Monday, March 24, 2008

A Short Treatise on the Perfect Hamburger

I recently was going through articles on a food site when I came across a video describing what the editors of the site considered the "perfect hamburger". In the video, I saw a number of things done to the burger that I considered to be complete atrocities. This is my response to their video.

The perfect burger starts with ground chuck. It has enough fat in it that it's not dry when it comes off the grill, but not so much fat that the burger is greasy. It's best if you grind it yourself. you can do this in a food processor with minimal fuss. The burger should be cooked over a searing hot flame, no further than medium unless you enjoy eating hockey pucks. It should only be turned once, and never, ever pressed. The only thing that pressing will accomplish is drying out the burger. If you choose to add cheese, it should go on the burger before the burger itself is finished cooking so it has time to melt without giving the meat a chance to overcook. The cheese should have a personality of its own; American, Colby, and Monterey Jack all melt nicely but are quite bland. Better to go with sharp Cheddar, Swiss, or even crumbles of your favorite blue cheese.

The bun must not be an afterthought. The ones in the bread aisle at the supermarket are almost always flavorless, waifish things that can't hold their own once loaded down with toppings. Find yourself a good bakery and buy their hamburger buns. They should have some flavor of their own, and be big enough to hold up through the entire burger without collapsing, but not so big that all you taste is the bread. Toasting the buns is mandatory. Buttering the buns before toasting is highly recommended.

Toppings are up to you. Some people prefer the clean, minimalist lines of only burger and bun. Daniel Boulud lavishly tops the signature burger at his restaurant with braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffles. I believe that a burger should come with a standard set of green leaf lettuce, ripe tomato, sliced red onion, and slices of pickle unless such things are not complementary to other special toppings. A dollop of a spreadable condiment is always welcome even on the simplest burger creation. Mustard, mayonnaise, or ketchup are all classic standards. More inventive creations may include Thousand Island dressing (or for that matter, any creamy salad dressing, blue cheese is especially wonderful), homemade aïoli, a red wine pan sauce if you happened to pan-sear the burgers... Really, anything in the kitchen that's savory and spreadable. From there, the sky is the limit for toppings. Bacon is ubiquitous; the excellent bacon from Niman Ranch can elevate an otherwise normal burger to ethereal status. One of my favorite toppings that is often overlooked is a fried egg. Any manner of roasted vegetables do well on burgers too. Look over the topping list at fancy burger joints, such as Burger Bar in Las Vegas, for some terrific ideas. Don't limit yourself to just those lists; if you think it sounds like it's going to be good on a burger, it almost certainly is going to be delicious.