The common hamburger. It’s an Americana staple, and probably the most iconic sandwich known around the world. It’s permeated the hearts of food-lovers across the globe much the same way as pizza or sushi. And yet, there are a million different variations on the classic, with additions like foie gras, peanut butter, bacon and beyond. The greatest chefs in the world have tackled the hamburger with amazing and/or amusing results, and yet, many of us still prefer to head down to the nearest greasy spoon for a $2.99 special that hits the spot like a bullet vibrator with new batteries.
There are seething, vicious debates about whether the In-N-Out burger chain deserves accolades for their secret “animal-style” menu despite the fact that they disseminate religious propaganda in the form of psalms printed on their to-go cups. And then there are the die-hard White Castle fans who insist a small-scale slider is the only way to go. It seems once you back a national chain, you’ve eaten their proprietary blend of the brown acid, complete with msg and processed cheese (both of which are germane to great hamburgers, it turns out).
And then there are the backyard-dads who swear their stealthy flipping techniques bring all the girls to the yard time and time again. This faction of burger masters tend to believe it’s all about the grill. Also there is talk of special sauces or “marinades” as the dads call them, regardless whether they’re sloshed on, soaked in, or injected.
You’ve got the chefs, the scientists, the flame-broilers and the heated eaters all in on the great hamburger debate, each with a little twist that they swear edges out the competition. Well, it’s time I toss my hat in the ring. I’m not claiming this is the world’s best burger; I only sought to make a burger that I loved above all others. And so for the last year, I hit the books, streets and skillets in one great, delicious effort to “research” my subject.
I started close to home, with the very best of the local burger chains, like Blue Moon Burgers and Built Burger. I also paid an obligatory visit to cult-favorite Dick’s Burgers. In so doing, I learned that the word “cult” actually means “only enjoyed at 2 am while either incredibly-high or frat boy-drunk”. Then I went on a national spree (read binge) of the cream of America’s crop.
I sampled the Animal-Style Double-Double at In-N-Out at least 10 times in the last year in several different cities, you know, just to make sure I got an accurate representation. For the record, it remains my favorite fast food burger. I also ordered multiples of literally every single item on White Castle’s menu, as I knew I’d only be in Detroit for a short time, and I needed to fill the void between my cheeks with as many of their tasty little sliders as possible.
I hit up LA’s trendy Umami Burger and found it fair, but the real allure is their satisfying side dishes like smushed potatoes and sweet potato fries. They get an extra demerit because I’m by no means a big eater, and yet, if I were eating burgers sans sides, I’d need two of theirs to fill me up. At $10-$12 a pop, that becomes a mighty expensive lunch. They regain half of their demerit, however, because they serve real Mexican Coke. The sooner the US ditches that strange, saccharine pseudo-cola in favor of what Mexico and the rest of the world drinks, the happier we’ll become.
Of course I did not limit my “research” to restaurant burgers; I also cooked enough to fill the mansion that is Kanye West’s ego. I played with meat until my hands existed in a permanent state of softness from constantly being coated in animal fat, gradually succumbing to the flies perpetually perched on my knuckles.
And like I said, I hit the books. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, has weighed in on the perfect burger. And their thoughts are all different. Nancy Silverton insists upon a blend of chuck and sirloin from Huntington Meats in the LA Farmer’s Market. Eric Ripert claims it’s all about “size” and “thickness” (seems someone is a little too preoccupied with his own manhood). Nathan Myhrvold’s burger in the highly-acclaimed Modernist Cuisine books is surely the most advanced burger on the block, undergoing processes like immersion in liquid nitrogen before a flash in the deep-fryer just sets its caramel crust.
But the burger master I respect the most, not the least of which because Myhrvold takes burger cues from him, is Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck infamy. Heston conjured a burger rife with umami, unctuousness, and a meaty underbelly of utter decadence, but it is not without its shortcomings, despite the fact that criticizing it is like finding fault with the Sistine Chapel.
Heston’s bun is like a lighter, eggier brioche. The crumb is airy, but loses points for disintegrating as it’s torn up by the callous meat and my rough-n-eager fingers. His mix of beef, which contains a 30-day dry-aged short rib, is near impossible to replicate without living in a meat locker. Also, his bun is smattered in dreaded sesame seeds. I take issue with dappling my dinner with bird feed, period.
But the biggest issue and perhaps the greatest coup at the same time with Heston’s burger is the cheese. In a touch of brilliance, he has us melt down Compte and with the simple addition of sodium citrate (a molecular gastronomy 101 chemical readily available from chemists and online), the fondue can be poured out on a sheet pan only to once again harden into a cheeselike substance resembling a Kraft single.
