Classic. Originally Published: Report, May 2009.
It is hamburger season, dagnabit…and here, for me, is the hamburger deal in a nugget:
1) Not one of us needs any help in making a good hamburger at home…most of us can do it in our sleep! It’s almost as if we Americans are born with that innate ability.
2) But…notice that I said a “good” hamburger. What about a great hamburger? A monumental hamburger? The kind of hamburger that has you dreaming burger dreams until you can have ground beef of this magnitude again? To me, that type of chopped meat significance has only occurred in restaurants. Not that often, I might add…but when such happiness has struck, in my life, it has been the work of a professional kitchen.
And that is what this story is all about: finding the ways to create, at home, hamburgers that have every bit of the gastronomic glory you can find in the best restaurant burgers. The ones that go beyond feeding a crowd with a good burger meal…all the way to dazzling a crowd with something sublime they’ve never tasted before.
For starters…just so we understand each other…what makes a truly great burger truly great?
I propose three categories of potential greatness:
1) THE FLAVOR OF THE BURGER ITSELF
For me, without doubt, the mark of an eye-opening, first-rate hamburger is the flavor of the burger itself. 99% of the burgers I are…just burgers, in flavor. But every once in a while a burger comes my way that tastes like a great porterhouse steak: deep, beefy, buttery, almost sweet with its own richness. You will find burgers like these at great steakhouses…the lunchtime burger at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn NY is such a miracle…and at great ingredient-driven restaurants…such as Zuni Cafe in San Francisco…but rarely will you find them anywhere else.
2) THE TEXTURE OF THE BURGER ITSELF
Think of your classic supermarket burger. Think of McDonald’s. What you have inside the bun…is ground meat. That’s it. Meat that has been ground. Usually, there’s no magic in the texture. There might even be the classic no-no’s: knotty, tight, firm, rubbery, springy, dry. A great burger is as much a delight to your teeth as it is to your taste buds: juicy, melting, tender, meaty, fluffy, savage…any of these adjectives might apply to a great-textured burger. This is not a “precious,” subtle thing–when you’ve got killer texture in a burger, you notice!
3) THE BURGER CONTEXT
To me…this is the least likely category to contribute to greatness. But hey…that’s no surprise…I’m usually a purist in matters of taste. I know that there are many burger-eaters for whom the condiments, and the bun, can positively make a great burger experience. Now, I am certainly not immune to the charms of the right toppers, the right sauces, the right baked goods; this article will be filled with “context” suggestions. But I just wanted to let you know that I feel about burgers as I do about, say, pasta; just as the pasta experience should be primarily about the pasta itself, so should the burger experience, above all, involve a great burger. That said…great pasta sauces, and great burger contexts, are welcome all the time.
SERIOUS BURGERS FOR SERIOUS HOME CHEFS:
YOUR-STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO GREATNESS
THE KIND OF MEAT
All kinds of beef goes into hamburgers, of course. Usually, however, at the supermarket these days, you will get a choice of two ground meats: the cheaper ground chuck, or the more expensive ground sirloin. Is the latter worth the extra buckage (usually a dollar more per pound)?
It is my long-standing contention that the fattier the cut, the more flavorful the burger. Meat from the vast chuck region of the steer (basically everything between the rib cage and the head) is my target meat for burgers. “Sirloin”–and that word is very confusing in meat cuts–usually signals leaner beef.
To test my proposition, I bought a number of ground chucks at N.Y. supermarkets (usually $2.99 per lb.), and a number of ground sirloins (usually $3.99 per lb.). In every case, the chuck meat had a looser grind (good!), with more beefy, buttery taste. In every case, the sirloin seemed more “elegant” (i.e. less fatty), but decidedly less beefy. In a few cases only, the sirloin cut seemed a little “sweeter” (a weird word in beef tasting–but if you’ve had it, you know it). Never, however, was the sirloin cut more buttery.
So…at the supermarket or butcher shop…I’m committed to chuck. But the next question is: how much sway do you have at your supermarket or butcher shop? For there is an area of “chuck” that, without question, yields the greatest meat for hamburgers. I speak of the holy neck, the insider’s holy grail for premium burgers. It yields the richest, fattiest, beefiest burgers of all.
