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    The Meat of It

  • Beef reigns supreme, but other proteins are making inroads at burger chains.

    thinkstock / Sarsmis
    More than 60 percent of consumers visited a quick-service burger restaurant at least once during a one-month period last year, according to Mintel.

    Americans love burgers. This is indisputable, experts say. The simple protein patty in a bun is firmly imprinted on the nation’s culinary DNA.

    Some data indicates we eat at least one burger a week. During a one-month period a year ago, more than 60 percent of consumers visited a quick-service burger restaurant at least once, while 30 percent sought out a fast-casual one, according to market research firm Mintel.

    The ongoing passion between Americans and burgers of all shapes and sizes has given operators an opportunity to experiment and create premium options, Mintel notes, resulting in a wide range of burgers with various types of beef and other protein choices.

    “A big part of burgers’ popularity is their familiarity,” says Caleb Bryant, foodservice analyst at Mintel in Chicago. “Most everyone kind of grew up eating burgers, so trying different types of proteins in a burger format takes away some of the mystery.”

    Beef remains by far the most popular type of burger, but the descriptors—including Angus, grass-fed, and natural—are expanding. At the same time, more burgers are being made with poultry, seafood, and vegetables.

    “Burgers are one of the best platforms for consumers to try new things,” Bryant says. “If you just want a simple cheeseburger, there are plenty of choices, and if you are a bit more adventuresome, burgers are an easy way to try new flavors.”

    An operator like Austin, Texas–based Hopdoddy Burger Bar features a range of burger proteins, including three types of beef, plus chicken, turkey, tuna, and vegetarian. It also has had other varieties as specials, including lamb, venison, and antelope.

    “You name it, we’ve probably ground it,” says Larry Perdido, cofounder and chef. “For us, burgers go well beyond beef.”

    For many burger aficionados, particularly Millennials, a narrative is important.

    “They want food with a story, and they want that story to make them feel good about what they are eating,” says Tom Ryan, founder of Denver-based Smashburger, which uses ground Angus beef for its patties that are smashed on the grill with a paddle.

    There are three key differentiations in the beef used in burgers, says Meghan Pusey, senior director of integrated communications with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: the cattle’s diet, breed, and quality grade.

    “The diet can be everything from the type of pasture grass in a particular region to whether the cattle is finished with grass or grain and the kind of grain,” she says. “There’s breed, like Angus or Wagyu, and finally the [U.S. Department of Agriculture (usda)] grading.” Post-harvest actions, like wet or dry aging, can improve tenderness and taste.

    All cattle graze in pastures for the majority of their development. While most have a grain diet during the 90–120 days before going to market, a growing number feed on grass entirely, referenced in terms like “grass-fed” and “grass-finished.”

    Some marketing terms can be confusing, Pusey says, but others are specific, like “certified organic” for cattle meeting USDA organic program standards, and “naturally raised,” meaning never receiving hormones or antibiotics nor fed animal byproducts.

    The difference between frozen and fresh is easily understood. The idea of using fresh ground beef has been a Wendy’s hallmark since the late founder Dave Thomas grilled his first hamburger on a flat-top griddle in Columbus, Ohio, more than 46 years ago.

    “His belief was you get a cleaner beef flavor when it’s fresh,” says Lori Estrada, Wendy’s senior vice president of research and development. “The texture is a lot more tender and juicy. Freezing beef changes it chemically.” She says freezing gives it a warmed-over flavor.

    At Habit Burger, beef patties are cooked over an open flame with high heat, creating a burger with a charred flavor and texture to go with a powerful image of food being prepared to order.

    The Habit burger “is a blend of aged trim for more flavor,” says Adam Baird, vice president of food and beverage for the Irvine, California–based company. “We season quite liberally with a blend of salt, pepper, garlic, and other spices.”

    Open-flame cooking creates a unique burger taste like you would have at home on a backyard grill. “The flame underneath really gives a nice caramelization,” Baird says.

    Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s offer three types of beef burgers cooked in flame broilers. In addition to regular ground beef burgers, the sister chains offer Angus beef burgers and natural, grass-fed beef patties that have a slightly earthier flavor, a spokesman says.

    The burger at Smashburger is a specific mix of certified Angus.

    “Our goal was to develop a juicy, delicious burger that you can taste in every bite,” Ryan says. “We tried everything from meat from a tube to Kobe and everything in between.”

    The process began during a blind taste test of more than 300 different mixes that were whittled down to a final four, all of which, it turns out, were certified Angus. “So we started with a flavor and ended up with an adjective: Angus,” he says, pointing out that it wasn’t the other way around.

    At Hopdoddy, Angus beef is in most of its burgers, but there’s also a burger using grass-fed beef and another with certified Texas Akaushi beef, a breed of Wagyu.

    “Akaushi cattle have a high-grain diet, and there’s much more marbling (intramuscular fat) than conventional beef, so the burger is more like eating a real good Wagyu steak,” Perdido says. “Cooked medium-rare, it is outrageously good.”

    The certified Angus at Tampa, Florida–based Burger 21 is a proprietary blend ground by a supplier and pressed into shape in-house.

    “We try to handle the beef as little as possible, because working it by hand melts down the fat,” says corporate chef Mike Remes. “We season and cook the burgers medium-rare on the flat top to give them a nice sear.”

    Atlanta’s two-unit Yeah! Burger serves beef burgers sourced from grass-fed cattle raised at White Oak Pastures in nearby Bluffton, Georgia.