It’s brilliant because you can infuse liquor into aged cheese then Americanize it by stamping it into a “processed” slice. It’s sorely lacking because Heston suggests using sherry-fortified Compte cheese, a strong and slightly sweet relative to Emmental. Sounds good and all, but it’s mothertrucking sacrilege to put fancy French cheese on a hamburger, not to mention Spanish sherry.
One of the greatest discoveries I made in all my burger research is that of uniformity. It is IMPERATIVE that the bun is the same diameter as the burger as the lettuce as the tomato as the cheese. This means that every bite will be equally-proportioned which is key for flavor consistency, but also fundamental to ensuring that the burger stays in your hands without the patty and tomato sliding out every which way like the tongue on a drunk giraffe.
So I set out to improve upon Heston’s burger, and in the process I gained nine pounds and a lot of unannounced visitors around dinner time every night. Here’s the rundown:
I liked Heston’s bun but I wanted to make it less cottony and even lighter. Therefore, I substituted a portion of the flour for boiled potato flesh and I substituted Heston’s regular water for starchy potato water.
I did not use a dough hook; instead I used the wire whip mixer attachment. This dough is so liquid it doesn’t benefit from kneading. It DOES benefit, however, from being aerated as much as possible because that helps expand desirable air pockets in the finished product. I added potato because it lends softness to the buns, but it also contributes to the cohesive integrity of the finished product, thereby making the bun much less crumbly than Heston’s original.
In some initial trials, I used fine aged meats. Then I slapped myself because, after all, this is a hamburger we’re making. The most important thing is to target a high fat content, but all the fancy marbled Wagyu in the world ain’t gonna make a burger better if you don’t augment the fat. Thus, I used a majority (2 parts) of marbled chuck, tossed in ½ part fatty (un-aged) short ribs, and ½ part swirly rib-eye.
The secret is also adding beef suet (raw fat, typically found around the loin and kidneys) to obtain a 25% fat-to-meat ratio. There is a little math involved here- generally it’s easy to ask the butcher what percent fat the chuck, rib-eye and short ribs are, but if he doesn’t know, you can kind of eyeball it. Fat’s white, meat’s red. You’re aiming for a quarter of the final blended product to be white. It’s not rocket science.
I double grind the meat, but I don’t salt it the way Heston does. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt conducted research on why salting hamburgers at any point prior to just before cooking them binds the proteins together with the end result being a dense burger with a consistency closer to hot dog. If you need any more convincing than his detailed post provides, come over for dinner. Hamburger should be loose and crumbly, not puck-like and homogenous.
I cribbed Heston’s technique of pooling the ground meat together in a roulade rather than making individual patties. I veered from him in that I cooked the roulade (log of hamburger) sous vide for four hours at 132°F prior to cutting it into ½” patties for a final quick-sear. He also suggests collecting the meat as it falls off the grinder and keeping the strands in uniform long tubes, but I found this difficult since I didn’t salt the meat, which aids stranding but leads to tightness. I found Heston’s strand technique to have no appreciable difference in taste or texture of the finished product, likely because I cooked the patties sous vide.
I loved the concept of making “singles” of highly-meltable cheese, but his raw ingredients were way off, probably due to his lack of hamburger-making pedigree since he’s British. Yes, I just said that, come down on me if you must. So instead of Compte, I used Tillamook sharp cheddar, because it’s a regular slice of America, damn it. And instead of sherry, I used a craft-brewed porter which I reduced along with some Szechuan peppercorns, garlic and anchovy for added umami. The cheese was beyond. Just beyond. Of course it might help even more that the porter gives it the color of caramel when it’s poured onto the sheet pan to harden. Like a fromage mirage.
Rather than Heston’s tasteless tomato concentrate, I made ketchup from raw Roma tomatoes that I heavily-infused with mushrooms and anchovies. This adds even more umami, which is elemental to a good burger. Some suggest adding the anchovy right into the meat, but I find that that actually binds the proteins together too much, the same way the salt does, so disguising it in the ketchup is a better option.
I used unadulterated wheels of iceberg, formed with the same sized round cutter as everything else on the sandwich. Uniformity in size is elemental for well-proportioned bites. Not paying attention to uniformity is one of the biggest mistakes people make during hamburger construction.
I highly suggest only making burgers in August, or when your local tomatoes are sweet and ripe. First I blanch and peel heirloom tomatoes, then I slice them into ¼” pieces. For the sake of uniformity, I use the same round cutter as with the lettuce to form them into perfect circles. Next, each slice gets a little salt and a drop of liquid smoke, then I vacuum-seal it in a foodsaver bag to concentrate the flavor.
On the West Coast use Best Foods. On the East Coast use Hellman’s. Always original, never low-fat or flavored, and if you even think about putting Miracle Whip on this burger, you may as well drink Latour with ice cubes in it.
