30 August 2009

The Anatomy of a Burger

About a year ago, I decided that my occasional home made burger was always lacking something, no matter how creative I was. So, I began to look at the fundamentals. To begin my research, I spent several months eating burgers from all over town with a near embarrassing and gut busting frequency. Then, I began the odyssey of perfecting the burger at home.

Forget all the fancy burger recipes that litter magazines in the summer. (I've made them all, believe me).

In my quest to make the best burger, I have come to the conclusion that the slider is the superior choice.

There are some very important elements to a burger, and due consideration to give them.

Let's begin with:

The Meat

If grinding your own meat is an option, do it. Aside from the innumerable horrid realities of packaged ground meat, there is after all, taste to consider. If you are unable to grind your own, visit a local butcher shop and ask them to grind it for you. There is no comparison of fresh ground meat, to pre-purchased ground trimmings of thousands of cows with a flavourless fat ratio.

Which brings up a very important point.

Lean meat is not always better. The flavour is in the fat. Remember, this isn't a salad we're talking about. It's a burger. I have found that a 30% ratio of fat is nonpareil for a burger. To achieve this best, use chuck roast and brisket. I use 1.5 lb. of chuck to .5 lb.. of brisket. The fat marbleized in the chuck gives great flavour while the brisket adds a nice beefiness.

Size matters, and big isn't necessarily better. Too much meat is overwhelming to the rest of the ingredients. Also, a burger charred just on the outer layer and pink throughout is more easily achieved in smaller sizes. An average sized scoop of ice cream (slightly less than .25lb.) is the inimitable amount of meat. It will cook perfectly and be easy to hold in the bun.

It is also important to note, that you want to handle the meat as little as possible. To preserve the flavour and texture, you need to let it be loose. Over handling presses the meat together, and breaks down the fat, leaving you with a hockey puck as a result.

This is the most crucial factor in a burger.

The Cheese

I love it.
I like it raw, stinky, and strong. The more a cheese smells like a corpse, the better it is.

But not on a burger.

I find sharper cheeses steal all the glory of the meat. Alternately, mild cheddar disappears in the end product. Medium cheddar is veritably delicious. The balance of flavours takes centre stage here. American Cheese Food is neither cheese, nor food, so I will not give it any consideration.


Go ahead, call me a Commie.

The Toppings

Here, there are no rules. It's what you like. However, stick to the principle of simplicity. I like a little burger sauce, sometimes with Dill Pickle, and Umami Ketchup (recipes below). Maybe some slices of my home made Zucchini pickles (post forthcoming), or a tomato slice with mustard. (Home made Dijon is the bomb!)

Not to be overlooked is:

The Bun

I prefer a simple bun as well. Again, it's about balance. Too much bun ruins it. No potato, sesame, or sweet onions for me. Maybe a sea salted brioche once in a while, but mostly I use Franz Bakery. Fairly generic yet always fresh and soft. And it's local.

And so we have:


2 lb. Chuck Roast or 1.5 plus .5 lb. of Brisket
Salt and Pepper
Medium Cheddar Cheese
Burger Sauce
Sliced whole Dill Pickles (Pickled Planet is the best)
Umami Ketchup
10 buns


Preheat grill to high. If grinding your own meat, place in the freezer for 30 minutes. Make the burger sauce, and any other preparations while chilling beef. Cut lengthwise in to 1 1/2" to 2" strips and grind. Using cold wet hands, gently toss the meat to combine, and season with salt. Scoop an ice cream scoop's worth of meat on to a plate (you can use a scoop if desired), and carefully form a patty, using your thumbs to press down the middle and your fingers to keep its shape. You should be able to get 10 to 12 patties out of the 2 lbs. meat. Place in the refrigerator for an additional 30 minutes. Once you are ready to grill, generously salt (and then pepper to taste), both sides of each patty, being careful not to break them apart.

Note: Beef can handle a lot more salt than most people realize. When salted just before cooking, it helps retain the moisture (ie; fat) in the meat. If salted too early, it will dry it out.

Grill patties for about 4 minutes and turn. Grill an addition 4 minutes for medium rare, adding cheese during last minute.

During the last 4 minutes, grill insides of buns for one minute or until toasted.

Place patties in the buns and serve with accompaniments.

Burger Sauce

1/2 cup of mayonnaise
3 T. of chili sauce (I use Hommade brand)
1 T. Dijon
1 t. Horseradish
some chopped Dill Pickle

(Amounts are approximate)

Mix all ingredients.

And now, for the amazing UMAMI KETCHUP! I would like to say that this is the most delicious ketchup. It is deep, earthy, umami goodness. This is like a good sauce. My friend Andy wants me to serve it over pasta! No tart vinegar here. We've now moved beyond that.


Umami Ketchup
(recipe courtesy of Saveur Magazine and Umami Burger in Los Angeles, CA)

1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes 3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1 medium yellow onion, chopped 1⁄2 cup cider vinegar 1⁄3 cup packed dark brown sugar 2 tbsp. tomato paste 1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste 2 tsp. tamari 2 tsp. worcestershire 2 tsp. oyster sauce 5 anchovies, finely chopped and mashed into a paste

1. Purée tomatoes in a blender; set aside. Heat oil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add onions; cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Add tomato purée, vinegar, brown sugar, tomato paste, and salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 1 hour.

2. Purée cooked tomato mixture in a blender. Transfer to a bowl; season with salt and stir in remaining ingredients. Cover and chill before using.


This article was first published in Saveur in Issue #122