Unfortunately, you will never ever see a package in the supermarket meat case that says “ground beef neck for hamburgers.” There are only two ways to obtain it:
1) Get your butcher to love you, and ask him to prepare ground neck for you: or
2) Love thyself…enough to buy a whole lotta neck, and start scraping away the minimal meat yourself, before chopping it yourself.
See suggestions below for home chopping.
THE BUTCHER SHOP/SUPERMARKET GRIND
Have you noticed, at the butcher shop or supermarket, that ground beef has two main “looks?”
One look is the “all chopped-up” look. “Ground beef” is a good description–like grinding grain, which loses all hints of its original physical form. “Mashed beef” might be an even better description!
However, you may also see packages of “ground beef” that look like wavy noodles of beef. Aha! This is the type of grind that I will take any day!
I’m sure that two things stand behind this lovely, strand-y look. One is a perfect meat grinder, that extrudes the meat in very much the same fashion a pasta machine extrudes spaghetti. The other is the determination on the part of the butchers to preserve the “noodles”–for if you handle them roughly, they will squoosh together into “mashed beef” in short order!
Why is this second look so important? As long as you do what the butchers did–that is, as long as you handle the meat gently–the “noodles” will yield an exceptional texture in your burger: light, fluffy, threatening to fall apart but holding together nevertheless. Meat like this is as far from the dreaded “hockey puck” burger as you can get. Just remember: even in shaping the burgers, you must treat the meat as if it’s a fragile substance. Shape lightly…do not press any more than you have to!
I did a few experiments recently, with ground meat of the two “looks.” My personal taste runs towards the wavy-look meat; I always prefer this kind of burger. But I discovered something interesting about the relationship between the “looks,” and the degree of doneness. Both types of grind can work fine for a rare hamburger–but if you’re going north of medium-rare (into medium territory, or further), you absolutely NEED the wavy-look burger. Otherwise, your burger will become dense, tight, chewy, unattractive. The falling-apart grey meat of the medium wavy-burger–though not my preference–is at least palatable.
THE HOME GRIND
Many assume that if you take the trouble to grind hamburger meat at home, you will be treated to the greatest hamburgers of all. It ain’t necessarily so. But if you do it right…and your taste runs a certain way…it could possibly be so!
First of all, I must confess that I have not been lucky in my purchase of home meat grinders. The ones I’ve had over the years have never yielded those wavy “noodles” of hamburger meat that I so prize. The best I’ve been able to do at home is a hamburger grind that includes little “chunks” of meat, held together in a kind of hamburger suspension. And when I’m longing for the wavy noodles, this is a disappointment.
But I need to take you one step further. For I discovered on this go-round that the greatest type of home grind (pending discoveries on the grinder front, of course)–is hand-chopped home grind! Whatever guilty goodness comes out of my grinder–is tripled when the grind is achieved under the weight of a heavy knife.
Here’s what you do: purchase cheap cuts of chuck, that seem to have somewhere between 10% and 20% fat (I prefer the latter number, of course). If you can purchase neck meat, so much the better (neck is part of chuck, so this would be like upgrading from Appellation Bordeaux to Appellation Margaux). Trim the meat carefully; all meat and all fat can go in, but anything gristly, sinewy, silverskin-y must be cut away.
When you’ve got large chunks of boneless meat and fat sitting on your chopping board (the more consistent in size the chunks are, the better)…you’re ready to wail. I find a heavy knife gives you the leverage you need, and a sharp knife leads to a juicier burger (because a dull knife might compress the meat without cutting it, thereby squeezing out juice). You can look like a French chef chopping parsley, with a machine-gun profusion of rapid cuts…or you can go Chinese, take two cleavers in hand, and work them in tandem (rat-a-tat-tat once again). Either way, the finished product you want has relatively uniform bits of meat–not too large, but not pounded into a paste, either.
