The Art of the Burger
Published: June 5, 2013
Hamburger. Strange to see the whole word, all by itself, isn’t it? Hamburger. And not just because we happen to live in a time of rampant word-truncation. It just seems logical to use “burger” as the root word and anything preceding as a helpful descriptor, e.g. salmon burger or veggie burger and of course cheeseburger (which, for some reason, gets to be a single word). But the term hamburger doesn’t describe the contents of the food but rather its origin, which, for the sake of nomenclature, would be Hamburg, Germany. Interesting that the other quintessentially summery sandwich, the hot dog, or Frankfurter, is also German in origin. Anyway, accounts vary as to who “invented” the hamburger, when, and where. The term we use today is thought to have come from German sailors having named the sandwich after sampling it here in the U.S.; actually, one of the earliest claims that pins its origin in Germany (but not Hamburg, per se) is associated with the chain White Castle, one of whose co-founders is credited with inventing the hamburger bun. Confused yet? Too bad, because if you think a burger is just ground beef between two pieces of bread, well, I mean you’re right, so shut up. But as is so often the case in cooking, the simplest things are always the trickiest to execute and the easiest to fuck up. Knowing your quarry is the most important step in mastering it.
What makes a burger a burger, of course, is ground beef. Store-bought ground beef is really something of a crapshoot, but not necessarily in a bad way. Grinding (which in most commercial contexts is a combination of cutting and extruding) essentially prechews tough meat for you mechanically, making even the cheapest cuts “tender” by rendering them into a conglomeration of tiny pieces. Since ground beef is generally made from trimmings, and since expensive cuts contribute trimmings as well, it is possible (though not probable) that a package of supermarket ground beef consists entirely of ribeye or tenderloin. Which sounds great, but since grinding is the ultimate equalizer in terms of texture, initial tenderness is irrelevant. If you go to a nice steakhouse, they will almost certainly be willing to turn a $30 steak into a burger, but expect to be the target of much facepalming and SMH-ing, because they know.
What really matters is flavor and fat content. Different cuts have different flavors, and starting fat content directly affects both flavor and the final moistness of a burger. I like the flavor of chuck for burgers—it has a very straightforward beefy quality, plus the cut itself has a pretty good fat content. A very lean cut like sirloin, while also quite beefy, tends to have some mineral and bloody notes, and more importantly fat is added during grinding to reach a certain final percentage. Added fat (as opposed to intramuscular fat) can drain away during cooking more rapidly, making it less effective for moisture retention. Speaking of fat percentages, I like the good ol’ 80/20 (80 percent lean, 20 percent fat). Cost-wise, it is usually either on par or still cheaper than leaner mixtures after compensating for meat-versus-fat content. And cooking-wise, the more fat you start with, the better; you just have to remember to account for shrinkage (leaner meat means less volume lost after cooking). But again, it’s a crapshoot, so you can’t be sure what cuts were used. I’ve found that grass-fed ground beef is significantly superior to regular, but I’m on the fence as to whether it’s worth the usual doubling in price.
Grinding your own custom blend of beef at home using a manual meat grinder, food-processor grinding attachment, or even just a food processor is another option. It’s expensive and a fair amount of work, thus perhaps not practical for general burger-making purposes. But it can make for some really flavorful and toothsome burgers, and is good for those special occasions when you want to shame your friends with a gaudy display of culinary skill and rigor.
RECIPE: Home Ground Beef
3 pounds chuck roast
1 pound ribeye steak
1 pound sirloin steak
Five pounds seems like a lot of ground beef, but for decent-sized burgers you’ll still only get between 10 and 14, enough for a cookout, plus leftovers. And since the process is kind of a pain in the ass, you might as well make a bunch. You can always freeze whatever is left over.
1. Trim the chuck of all gristle and membrane—the tough, stringy connective tissue that surrounds and interlaces the muscles that are grouped together in this cut. This step is especially important when using a food processor without a grinding attachment, since the blades don’t do a very good job of cutting through gristle. Leave or reserve any of the soft fat.
