Grind, grill, taste, repeat: Students aim for the perfect burger

If you think all ground beef is alike, you need to get beyond the same old grind.

Each and every cut of beef that can be purchased at a grocery store can be ground up, and each has its own unique set of taste and flavor attributes. And as a group of CALS students learned in great detail this past winter, these differences are key when it comes to making a great-tasting hamburger patty.

Guided by CALS and UW-Extension meat expert Jeff Sindelar, CALS food science lecturer Monica Theis and UW Executive Chef Jeff Orr, 18 students and one staff member in the college’s food science and animal sciences departments participated in a friendly competition to develop a new-and-improved burger patty for Wisconsin’s Gilly’s Frozen Custard restaurants. The teams had an exciting incentive: the winning recipe would become Gilly’s official burger.

This happened after Gilly’s asked the UW-Madison for help developing a burger as delicious and remarkable as the company’s frozen custard. Sindelar and Theis proposed turning the project into a fun, real-world learning opportunity for students—an idea that Gilly’s happily embraced.

After some intensive instruction, the teams began by sampling ten types of grilled ground beef—flank, brisket, sirloin ball tips and chuck rolls among others—to learn the subtle differences. Next, they formulated, mixed and grilled their own patties, spending several long afternoons over the course of two weeks trying to develop the best-tasting burger possible within a certain price point.

Finally they presented their formulations to members of Gilly’s leadership team, who gave the ultimate thumbs-up to “Burger E” by Seth Schulz, an outreach specialist in the UW’s Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory; food science undergrad Abbey Thiel; and food science graduate student Cherry Lam Wing Yu.

All three attended a Gilly’s media event on April 3 in Green Bay to announce the company’s new burger formulation.

“The new Gilly’s burger meat would not have been possible without such a fabulous R&D team,” said Amy Deering, Gilly’s vice president of marketing and sales, in an email to all participants. “Each and every one of you contributed to our end result, which is a better tasting, juicier burger. Thank you!”

Nicole Miller, CALS External Relations