute less (with grass-fed beef)."

At Thistle Meats Charcuterie & Larder in Petaluma, Head Butcher Kent Schoberle also carries local, grass-fed beef, which he grinds fresh a couple of times a day.

"We like grass-fed because we have farmers in our area that produce exceptional quality beef," he said. "It's really going to have the beefy flavor that will give it that extra depth."

Schoberle also grinds beef to order, asking customers if they want it lean, medium- or high-fat. His favorite blend is 50 percent chuck and 50 percent short rib meat.

"The short ribs have a lot of fat and strong flavor, and the chuck has the great texture," he said. "So that's the combination that produces the best, most well-rounded flavor."

For your summertime barbecues, Schoberle suggests using between a quarter and a third of a pound of ground beef per burger.

Schoberle came to Thistle Meats from 4505 Meats in San Francisco's Mission District, which has been voted "best burger" in the city many times. For his own barbecues, he is partial to the classic cheeseburger, topped with a thick piece of cheddar or gruyere cheese.

"I don't do anything too crazy," he said. "The cheese can get thrown onto the patty and melt all over the sides."

For Schoberle, the condiments are all about texture. He prefers iceberg or romaine lettuce for crunch, and a thin slice of red onion for sweetness. The bun should be toasted, preferably with butter.

"I am all about the soft egg or brioche bun, toasted on the outside, " he said. "With a soft bun, it really marries the texture of the entire burger."

Schoberle also makes his own "special sauce" by mixing four classic condiments: yellow mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise and relish.

"You can omit the relish and use pickles," he said. "But I find mixing the four together makes a really tangy sauce."

When forming the patties, he advises using a delicate touch; if you overwork the meat, you'll make it tough.

"I like quarter-pound, thin patties that cook quickly and evenly," he said. "If you like a thicker burger, put an indentation in the very center. That way, the juices will stay in there."

Another secret is to salt the burger just before you throw it on the grill.

"The salt will help create that crust on the burger when it sears," he said. "It can take a lot of salt."

To cook the burgers, Schoberle prefers to use a cast-iron plancha, or griddle, which has been heated up until it's good and hot.

"It gives a nice, even sear on the burger," he said. "You don't have to worry about flare-ups, and you can toast your buns easily."

On the evening of July 4, Schoberle will be flipping burgers at Ray's Delicatessen and Tavern, 900 Western Ave., in Petaluma. Petaluma's HenHouse Brewing Company will pour a selection of their craft beers.

Thistle Meats is located at 160 Petaluma Boulevard North in Petaluma. 772-5442.

Sonoma County Meat Company is located at 35 Sebastopol Ave. in Santa Rosa. 521-0121.

The following recipe is from Weber's "Big Book of Burgers" by Jamie Purviance. You will need a cast-iron skillet.

Grass-Fed Beef Burgers with Charred Tomatoes and Smoky Mayo

Makes 4 servings

For patties:

1? pounds ground grass-fed beef (90% lean)

1 large garlic clove, minced or pushed through a press

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups ripe grape tomatoes

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

? teaspoon kosher salt

? teaspoon granulated sugar

For mayo:

? cup mayonnaise

1-2 small canned chipotle chile peppers in adobo sauce, minced

? teaspoon paprika

? teaspoon kosher salt

4 hamburger buns, split

2 cups loosely packed baby greens

Mix the patty ingredients, and then gently form four patties of equal size, each about ?-inch thick. With your thumb or the back of a spoon, make a shallow indentation about 1 inch wide in the center of the patties to prevent them from forming a dome as they cook. Refrigerate the patties until ready to grill.

Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat (350 to 450 degrees) and preheat a cast-iron skillet.

Combine the tomatoes, oil, salt, and sugar and turn to coat. Transfer to the hot cast-iron skillet and cook over direct medium heat, with the lid closed, until the tomatoes break down, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the skillet from the grill and transfer the tomatoes to a bowl. Cool to room temperature.

Whisk the mayo ingredients.

Grill the patties over direct medium heat, with the lid closed, until cooked to medium doneness (160?F), 8 to 10 minutes, turning once. During the last 30 seconds to 1 minute of grilling time, toast the buns, cut side down, over direct heat.

Build each burger on a bun with the smoky mayo, greens, a patty, and charred tomatoes. Serve immediately.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or