Now this kind of burger grind might be a little strange and brutal for some. It is particularly so immediately after the chopping. I find that if you let the meat sit in the fridge for a few days, tightly covered, it coalesces into something more conventionally burger-like. And, of course, if you’d like just a taste of caveman, with a patina of civilization–mixing one-half home-grind with one-half store grind (NOT the wavy noodles, because they’re hard to blend with the home grind) yields an absolutely lovely result. This hybrid has, in fact, become my favorite home burger.
Once again: it really should be cooked rare.
To summarize, here are my favorite grinds in order of preference, top grinds first:
* 1/2 home hand-chopped mixed with 1/2 store-ground (not the wavy grind)
* 1/2 home machine-chopped mixed with 1/2 store-ground (not the wavy grind)
* great wavy grind from the store
* home hand-chopped (or machine chopped)
* the “ground-up” grind from the store
THE SEASONING AND HANDLING
Handling first–probably the most important chef’s detail in preparing hamburgers. For here’s the news of news: TREAT ‘EM GENTLY!!!!!
When you take ground meat out of the store package, or when you’re transferring the meat you’ve chopped yourself–treat the meat as if it were eggs that might crack! Any undue pressure will compress the meat, leading to a tighter, tougher hamburger. When you shape the patties, try to pull a lump of meat from the pile of ground beef that’s almost already burger-shaped; pat it gently with your hands to round it out.
This much is easy to do. The hard part is seasoning the meat–for evenly mixing in salt and/or pepper would seem to require some rough handling of the ground meat. What I like to do–and my preference is salt only, no pepper, leading to an untrammeled taste of beef–is to remove a five-ounce wad from the pile of ground beef. I rest it on the counter in its still unformed state, making sure that it’s a little wider than the ultimate burger I’ll shape. I grind or sprinkle the salt over the meat–but do not roughly shape it into a patty. Then I gently push the outsides into the middle until I have something resembling a burger. I will sacrifice a few beauty points to keep that meat loose. In fact…I prefer the loose, hand-made look to the hockey-puck look.
Now…speaking of seasoning…is there anything other than salt that you can use to flavor a burger?
Most of the time–especially if I have great beef–I’m principally of the purist mind. I re-iterate: in hamburgerdom, nothing tops the sweet, beefy, buttery taste of great ground beef!
THE CHOICE OF HEAT
And now…the most controversial of all my positions on the hamburger!
Most people flat-out assume that the greatest cooking unit for a hamburger is the grill. The grill is storied as the heart of backyard burger parties, and it is featured in thousands of trendy restaurants across the U.S. reaching upwards to “finer” hamburgers. Believe me, I have no problems whatsoever with hamburgers on the grill. I love ‘em!
What I do have problems with is the general attitude towards the grill’s #1 alternative: the griddle, or the frying pan. “Griddle?” ask the grill snobs. “That’s what you find at a cheap diner making burgers.” “Frying pan?” they ask again. “That’s what you use when the weather’s bad, or when you haven’t made it in life and don’t have a backyard.”
And these are the positions I dispute. For I contend that the griddle/frying pan burger, though a different creature entirely, is also a beautiful thing.
For starters…what’s so great about the grill? The extremely high heat a direct charcoal fire can generate cooks the beef quickly–so you can gets lots of color and char on the outside, while keeping the inside rare. And the smoky, grill-y flavor added by that color and char is something magnificent. In the roster of flavors that complement beef, the flavors of caramelization and smoke would be way up there for me.
The problems with the loyal opposition, the griddle/frying pan burger, are that:
1) not as much heat is generated;
2) the fire doesn’t hit the burger directly; and
3 )the environment doesn’t create a smoky flavor.
But there are ways to think about the griddle/frying pan in a much more positive light.
For one thing, the size of the burger can help you achieve a browner burger with a good rare middle (see just below).
More important, the griddle and/or pan give you the opportunity to add a kind of flavor to the burger that the grill can never offer!
Have you ever had a burger at a burger joint with a broad griddle, the kind of place that has been flipping burgers on that griddle for 20 or 30 years…like Jackson Hole, in New York City? The flavor of the burger is transformed by a griddle like that–because decades of use have actually changed the flavor of that steel, driven a record of beefy fat into it! And that taste of old fat subtly affects the taste of any new burger coming off the griddle. It adds depth, dimension, interest, complexity. It is absolutely NOT a taste that you can achieve on a grill over an open fire!
