Winning team members of 'Between The Buns' grind up a mixture of hamburger meat to be tested.
If you're looking for burger experts, searching a college campus is probably a good place to start.
When those college students are earning degrees in food science at the University of Wisconsin, so much the better. That's just what the Gilly's restaurant franchise did. They funded a full-blown better burger research project that involved 17 UW culinary students and staff divided into five teams.
"We gave them the parameters to work with in," said Frankie Guarascio, Gilly's vice president of operations. "We insisted on using the traditional Gilly's seasoning and it had to hit a reasonable price point."
The aptly named team "Between The Buns" of Seth Schulz, UW-Academic Staff and Associate Outreach Specialist of the Meat and Muscle Biology Department, Cherry W.Y. Lam, a UW Food science graduate student and Abbey Thiel, a UW Food Science undergraduate student, collaborated on the winning meat and attended Gilly's reopening media event Wednesday.
If someone really understood beef, they could engage Schulz in an enthusiastic conversation about the why and how each cut of beef was combined in specific portions to create the taste and texture of the new Gilly's burgers. That someone was not me.
Even Thiel admitted that taking part in this project opened her eyes to just how intricate meat processing can be.
It was a sentiment echoed by Amy Deering, Gilly's vice president of marketing and sales, who was instrumental in seeking out the UW Meat Science experts.
"I'll never look at meat butchering the same again," she said shaking her head.
While science was important, trial and error was a big part of the creation process. It's the kind of trial and error most college students would enjoy, which may be part of the reason these teams worked on this project in their spare time.
"After a day of testing, we didn't need to eat anything else for the rest of the day," said Thiel with Schulz and Lam laughing in agreement.
In addition to balancing the fat, texture and taste to hold up as a hamburger, there were other real-world challenges.
"We wanted something beefy with good texture and a lot of flavor," said Schulz. "But we had to be able to do it again and make sure it was doable again and again."
The "again and again" part is now handled by Melotte's Meats in Abrams, and the meat is never frozen and each patty is hand made.
Once they had the mixture established and confirmed they could repeat the results, their burger was put to a blind taste test against the other teams.
"We had the Gilly's team and university students and others taste testing these burgers, so we got a wide range of ages and palates to help us decide," said Guarascio. "When we got it down to the last two it was a close call but the scores during the blind taste tests pushed this one over the top."
As part of the media event Gilly's served up a quarter pounder with cheese, fries and a drink.
The burger has good texture and flavor. I tried bites of the hamburger by itself; then with just a bit of ketchup and bun; and finally loaded with lettuce, tomato and pickles. The burger was tasty enough for a simple ketchup treatment, but the texture helped it stand out when accompanied by the fixings.
Quarter pounders - which are 4.3 ounces before cooking - are priced at $3.40 ($3.70 with cheese) making it cost competitive with other fast food burgers of similar size.
On my way out the door I stopped at the table where team "Between The Buns" had finished the final product.
"Does it taste like the burgers you made," I asked.
Nods around the table confirmed that the mixture was indeed repeatable with the notable exception that Gilly's cooks the burger in 80 seconds, compared to the agonizing minutes it took for each patty during research and development.
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What do you do when life hands you a bunch of leftover ham and an ham bone? You make split pea soup. I'll admit that I got way out of my culinary comfort zone by attempting a soup. Like ribs on the grill, soup making is more art than following a recipe.
The recipe: The sparse use of carrots, celery and potatoes to assist the split peas and ham concerned me. I figured the lack of supporting veggies would make them a rarity on the spoon but they make an appearance in almost every scoop. Also, I used a whole ham bone instead of a ham hock and I skipped the crushed red pepper flakes.
Another adjustment I made was to let the soup sit in the fridge overnight before adding the split peas for the final hours of simmering. This move allowed me to scoop off a large amount of fat. I also have it on good authority that letting a soup sit overnight is a trade secret to great soup.
Caution: There isn't an exact salt measurement in the recipe which was a bit frustrating because salt can often make or break the soup. This is where the art of soup making comes in and for those of us who are still learning that craft, it can be discouraging to invest hours into a soup only to have it come up short on flavor. The instructions say to simmer the soup for an hour after adding the split peas, but it took me a couple of hours to get them to a texture I liked.
Pin it: Yes, especially if you're a soup artist.
You can find this recipe on my Soup board at pinterest.com/foodfamily