Ask Peter: Breadcrumbs
Can you tell me why some burger patty recipes call for breadcrumbs — is this to help the meat stretch further or does it help with excess water in the meat? If you do have to add breadcrumbs can they be dried store bought or are they better fresh?
Whether to add breadcrumbs or not is entirely a textural decision if you’re making burgers yourself. Some store-bought meat patties (although I can’t recall that I’ve seen any in recent years) have had breadcrumbs or rusk added, as do sausages (a more common thing) and this is generally to pad the meat out, as stale bread is much cheaper to procure than real meat.
Some butchers may claim that the reason they add it is to make the meat bind better, but I would have to disagree. Though it will do that, of course, if meat is well-aged and not too “wet”, binding isn’t an issue in patties or sausages. If the meat is very fresh, adding something absorbent like bread will help it hold, but surely then the patties should be sold as meat and bread patties. It’s a good way to “stretch” the meat so you get more patties per kilo of actual meat, but that’s a commercial reason to add breadcrumbs, not a culinary one.
Having said that, I am quite partial to adding coarse crumbs of leftover stale sourdough to lamb and pork mince patties as I quite like both the texture and the flavour. Finely powdered bread crumbs don’t quite do it for me as they are a bit paste-y — but chunky and not completely dried sourdough crumbs can be really good. In the same way, you can add crushed cornflakes to chicken mince patties (so long as the chicken isn’t too finely minced or they begin to resemble something slightly fake in texture, if you know what I mean — something inauthentic).
In order to prove I’m not a diehard purist, I also make a lovely fish patty, rather like a Thai fish cake, in which I puree silken tofu into the fish which gives it lightness, and the protein in the tofu means I needn’t add egg to bind it together — which makes a fish patty a little too rich and firm.
I’ve also hand-chopped fish cakes using fish trim, diced prawn tails and scallops and bound that with coarsely grated stale bread and a few rice bubbles and seasoned them with shredded coriander, black garlic puree, chopped ginger and chillies and they are also delicious.
But back to meat patties. If minced meat is “wet”, generally it’s very freshly killed, or defrosted at too warm a temperature from frozen. Just like an aged steak you may have paid top dollar for at a restaurant or good butcher, moisture evaporates from meat as it “hangs around”, just as it does from cheese (a wheel of cheddar can lose something like 35 per cent in weight when it ages), a loaf of bread or a cake. An aged steak therefore will be firmer and more heavily flavoured than a freshly killed beast.
The opposite, of course, is true for things from the ocean, where fresh is definitely best. Of course if you’re making your own mince — whether you be a butcher or a home cook — you’re highly unlikely to be mincing up aged beef. Mincing is, however, a great way to use the trim and off-cuts (so long as they’re not too gristly) and meatballs, meatloaf, bolognese sauce and patties are the perfect thing to make from such meat. But do bear in mind there are varying degrees of mince.
Mince that has too much fat included will simply melt away — your patty will end up swimming in fat if pan-fried. Too much gristle will make it too chewy and not so flavoursome. And a patty with too many breadcrumbs or rusks will just not win you over on the flavour stakes, unless of course that’s what you like. And if you do like the breadcrumbs in, I’d suggest you try using fresh, and dried, and see which you prefer.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.