Why is the mayo not homemade? Because the classic tang of Best Foods lends nostalgia and familiarity to an otherwise ethereal burger.
A Word on Additional Toppings:
Add onions if you wish. I’d suggest blanching them and cutting them into uniform rounds. I don’t like them on my burger, so I don’t include them. A pickle on the side makes a fine accompaniment, but never on the burger. I feel the same way about avocado, bacon, foie gras, peanut butter, and the various other potential burger accoutrements. Once you delve into that realm, it’s no longer a hamburger. It may taste wonderful, but it’s not a classic hamburger.
If you make this burger as-is, you will swoon. You will want another. And then another. If you make it to share with guests, be prepared for that awkward part of the meal where everyone is wordless and the audible sounds of pleasure mingle in a cacophony of chews and sighs.
The Salty Seattle Burger
Makes 12 Burgers
Special Equipment: mixer with wire whip and dough hook attachments, meat grinder, temperature-controlled (sous vide) water bath such as Polyscience immersion circulator, potato ricer, coarse sieve, griddle or cast-iron pan, parchment paper, saran wrap, aluminum foil
For the buns:
- 150 g bread flour (I use King Arthur)
- 50 g vital wheat gluten
- .5 g rapid-rise yeast (about ¼ tsp)
- 200 g cold water
- 350 g pre-ferment batter
- 5 large egg yolks
- 30 g water that was used to boil 1 potato
- 200 g boiled russet potato, riced or mashed well (flesh only)
- 150 g bread flour
- 50 g superfine sugar
- 30 g skim milk powder
- 8 g kosher salt
- 7 g rapid-rise yeast
- 30 g browned butter, strained, at room temp
- 15 g grapeseed oil
- 16 g vegetable shortening
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- Pinch salt
- Few drops of water
For the Burger Meat:
- 1 kg marbled chuck roast
- ½ kg Rib-eye (aged is bonus)
- ½ kg boneless short ribs
- 150 g beef suet (ask your butcher for this, usually available at no charge)
For the Ketchup:
- 2 kg very ripe roma tomatoes, blanched, peeled and strained to make about 6 cups tomato puree
- 2 tbsp canola oil
- 1 large red onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 250 g shitake mushrooms
- 2 anchovy filets
- 125 g cider vinegar
- 100 g dark brown sugar
- Salt, to taste
For the cheese slices:
- 1 liter porter beer
- 4 Szechuan peppercorns
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 anchovy fillet
- 7 g sodium citrate
- 450 g sharp cheddar (Tillamook), grated
For the tomato slices:
- 3 very large heirloom tomatoes, blanched, chilled in an ice bath, and peeled
- Kosher salt
- 1 drop per slice of liquid smoke for a total of 12 drops
- Best Foods/Hellman’s Mayo
- Mustard, optional
- Onion slices, blanched for 30 seconds, optional
For the pre-ferment
- Put flour into mixing bowl and add yeast.
- Using dough hook, begin mixing on low speed and gradually pour in the water until it has all been added.
- Continue mixing on medium speed until a very liquid batter has formed.
- Pour this batter into a clean, dry container (at least four times bigger than the volume of the batter). Cover and leave in a cool place for 18-48 hours.
Making the buns
1. After 24 hours, weigh out 350g of pre-fermented batter and put it in a mixing bowl with a wire whip attachment. Add the egg yolks and the potato water and begin mixing on a low speed until the dough is homogeneous and very liquid again (approximately two minutes).
2. Pass the flour, sugar, skimmed milk powder, salt and yeast into a separate bowl through a coarse sieve. Stir to combine. Add the riced potato.
3. Gradually add the sifted ingredients to the dough while continuing to mix on slow speed. Once all have been added, increase the speed to medium and mix for another 2-3 minutes. The dough will look very sticky and wet.
5. Add the browned butter, grapeseed oil and vegetable shortening to the dough and continue to mix for another 3-4 minutes, until well combined.
6. Stop the mixer and let the dough sit for ten minutes to absorb the water, then continue to mix on medium speed for another four minutes.
7. Cover the dough and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up.
8. In the meantime, cut a piece of parchment paper to fit a large baking sheet.
9. Cut 12 sheets of aluminium foil 12” long. Fold the sheets of foil in half in the shorter direction, then continue to fold in half until you have an aluminum strip ½in wide and 12” long. Using a 3 1/4” round cutter as a guide, wrap the foil strip around the cutter with a bit of overlap to form a ring just under 3.5” in diameter. Tape closed and repeat this process with the other sheets of foil.
10. When the dough has chilled, weigh out twelve 70-75g portions. Any remaining dough can be wrapped up and frozen to use another time.