So I say…celebrate ‘em both.
And the best way to celebrate at home is to designate a heavy frying pan–cast-iron’s a good choice!–as your burger pan. Start breaking it in today…not “confusing” the pan by cooking chili in it tomorrow and Thai red curry the day after that!
Nothing will help more in establishing the flavor of your pan than melting some beef fat in it, and letting it sit for a few hours before wiping it out. That’s a good general principle as you break in the pan. After that…I like to melt a little beef fat in the pan before any cooking of hamburgers! And the best beef fat of all…is aged beef fat! You can age your own: every time you have a steak, or a roast, just cut off a little bit of the extra fat. Wrapped tight, it will keep for a week or so in the fridge, definitely creating a deeper taste that substitutes for 30 years of griddle-cooking. When it’s on the edge of funk…wrap it even tighter and put it in the freezer! Now you’ll have an ever-ready shortening and lubrication for your burger pan.
If you want to get really crazy–you can used aged fat from Kobe beef!
If, on the other hand, you want to get really un-crazy–substitute a little butter in the pan for the beef fat. For the other possible yum of griddle-or-pan cooking is that the taste of butter is remarkably complementary to the taste of ground beef. Warm, buttery burgers on warmed, soft, fluffy, buttered buns–well, it’s hard to top that, even with a superb grill.
If you’re going for the pan-cooked aesthetic, here’s a great tip to maximize that fatty pan-cooked thang. Spread the insides of your bun with butter. When the burger comes out of the pan, before you dress it in any way–lay it on one of the bun halves. Top with the other half. Press down ever so slightly, then release. This will bond burger and bun like nobody’s business! Then, open the sandwich, set the top half of the bun aside, and go about your business of adding condiments. Top with the reserved half bun and serve.
THE SIZE OF THE PATTY
Just as there’s “burger orthodoxy” in the choice of heat, so is there “burger orthodoxy” in the size of the patty. Simply observe the way in which McDonald’s has ramped it up over the years, and you get the picture: the original thin burger yielded center stage to the “quarter-pounder,” which eventually yielded center stage to the “one-third-pounder.”
In the burger imagination, bigger is better. But is it?
I would contend that “bigger” as in “wider” is pretty much a non-factor; more diameter in the patty has little effect on the cooking or the taste.
However, a thicker burger–aha!–does have one indisputable advantage: no matter what your heat source, a thicker bigger will ensure more browning on the outside before the inside starts moving past rare.
That being said, there is a burger dichotomy with which every burger-eater must contend: do you prefer the meat-heavy proportions of meat to bread that a thick burger will produce, or do you prefer the greater presence of bread that a thin, flat burger will produce?
They are really two different animals. The former is a carnivore’s delight, allowing a dizzy focus on juicy, monumental meat. It is the burger for the eater who cares about the burger itself (that would be me).
For some people, however, the soul of the burger experience is the interplay between burger and bun–with the delightful couching of the patty in fluff, and the irresistible transfer of meat juices to the insides of the split bun. For some, being able to really apprehend the juice-dripped bun may be better than chomping into the juice itself. Condiments as well, for burger-lovers like these, get much more focus when the burger’s not as intrusive, avoirdupois-wise.
For me, sometimes, I do construct the thin burger, particularly when I’m in a retro mood. You know how to do it: extract 3 ounces of meat or so from the chopped meat pile, season it, and, handling it gently, press it down to a circle that’s barely 1/4″ thick. There is one huge cooking caveat, however, when it comes to the flat burger: if you like rare burgers, the grill is not your friend! No matter how hot the fire, you will likely end up with a burger that’s either grey on the outside (if your goal is preserving rare meat), or grey on the inside (if your goal is brown on the outside). Burgers such as these, cooked on the grill, are not appealing.
