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Better burgers bring flavor, less guilt

SHAPE August 2016


Operators, chefs give the classic hamburger a fresh, more healthful twist.



Ask anyone to name an all-American food that commands almost universal appeal, and the response will likely be the stalwart hamburger.

Identified by many as being the classic comfort food, the versatile burger can be customized to appeal to just about every taste, price point and culinary proclivity while still retaining its unique personality and craveability.

But while the popularity of hamburgers shows no signs of diminishing, an increasing number of consumers are seeking out flavorful variations that provide more healthful alternatives.

According to Datassential's MenuTrends database, burgers are mentioned on 52 percent of all U.S. menus. At the same time, the research firm's 2015 Keynote report on burgers finds that three out of four Americans consume one burger in any given week. Of those surveyed, 50 percent say they want healthier options in burgers available to them.

“Those of us who grew up with the traditional beef burger have long-lasting memories of their goodness,” says Arlene Spielberg of New York-based restaurant consultancy Arlene Spiegel & Associates. “Consumers are not going to forget or give up on that unique satisfaction that the burger indelibly imprinted on their brain. However, our new desire to ‘eat with a conscience’ has us searching for alternatives to red meat.”

There are many ways to create more healthful burgers, acknowledges Lori Zanini, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The key is to make sure they are still maximizing on flavor. Consumers want to choose better options without sacrificing taste.”

As a result, restaurateurs and suppliers are developing a diversity of menu solutions that provide all of the satisfaction associated with a flavorful burger while eliminating the guilt. The following offers some ideas restaurateurs can adopt to help them build a better-for-you burger.

The Patty
Many experts advise starting with the hamburger patty itself. While on the one hand the industry is seeing a rise in the availability of premium proteins such as Angus, all-natural and antibiotic-free beef, it's also seeing an increase in the menuing of leaner meats and vegetarian alternative proteins. For example, current protein options not only include the long favored turkey burgers, but also such leaner meats and fish as bison, lamb, venison, chicken, ostrich, tuna and salmon.

When it comes to turkey, Zanini counsels operators to select burgers made with at least 93 to 97 percent ground white meat. Turkey's mild flavor allows it to combine well with a variety of healthy carriers, ingredients and toppings.

However, Thomas “TJ” Delle Donne, assistant dean, culinary relations and special projects at Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I., notes that while leaner meats tend to be more healthful, they also can be less juicy and offer less flavor. For example, he notes, venison is 99 percent lean. As a result, some operators add a small amount of fat back into leaner meats to amp up the flavor, he says.

Spiegel notes that salmon burgers also are growing in popularity. “Salmon is the perfect solution if you want a burger experience without red meat or poultry,” she says. “It's a play on crab cakes, and goes well with a number of accompaniments, like dill sauce or Moroccan spices.”

Another trend in the burger-building business calls for the blending of vegetables and legumes with meat. For instance, chefs are increasingly pairing beef or even turkey with ground mushrooms. Mushrooms lend themselves to the blending process because they contain a considerable amount of glutamate, a naturally occurring compound directly linked to the “meaty” taste sensation know as umami, the Mushroom Council says. Replacing a percentage of the ground meat with mushrooms adds volume while creating a juicer, tastier and more healthful product, blending proponents say.

Meatless burgers containing such ingredients as black beans, portobello mushrooms, pulse proteins like chickpeas and lentils, quinoa and brown rice also are gaining favor in restaurants. According to Datassential, both vegetarians and non-vegetarians order black bean burgers — a point that is reflected in the fact that mentions of black bean burgers have risen 104 percent over the last four years on U.S. menus. Items labeled as veggie burgers can be found on 22 percent of U.S. menus, the research firm reports.

Meanwhile, for those operators who want to continue offering beef burgers but are looking for a leaner, more healthful choice, Delle Donne recommends using grass-fed or 90/10 percent beef.

The Bun
Adjusting the recipe of the bun is another way to boost a burger's health halo. Experts advise the use of whole grain or gluten-free flour as well as ancient grains like spelt and amaranth. While these components may add fiber, however, they are not necessarily lower in carbohydrates or calories. Nevertheless, Delle Donna says, “getting more whole grains into the diet is a movement away from just using white flour, and the country is going in that direction.”

Offering thinner, flatbread style buns presents another option for restaurateurs who are seeking more healthful alternatives. Increasingly, restaurateurs are serving more burgers on bread carriers like tortillas or other flatbreads like ciabatta.

“Offering whole wheat or thinner buns is helpful,” Zanini says. “Also offering 'lettuce buns' or the 'no bun' option is a good idea since many consumers are wary of eating too many carbohydrates.”

Chefs and restaurateurs must remain careful about choosing the right carrier, however. “Buns are an important part of the overall mouth feel and management of the first to last bite of the burger,” Spiegel says. “If it’s too soft, the juices will be lost and the bun will fall apart. If it’s too tough, the pressure of the bite will squeeze all the juiciness out of the burger.”

The Toppings
In addition to offering traditional toppings like lettuce, tomato, cheese and onions, restaurateurs are exploring a wider world of healthful choices. This new generation of toppings include low-fat artisanal cheeses, avocado, kale, alfalfa sprouts, pickled or fermented vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, green leafy lettuce and grilled vegetables like portobello mushrooms and cucumbers.

However, Delle Donne advises, vegetables should be as “farm fresh” and “in season” as possible.

Housemade condiments and sauces are another way to add cachet to a burger. Delle Donne suggests menuing housemade whole grain mustards and other items like harissa ketchup. Housemade aioli and mayonnaise also can be prepared with a more healthful twist, he says.

Creative sauces, Zanini adds, “are an easy way to create healthier burgers while peaking the interest of consumers — for instance, offering an avocado cream sauce instead of mayo.”

Datassential also reports that as bacon continues to emerge as a popular topping, operators may want to opt for turkey and vegetarian bacon.

Meanwhile, as Americans become more aware of eating healthfully, experts say it makes good business sense for operators to menu more nutritious burger choices. “It goes back to the 'no diner left out' philosophy,” Delle Donne says. “You don't want to set a barrier to any customer.”

Zanini agrees, saying, “I think healthful burger options are a must for most menus, and original, clever spins on the classic burger will continue to be trendy.”



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