11. Lightly flour your hands and quickly roll each piece of dough into a small ball using the palm of your hand. Place the balls on the prepared baking sheet and place a foil ring around each one.
12. With wet hands, lightly pat the balls flat, then cover the baking sheet with well-oiled saran wrap or a sheet pan cover to prevent the dough from drying out.
13. Set the dough aside in a warm plac for 1½-2 hours to let it rise. Ideally you don’t want the dough to touch the saran wrap cover or it could compromise the final look of the bun, so watch it and keep your cover high.
14. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 225C/425F and mix all the ingredients for the egg wash.
15. Using wet hands, lightly flatten the dough balls within the foil rings.
16. Just before baking, pour some water into a tray and place at the bottom of the oven to make it lightly steamy. (This will prevent the buns from cracking on the surface and developing too thick a crust).
17. Bake the buns for seven minutes, then remove from the oven and brush the tops with the egg wash.
18. Return to the oven for a further four minutes, or until the buns are done. Remove and place on a wire rack to cool. Once cool enough to handle, cut the foil rings and slice the buns in half.
Making the Burgers
1. Set the water bath temperature to 132°F.
2. Cut the meat and suet into manageably grindable chunks. Refrigerate until very cold.
3. Using a meat grinder, grind the meats once and combine with your hands to homogenize. Refrigerate this meat until very cold.
4. Before you begin the final grinding, place two layers of saran wrap across a chopping board or baking sheet and position under the mouth of the grinder.
5. Using a coarse plate, pass the meat mixture through the grinder.
6. As the meat comes out of the grinder, try to keep the grain of the individual strands running lengthwise in the same direction without getting tangled together. To do this, start laying the meat down at the edge of the sheet furthest from the grinder and work across to the closest edge.
7. Wrap the meat up tightly in the saran wrap, twisting the ends in opposite directions to form a log-shaped roulade. Prick a few holes in it with a pin to release any air pockets trapped inside, then continue to twist the ends to tighten until the log is about 3.5” in diameter.
8. Vacuum-seal the meat in food-grade plastic and immerse in the water bath. Cook for four hours.
9. Remove the meat from the water bath and chill in an ice-bath until very cold.
10. When the meat has chilled thoroughly, unwrap and place the log on a cutting board and use a very sharp knife to cut ½” slices.
11. Heat a griddle or cast iron skillet until it is very hot. Spray with a thin layer of cooking spray. Cook each patty for 30 seconds on the first side, then flip, top with a cheese slice, cover skillet, and cook an additional 40 seconds or just long enough to melt the cheese. This will result in medium-rare patties. Cheese technique follows.
Making the ketchup
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onion. Saute for 2 minutes, then add the garlic, mushrooms and anchovies.
- Cover the pan and cook for 2 minutes. Uncover and stir. Cook uncovered for 2 additional minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the tomato puree, vinegar, sugar and a little salt. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the puree has reduced to about 1 cup- approximately 2-3 hours.
- At this point you can taste to correct seasonings and add more salt as necessary.
- Remove from heat, and pass through a strainer. Press with a ladle to really extract as much as possible into the resulting ketchup.
- Blend to achieve a smooth texture, and refrigerate until needed.
Making the cheese
- Place the porter, peppercorns, garlic and anchovy in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium heat until liquid is reduced by half- about 20 minutes.
- Strain out the peppercorns, garlic and anchovy, then reduce heat to low.
- Add the sodium citrate and stir to dissolve.
- Add the cheese in handfuls until it is fully incorporated and smooth like fondue.
- Line a sheetpan with parchment paper and quickly pour the cheese mixture out onto the parchment, flattening and smoothing with a rubber spatula.
- Wait until the cheese is completely hardened (about ½ hour) and using a 3.5” round cutter, slice 12 rounds of cheese. Keep in refrigerator separated by cut sheets of parchment and wrapped in saran until ready.
Making the tomato slices
- After the heirloom tomatoes have been blanched and peeled, slice each one into four ¼” thick slices. Use the 3.5” round cutter to make each slice perfectly round.
- Salt both sides of each tomato slice and put a drop of liquid smoke on each one.
- Carefully seal them into a vacuum-compressed bag and chill in an icebath for at least 15 minutes, or until ready to use. Don’t do this too far in advance as they start to break down after about an hour.
Making the lettuce
- Cut a head of iceberg lettuce in half, then in half again. Then make 12 large, ¼” thick slices. Using the same 3.5” cutter, make each slice perfectly round.
To Assemble the burgers
- 1. Spread mayonnaise on the bottom bun and the ketchup on the top bun. Place the cheese-topped patty on top of the mayo. Next comes the tomato, then the lettuce. Top with the upper bun, unless you wish to add onions or mustard first.