Thursday, May 24, 2007

hamburger zen

I'm don't know if I'd be making as many hamburgers as I do if I didn't have kids, but I sure like making them. They have all of the hallmarks of the kind of food I like making: they don't taste good if the ingredients are not high quality and carefully chosen and handled. They are ridiculously easy to cook and let's face it, hamburgers are iconic cultural signifiers that remind us with each step of their prep, every sizzle and hiss from the grill where we are in time and, by association, who we are.

And, and this is an important and, the recipe for a great hamburger is reduced.

My favorite recipes are the ones that yield most easily to the question "What can I leave out to get the best result?" Some recipes are an absolute pain in the brain pan when it comes to this question. Take apple pie for example. What can you leave out of an apple pie recipe and still get something that looks and tastes like an apple pie? But because a hamburger in it's most perfect and essential form-ground beef- is so simple, the question is almost moot. A burger is more like an apple than an apple pie I suppose. There isn't anything to leave out of an apple to make it taste good, yes?

So really all you have to do to make a good hamburger is get some good meat, grind it, shape it with your hands into a ball, flatten it and cook it. Adding salt to the meat before you grind it helps to emulsify some of the salt soluble proteins and helps the burger to cohere. And because the salt raises the temperature at which the water in the meat evaporates, the burger will not dry out as much when it cooks. Oh yeah, and salt jukes up the taste. But other than salt, there really isn't anything to remove.

What got me thinking about burgers this morning was an email exchange on the subject with one of my regular readers Don Luis and an article by The Minimalist, Mark Bittman
(For the Love of a Good Burger - New York Times) Bittman comes close to matching my view about the best way to make a hamburger, but veers off track a bit by seeming to advocate adding stuff like chili powder or garlic or-for christ's sake!- Worcestershire sauce.

Something you did not know about me : I've never eaten a MacDonald's hamburger (at least I'm not aware that I've eaten one.). Weird huh?


Don Luis said...

Is using a food processor an effective way to grind meat? I have a meat grinder, but it's a pain to clean, and the die are very susceptible to rust.

Robert said...

You Sure as fuck dont need Worcestershire sauce, garlic, chili powder, or anything else like them to make a good burger. If you really do need all of that extra junk on your burger it must not have been very good to start with. And as for don luis's question I have never found that a food processor is a good way to grind meat. I would stick with the meat grinder.

tscape said...

bob, perhaps you should have a mcdonald's burger, just so you can really rejoice when you serve up your own delicious burgers. don't they say you can't really appreciate happiness unless you've known sadness? ;)

Kevin said...

Mostly I agree with you, and yet...

Try one of these admittedly untraditional burgers and see if your tongue doesn't smack your brain silly trying to get every last morsel (the homemade buns are part of the magic):

Quirk said...

I use just a little Lawry's seasoned salt. It makes for the best burger ever.

Charlotte said...

Because my sweetheart hunts, we have a lot of ground antelope, elk and venison in the freezer (antelope is my favorite by a long shot). It's so lean that to make a decent burger, you need to mix it with equal parts ground pork or ground lamb -- I prefer lamb. For the last year or so I've been using the kofta recipes in Diana Abu-Jaber's terrific memoir, "The Language of Baklava" for inspiration -- a little onion, garlic and some bahrat spice I picked up in Seattle and I wind up with a pretty tasty burger. I also make them small, and tend to serve them on salad from the garden -- not really a traditional American burger, but if I want one of those, I'll go to our local Mark's In-and-Out (no relation to the chain). He buys local meat and grinds it himself.

kristin said...

I take really good ground beef, with little fat, make the burger and stuff really good blue cheese in the center and then through those babies on a hot grill. Seriously wonderful eattng.

Tyrone B. said...


A little bit different thought on the burger...although sticking with the 'less is more'.

For large numbers (like at the base, or one of the ships I work on)I got so tired of hearing about how the burgers where either terrible tasting or full of TVP (textured vegetable protein) because as long as the 'real' meat ingredient was at least 51% they could dummy up the rest of it with filler.

So I pushed them into using ground chuck, which was 80/20.

Then they all complained because they need to mix 'seasonings' into the hundreds of pounds of meat and then patty them...

So I had to educate them on moving away from the 'meatloaf' burger.

They looked at me with unbelief as I took a chub (we have 10lb rolls that you are probably familiar with) that I took almost completely thawed, eyeballed it, and cut/sliced off 25 (although you need to 'smoosh' the end pieces together) perfectly round 'burger disks, pulled the plastic ring from around it and layed them on sheet pans. Salted one side, flipped the pan over on another sheet pan, salted that side too...and put them back in the cooler.

Now, I said, repeat that till all of them are done...and later we will grill mark them and finish them in the oven.

It was amazing how everyone loved the 'new' burgers we had. At least 6 ounces pre-cook weight (probably a good third to quarter pound burger after cooking).

Most also commented on the strong beef taste with the just the right amount of seasoning! I just laughed at myself and glared at my unbelieving crew.

As you can believe, it cut way down on the time and labor involved too.

redman said...

to myosin or not to myosin.

I was curious, how do you feel about paddling the (force)-meat a little bit to activate the myosin ? I think the traditional burger has less of the snap of an emulsified sausage, yet is something more than the some of its loose-ground parts. I still ponder what Julia Child said- something along the lines of handling it as little as possible and cooking it in a skillet. That seems in keeping with the American spirit, yet in contradiction with what we know about forcemeats and the need to work it a little to give it an improved texture and cohesiveness. I notice Bittman didn't mention it either. Is this a bridge too far for the typical burger debate?

Bob del Grosso said...

Wow, I've not been very prompt in replying to these comments. Sorry!

Don Luis,
I agree with Robert. Use the grinder, the food processor sucks for making burger meat. To keep your die from rusting, try drying them in the oven and storing them in container with corn-starch or silica-gel.

I don't like to paddle the meat bec. the burgers get too tough.
That's okay for pate, maybe meat loaf, but not burgers. Not for me at least. I do work them a bit by hand when I form them however and for the reason you suggested. But the paddle is too forceful.

Burgerlope sounds good!