The thin game shifts, however, on the griddle or in the frying pan–particularly if your goal is to emphasize “warm, nostalgic, butter-y, mother-y.” When you pan-cook your burger with a little butter, or beef fat, everything changes. Think White Castle: yeah, the burger itself ain’t a work of art…yeah, it’s thin and brown and grey and overcooked all over…but somehow just a meager portion of it on a fat-drenched fluffy roll hits a certain spot. There is some kind of sublime ratio at work. This, too, is a facet of the burger experience.
On most days, however…gimme da big one. In fact, I have codified my ideal burger proportions for fat burgers destined either for pan or grill: I like a burger that’s 5 ounces in weight, approximately 4 ounces in diameter, and approximately 1/2″ thick. This burger is not obscenely large, which allows for lots of interplay with bun and condiments. But it’s large enough to make a huge, meaty, impression on your palate…and large enough to create no angst at all when someone asks “where’s the beef?”
DEGREE OF DONENESS
Well, there’s little dispute about this category–and practically none at all, in my mind: almost without exception, the more you cook a burger past rare, the worse the burger will be.
This is a texture consideration, above all. Rare burgers have the juice, the crumble, the fluff, that make biting into a burger really interesting. The more they cook, the more they turn into tight, rubbery little coils of meat.
Also, however, the more they cook…and the more the fat in the burger melts away…the less you get of that fatty, buttery taste. A rare burger tastes like a rare steak; a well-done burger tastes like a stew.
Of course, I wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention once again that in that unusual instance of craving the thin, thin burger on a fatty bun with condiments…well-done can have its place. Just ask Harold and Kumar.
THE COOKING PROCESS
There are many ways to cook a burger…but, right now, I’m interested in the few essential things that roll through all burger cooking.
Here are the big six I want you to think about, whether you’re going grill or pan:
* Burgers cook best over very high heat
* It is best to start with a cold burger, retarding the cooking of the inside while the outside gets brown
* Allow the burger to get great color on one side before flipping to the other side (if you end up flipping back and forth a few times, no problem…but set one side’s color first)
* DO NOT–under any circumstances–press on your burger with a spatula
* When the burger is browned on both sides, and nearing completion, look for the puddling up of red juices on the surface of the patty which indicates there’s a good, rare, ready-to-be eaten burger in your pan or on your grill
* Just before serving, sprinkle a little high-quality salt on the burger
THE CHEESE ISSUE
“Want cheese on that?”–is not an easy decision for me (do I need help?). In my tasting universe, there is a world of difference between the hamburger and the cheeseburger.
I love ‘em both: the burger for the way its insistent beefy beef serves as a foil for sweet ketchup and sweet onions…the cheeseburger for the soft, dairy-like glow it adds to the equation, lessening the burger-meets-sweet confrontation, but creating nuances of its own.
So…on any given day…I’m as likely to choose one as the other.
But when you’ve decided to go fromage…which fromage to choose?
All personal taste, of course. Choose whatever you like. For me, however, I gotta say…I’m not a fan of cheeseburger cheese that’s either thick, or strong-flavored. Both of those, to me, throw off the essential balance of the thing. Oh, every once in a while a Swissburger or a Cheddarburger will make me smile. But–true confessions time–when I’m making cheeseburgers in my kitchen, I usually opt for the individually-wrapped orange-yellow squares of cheese. There’s nostalgia involved, yes…but these singles add the perfectly subtle dairy accent that I seek.
Of course, I have noticed that there are lots of lower-cost players today in the sliced cheese game. I’ve also noticed that they have less taste, and supply ooze without much flavor at all. My advice: don’t skimp. If you’re making an American cheese cheeseburger, go all the way. Go nuts. Break the bank. Buy Kraft.
I am a bun liberal–open to a wide range of specific possibilities for bunning my burger. Even the lowly supermarket hamburger bun–as long as it’s steamed and warm and schmeared with a little fat–can be a beautiful thing.