2. Cut all beef into 1.5-inch to 2-inch chunks, and mix the different cuts in a large bowl for even distribution.
3. For a grinder or grinder attachment, simply feed in the beef gradually until ground. For a food processor, add a few chunks of beef at a time, maybe a half-pound, and pulse on high just until the meat is ground and forms a ball. Remove and inspect for any unchopped pieces of gristle. Repeat the process until all meat has been ground.
Ground Other Stuff
Other-burgers can be made from anything, meat or otherwise, as long as it’s ground (or at least chopped) and can be formed into a cohesive patty. Most common are salmon, turkey, and veggie (although curiously never “vegetable”) or, more recently, bison, and, of course, more unusual game meats like venison, gator, ostrich, elk, etc. I’d even included falafel in the burger family as a chickpea burger, and I suppose a Sausage McMuffin could be considered a pork burger (though not a ham burger, since ham is made from the leg exclusively, while sausage is definitely not).
One so-called burger I call shenanigans upon would be the mushroom burger, which, when not referring to a standard beef burger with mushrooms on it, often refers to just a whole portabella mushroom cap packaged as a sandwich. This would be the equivalent of calling a grilled chicken sandwich a chicken burger, or a ham sandwich a ham. . . well, you get the point. In any case, I happen to have a pretty awesome recipe for a true mushroom burger. I had a friend who had been avoiding eating meat for a couple of years. At some point, she mentioned that what she missed most were Big Macs (can’t stand them, personally). It was around this same time that I was trying very hard to sleep with her. So obviously I spent an absurd amount of time trying to replicate a McDonald’s hamburger patty without meat. Ultimately, the recipe was successful! Sadly, only in a culinary capacity.
RECIPE: Mushroom Burger
2 pounds finely chopped white button mushrooms
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
a bit of flour
salt and finely ground pepper to taste
a pinch of Accent or MSG, for added meatiness
The mushrooms can be chopped by hand or prepped in a food processor. Mushrooms contain a lot of water, so after cooking, the volume will reduce dramatically, by more than a half.
1. Cook mushrooms over low heat, adding salt and pepper, until most of the moisture has evaporated and the color has darkened, or about 20 minutes.
2. Allow to cool. Transfer mushroom mixture to a clean dishcloth, then gather the corners and gently squeeze out excess moisture, but not to the point of drying the mushrooms out completely, just mostly. Transfer to a mixing bowl.
3. Reseason with salt, pepper, and MSG to taste. Lightly dust the mushrooms with flour, mixing as you go, then add the egg yolk and mix thoroughly.
4. Form into thin 4-inch diameter patties and allow to cool further in the fridge for a couple hours and up to overnight. This will further bleed out moisture and help the patties darken and look more beef-like.
5. Fry patties in a non-stick skillet to serve. For a true faux-Big Mac experience, go to McDonald’s, buy a Big Mac with no meat, and sub in the mushroom patties. Prepare to be ridiculed by McDonald’s staff.
Ground Beef Additives
Once you have your ground beef ready, it seems like the obvious time to start adding shit: first and foremost, seasoning. Which is fine, but keep in mind some very important caveats.
First, if salt is among the seasonings you’re planning to add, think twice. Because in addition to enhancing flavor, the addition of salt at this point greatly affects texture. The salt will act as sort of a glue on the tiny particles of ground meat and “tighten” the burger up. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s simply a matter of preference. Without salt, the burger will have a looser, more tender texture, which is my preference. For this type of burger, simply form the patties and liberally salt the exterior only. Otherwise, just keep in mind that, especially if you’re starting out with primo beef, you don’t want to get in the way of the beef flavor too much. Well, at least I don’t.
Adding aromatics like fresh onion and garlic is pretty common too, and again, this is fine as long as the pieces are very small or precooked, lest you encounter crunchy rawness within an otherwise succulent bite of burger.
