It's A Burger, Not A Steak—so Choose Your Beef Accordingly

How to select the best beef for your homemade smash burgers.

Welcome to Smash Hits, a five-part series in which a pro burger flipper shares everything she knows about smash burgers and how to make a proper one at home.

Here's the skinny: fat content matters. The best burgers are made with beef that has at least 20% fat. Not only does fat taste good and boost flavor, but it makes for a moist and juicy burger.

When you smash ground beef on a hot griddle, fat from the meat quickly renders, helping to form a crust on the burger and offering a delicious medium in which the patty can cook. If you do it right, that crust should seal in juices and make for a crispy, yet juicy patty. Using leaner beef makes it more difficult to form that crust, and leads to a dry burger. That means you may want to avoid using grass-fed beef for making burgers because it contains less fat than conventional beef that's pastured and finished on grain.

The line cooks I worked with told me our burger was made from beef with 70/30 lean meat to fat, but I found this information dubious since they themselves didn't grind the meat. "Ground hamburger" does typically refer to meat with a 70/30 ratio and it includes a mixture of chuck as well as even fattier cuts like brisket and shank. Chuck, meanwhile, has an 80/20 ratio, making it the most popular singular cut for burger meat. Ground round and sirloin contain less than 20% fat and will produce drier burgers.

There are a number of more expensive cuts that will sometimes be sold ground, with the suggestion that they make for a more luxurious burger. This is not true. If a butcher shop is selling expensive cuts of meat ground, they probably had leftover scraps after portioning roasts and steaks. Cuts of beef that you'd want to eat as a steak will not make for a great burger.

Packages of ground beef at the store should list the fat content, as well as the sell by or packaging date. The best burgers are made with beef that was ground the same day and was never frozen. If you're shopping at a grocery store that still has a deli counter, you can ask them to grind chuck fresh for your order. It may alienate the butcher since they likely have pre-ground and packaged beef available for sale, but it won't cost you any extra.

You can also ask the butcher for a particularly fatty or lean cut when you make your order and let them know the desired ratio of fat to lean meat you're trying to achieve. I think buying Angus, Wagyu, or Kobe beef for burgers is a waste of money; their marbled fat is the quality that makes these breeds so desirable for steaks and roasts, but burger meat is ground, allowing the fat content to be adjusted anyway.

Are you left with any questions about beef buying? Do you have any tips or suggestions that I missed? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.