However, I do have a list of criteria that I ask my buns to meet:
* They must be of the appropriate size for the burger, which is to say: “cover the burger but don’t smother it.” In a perfectly covered burger, the edge of the burger comes to the edge of the bun. I don’t mind when the burger sticks out a bit, but I don’t like the opposite: a perimeter of burger-less bun. Also, the thickness of the burger plays a role here: thin burgers need thin buns, fat burgers can take fatter buns (though fat burgers are also good on thin buns if you want to emphasize the meat).
* I want the exterior of my hamburger bun to be soft! This is not the moment for tough, crackly, chewy crusts (though I love those in other contexts). I will allow a thin, golden patina of crackle on the outside of the bun (as in an egg-wash topping)…but no major resistance, please! This would take away from the beautiful action of teeth sinking gently, inexorably, into the warm treasure of quivering beef below.
* I don’t want the interior of my hamburger bun to be dense! Once again–this mistake would steal the thunder from the main attraction, the lovely texture of the burger itself. An ideal bun for me is light and fluffy inside. Air pockets are great, or even a little break in the grain would help; close-textured, cake-y buns don’t show the burger at its best.
* Of course, whatever bun you choose–it must be fresh! Once again, even a small stale factor toughens up the bun and takes away from an ideal beefburger’s softness, lightness, elegance.
* On the prep side…I have a strong preference for warmed buns. Lightly steamed is my favorite method of all…but a lightly grilled bun, grill marks and all, with a grilled burger, doesn’t suck.
* Also on the prep side…I am usually in favor of a bun, any bun, with a mild slathering of butter before it meets its burger.
* Lastly…I urge hamburger-bun choosers to not be bun-centric! Remember that it’s all about the burger. This is not the moment to show off your relationship with that great artisanal baker down the street who makes crusty, burger-sized boules! This is the moment to love your burger!
Now when it comes to condiments…I’m a conservative!
In my burger-obsessed boyhood home, no one ever considered serving a burger with anything more on it than a slice of raw onion and a bit of ketchup. This was the ClassicBurger (and the Classic Burger for millions of other households, as well). My Dad must have cooked thousands of burgers while I was growing up–but very, very rarely did he ever stray from topping them with just a slice of raw onion and a bit of ketchup.
The criterion was simple: do the condiments allow the burger to shine? I do confess that to the purist-purist, probably even the onion-ketchup treatment is too distracting! But my Dad and I viewed the onion-ketchup treatment as Japanese theatre-goers view the people dressed in black moving furniture on the stage between scenes: they’re not there! We trained ourselves to see the onion-ketchup addition as the only way of getting to the beefy burger-ness of a burger.
Then…a new day dawned, and it was a McDonald’s day. A new idea from California reached us hide-bound Easterners through the medium of a fast-chain: burgers with lots stuff on ‘em. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Pickles. Mayonnaise-based sauces. Yikes! My Dad took one look at that, turned up his nose, and said “that’s a salad, not a hamburger!”
Of course, he didn’t live quite long enough to see the next stage of burger non sequiturs: the piling on of exotic, sometimes luxurious ingredients at top-level restaurants all around the country wanting to present “serious” burgers.
For any burger improvisation–random, fast--style, or big-deal-restaurant-style, I keep to the same basic criterion: do the condiments allow the burger to shine. I hate stuff that goes on burgers merely for the thrill of putting it on burgers, or for the thrill of flaunting certain ingredients. The whole thing has got to make sense to me within a burger context–which usually means enhancing the taste of the burger within, not stealing its thunder.
Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that a burger occasionally comes along that is filled with bells and whistles–delicious bells and whistles, not necessarily advancing the burger cause, but adding up to a great sandwich nevertheless. About a year ago, I had an amazing burger at Palena Cafe in Washington D.C. that broke my rule–however, I would not wish the world to be without this burger (topped with a soft, truffled, cow’s-milk cheese from northern Italy, which the producers rub with allspice and clove; dressed with garlic-scented mayonnaise made in-house with grapeseed oil, a touch of olive oil, lemon, vinegar and mustard; served on a sesame bun).
I can be sympathetic. I can stretch. Nevertheless…I think the best advice for home cooks building their own creative burgers…is…”respectez le boeuf!”
Photos Via: Emily Oberto, Jennifer Traub, Burgerac