A new one I encountered just recently is the addition of bread crumbs and egg. This is a classic means of stretching beef when it’s scarce, and again there’s nothing really wrong with it, other than the fact that the thing you are making ceases to be a burger entirely, and is now a meatball or loaf.
Adding bits of other ready-to-eat foods like bacon or cheese into the meat is also borderline redefining, but doesn’t affect the burger’s fundamental structure, so I guess it’s OK. One notable variation on this technique is to ensconce a slice or piece of cheese entirely within the ground-beef patty so that melted cheese flows out of the burger after it has been breached. This is what’s known in the Midwest as a “Juicy Lucy” or “Jucy Lucy.”
PROTIP: Adding a liquid, any liquid, to the ground beef can significantly improve final moistness. For pure moisture without added flavor, plain water will do. But if you want to add flavor as well, you could use wine, beer, bourbon—hell, I’ve even had burgers made with Coke (capital C, people). You can safely add up to a 1/2 cup of liquid per pound before the beef gets oversaturated.
So the word patty apparently derives from paste or pastry, and it means a small pie, which is contrary to my childhood belief that the term patty indicated that you had to pat the shit out of it to make one correctly. Patting the meat, i.e slapping from one hand onto the other, might be helpful in removing air pockets and otherwise evening out the texture, but is otherwise really not necessary. In general, the least amount of manipulation is best. After all, more than three times is playing with it, right? Masturbation, there I said it. Anyway, overhandling results in burgers that are too compact and dense, and they’ll have that weird sausage-y texture that is a sure sign of a hack griller.
If you’re adding stuff to the meat, mix just enough to combine evenly. Then, keeping in mind that most hamburger rolls are 4 inches, and that most kaiser rolls are 5-plus inches in diameter, shape the meat into patties that are at least an inch or up to 2 inches larger across, and around 1 inch thick. One inch can be roughly estimated by the combined thickness of stacking your index and middle finger on top of each other. This should result in precooked weight of around 6 and 8 ounces respectively.
PROTIP: For faster and more even cooking, poke a thumb-sized hole in the center of the patty—this allows heat to affect the patty from the center out as well as from the outer surfaces. The hole will basically close up due to the exponential nature of toroid volume as it relates to overall shrinking volume. I dunno if that’s really true, but the hole does go away mostly.
Amazingly, there really isn’t a whole lot to the actual cooking of these things, although there are a few different methods that yield pretty disparate results. In all cases, let the patties rest at room temperature for at least a half-hour before cooking. If you are salting the exterior only, add salt just a few minutes before cooking. For high-heat methods like grilling or pan frying, a 1-inch thick burger with center hole should take about two minutes on each side for medium-rare, and three minutes for medium.
Grill Make sure the heat source, whether coal or gas, is hot, and that the grates are clean and lubed with oil. Flip once, adding cheese after the first flip to melt, if desired. Especially if you’ve added wine or other alcoholic liquid, expect a few flare-ups, but don’t worry. Occasional flare-ups don’t really add off flavors, as some would suggest, in fact they add amazing, fiery deliciousness. Just ask the King (as in Burger King, duh).
Skillet Use a cast iron or other heavy skillet and heat to medium-high to obtain a nice, deep-browned surface. Lube with a neutral oil and fry the burgers once on each side, to desired doneness, about two minutes per for medium-rare.
Steam Frying This is a technique that is classically used for fish but is also employed for burger-cooking, most famously by White Castle. Line the bottom of a large, flat, lightly oiled pan with rings of sliced onion, about 1-inch thick. Heat to medium. When the onions start sizzling, place patties atop the onions and add a few tablespoons of water. Immediately cover the pan tightly, and cook for about five minutes, flip the burgers, and cook for five minutes more, adding water as necessary. Although there will be no browning with this method, the burgers will be infused with intense onion aroma and will be exceptionally juicy.
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