Expert Opinions on What Makes A Good Burger Great

Words: Jess Spiro

Burgers are like opinions. Everybody has their own and they’re not about to choose yours over theirs. Even here at HQ, we have conflicting ideas of the perfect burger. But we’re not a dictatorship, we are welcome to others’ opinions, so we’ve called in a few professionals to share what makes their ultimate burger.

good burger

Expert Opinions On A Good Burger

Greg Gilowey, Beer Country

Ogres have layers, onions have layers, and if you drive through the Karoo, the mountains have layers. Awe inspiring layers of multicoloured rock formed by pressure, power and heat over millions of years. The humbling feeling of reverent awe that these inspire is the same feeling you should be getting when you slice through your burger and witness the magnificent feat of meticulous construction that would make a German civil engineer cry tears of joy.

Yes, awesome ingredients and perfect preparation make a burger good, but assembly, texture and flavour combinations make it great.

Get to know your local butcher and baker for the non-negotiables; a fresh bun (toasted on the fire), and a chunky patty (preferably of rough-ground chuck, brisket, and short rib), seasoned with cracked salt and pepper, lightly dusted with your secret braai-rub, and brushed with a little olive oil. Cook it over a hot, wood fire (or on smoking hot cast-iron) until an awesome caramelised crust is hiding a juicy, medium-rare centre. From here it’s time to play, but I suggest knowing the rules before you break ‘em. Keep it classic and simple at first, fall in love with your secret recipe, and then go wild!

I have a few favourite combos for toppings and it’s hard to pick just one, of course, they have to be paired with an epic crafty brew. Biltong, rocket and blue cheese with an IPA, smokey red peppers, caramelised onions and chipotle with a hoppy amber ale, bacon and grilled pineapple with a coconut ale, mature cheddar and pickled relish with a classic malty lager or five. You get the idea. And now I’m hungry… and thirsty… time to visit that local baker, butcher and brewery.
good burger Beer Country

Karl Tessendorf, Beer Country

First off let me just say I am obsessed with hamburgers. It’s the perfect all-in-one meal and the varieties are endless. Burgers often get a bad rap because there are so many bad ones out there and fast food chains have bastardised what a burger is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be freshly grilled, juicy and packed with fresh ingredients, not a grey, rubbery patty slapped together with last week’s shredded lettuce and questionable sauces.

Luckily we are in the middle of a burger Renaissance with dedicated burger joints popping up all over the place.

My perfect burger is made with free-range, grass-fed beef and it’s either only ground chuck or a combination of ground chuck, brisket and short rib. There has to be a good amount of fat content for flavour and juiciness. It gets seasoned with only salt and pepper and it must be cooked medium with a pink centre. A good burger must always pass the squeeze test which is a gentle squeeze of the burger to see the meat juices run. I am a big fan of the classic burger with red onion, tomato, lettuce, pickles, cheese, mustard and tomato sauce.

I also always enjoy a Hawaiian burger but lately, I am on a purist cheeseburger binge – nothing but really good quality mature cheddar (Wyke Farms 18 month is a favourite). When it comes to cooking, over a fire is always good or in a cast iron pan. The most important part of the cooking is to get a good crust on the burger. Speaking of cooking, I’m off to the shops.

Karl and Greg are the masterminds behind Beer Country an exciting TV production documenting craft beer, braai food and the open road. They don’t just drink beer, they also write about it. See more in our Crafted channel here.

Andy Fenner, Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants

For me, everyone has an opinion on burgers. Everyone’s an expert. And I don’t know why. I think its because so many of us have cooked and eaten them. It’s just become something that plugs a hole. Which is a shame, because a well-made burger takes skill and time to construct.

Not surprisingly, it starts with the meat. Not only do I think that the type of beef is important (naturally I believe grass-fed burgers to be superior in any and all ways) but it’s also very specific to cuts.

For me, the holy grail is a mix of brisket, chuck and deboned short rib. These cuts (when combined nicely) have a natural 80:20 meat to fat ratio. Why is that important? I’ll tell you. It means we don’t have to use any binding agents. Which is great, because why would we want to do that?

I’m a fan of quite a coarse grind on the burger so we mince it twice through a large plate. This means the ideal cooking technique probably isn’t a bar, but instead a flat top or a pan. Cook for about 8 minutes, flipping fairly often. Remove from heat, add a few layers of cheese and cover with an upturned bowl or another pan. Leave this for a few minutes to steam and melt the cheese.

Right. To serve. Cheap white rolls are a start. Pickles. raw red onion. Lettuce. Tomato sauce. No fresh tomato.
good burger Andy Fenner

Andy Fenner is the renegade butcher behind Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants in Cape Town. His fierce commitment to ethical and sustainable eating has sparked a very important conversation in Cape Town’s food scene.

Rudi Liebenberg, The Mount Nelson

For our burger patties, we currently we use a combination of three cuts, we are looking at adding a fourth. Generally a 70/30 meat-fat ratio. We use mostly forequarter for selection. I believe that a burger must have a nice combination of fat and muscle and that the meat must never be packed too tight. The grind itself should not be too big or too fine. The meat used for a burger preferably comes from a grass-fed animal. The patty must be pure with no onion, no fillers, no eggs, no binding. A burger can not be like a meatball.  At the end of the day, the burger is about the patty and not the bling, the bling must enhance the experience.

When it comes to cooking, for me, a hot wood fire is preferred. Open fire is acceptable, but never ever in a pan. The smokiness is important and can only be achieved if the fat drips on the fire and causes flare ups.

I like to cook my burgers to medium, but never rare as undercooking the burger not only has several health implications but it actually does not benefit the taste.

For me, if I can hold burger in my hands without having it falling apart, it is a good burger. Adding too many things on top the burger has no benefit, as it just falls out. I enjoy a little chilli or jalapeno, good sharp cheddar, pickles and a sesame bun. There should be no excessive sauces that force you to eat the burger with a knife and fork. A burger should be simple and not too overly complicated.
good burger Mount Nelson

Rudi Liebenberg is the executive chef at The Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, he’s a bit of a burger fundi and has spent many hours perfecting his version of the ultimate burger. Read more about his journey here.

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