The Lowly Hamburger

Not really. I love hamburgers, and unlike most restaurants, I understand that making a good one is a difficult proposition. I’m not going to bore you with my list of the best hamburgers, and I’m not going to irritate you with my opinion of the best way to cook them. What I am going to discuss is the uncomfortable fact that if you don’t take hamburgers seriously, then you will be eating mediocre hamburgers.

Last night, because we couldn’t think of anything else to eat, and because my wife saw a picture of a great looking burger in one of Ina Garten’s cook books, we made blue cheese burgers on ciabatta bread. The last time I had blue cheese on a burger was at The Spotted Pig, and that was a resounding success, in part because the cheese they used was perfect: mild, not too salty, and marvelously melty. But I had no mild blue cheese, so I was in a hole already.  I did make sure to use a nice fatty blend of beef. There is nothing more disappointing than a nice looking burger, complete with a crunchy char, that is dry and tasteless because of some misguided fear of fat. Actually, it’s tough to get that nice char without the fat that is rendered from the hamburger helping out with the browning reactions in the pan. 80%-20% is a nice ratio, but don’t get too upset with a 75%-25% mix. That’s a very good thing. The best way to control how much fat, and thus flavor, is in your hamburger meat is to grind it yourself. No, I don’t do that very often. But if you want the very best burger, that’s a good way to start.

One of the easiest ways of improving a burger is to be gentle with the meat. It is incredibly tempting to compact the meat into a perfect little patty, but a loose pack will cook quicker, render more fat, char better, and provide a much nicer crunch and mouth feel than a burger with the density of a hockey puck. Manipulate it only enough to keep it from falling apart, and you will be a much happier carnivore.

The ciabatta was on the wide and flat end of the bread spectrum, so I formed the patties to conform to that shape. I guess I could have trimmed the bread, but part of the allure of using ciabatta is the nice texture of the bread’s crust. What I ended up with were patties that were wider and thinner than I am accustomed to. Not a bad thing, and believe it or not, part of my plan. I wanted some serious char on these burgers, and with all of that surface area the char to meat ratio would work out perfectly. Unfortunately I overcooked the burgers, to a temperature that was on the border between medium-well and well done. Normally there would have been much tearing of hair and rending of garments, but the meat was so juicy that it worked out pretty well. Not perfectly, but while I was eating the burger it dripped a fair amount of juice on my hands, and that is a fine measure of quality. Burgers should be juicy and a bit messy.

The blue cheese was the most disappointing part of the meal. I used a Danish Blue, aged 60 days, and it was far too salty and pungent. I tasted it before I used it on the burger, and knew that it was on the strong side, so I used very little cheese (that was a struggle), but it was still a bit overwhelming. Next time I’ll seek out a mild Blue that goes well with burgers (any suggestions?).

All in all it was a successful meal, because most of the components of the burger worked out well. But I will not rest on my laurels; I could have put bacon on this one!

10 Replies to “The Lowly Hamburger”

  1. where did you get the ciabatta, and, wasn’t it too tough for a burger?

    I love ciabatta, I love burgers, but I rarely find two that play nice.

  2. I got the bread at Whole Foods, about 15 minutes out of the oven. It was perfect. Not too crunchy and tough; just firm enough to hold the burger. And if I had done my part correctly, It would have been a burger for the ages.

  3. I picked up some Ciabatti from Stop and Shop for burgers last night. They were smallish, roundish rolls. Not bad for the burger, much to my surprise. Obviously you have to gut the bread, but that goes without saying.

  4. One of my favorite garnishes on burgers is caramelized onions, but it didn’t seem like it would go with the blue cheese. In retrospect, the sweetness of the onion might have mitigated the sharpness of the cheese.

    As for pickled onion, or for that matter anything pickled? No, my burgers have always been pickle free!

  5. i love the acid of pickles with the fat of burgers. but, it really does depend on the style of burger i’m going for. small patty sloppy and messy gets a pickle. bigger and more sophisticated might be pickle free.

  6. I like a crunchy pickle on the side, but the vinegar flavor has always seemed discordant with the burger itself. And of course most pickles that are served with burgers are an afterthought, and don’t belong anywhere that humans are eating. There is nothing quite like the sight of a flaccid, squishy, pale pickle in a puddle of pickling brine to make me think less of a restaurant. Why do they bother?

  7. I’m a big fan of pickles. Even mediocre pickles are pretty good (but I agree that they don’t always belong on your burger).

    Even more baffling is why restaurants put those things they try to pass off as tomatoes all over their sandwiches and dishes.

    Interesting article in one of the food mags this month about the conditions under which the people working the farms in Florida live and work. Pretty pathetic, and it might make the royal you think twice about considering eating one of those cardboard tomatoes instead of not. I think it was in Gourmet.

  8. I don’t know much about pickles, although occassionally I will eat a pickle that makes me want to eat more pickles, until I eat more mediocre pickles — if you know what I mean!

    I don’t eat those little pale pink discs that they toss onto burgers. You claim that they are tomatoes, but I have tried them, and they taste nothing like any tomato I have ever eaten. I think that they are a manufactured product, perhaps the excess sawdust from briquette manufacture that is dyed and used as filler. Or maybe they are urinal deodorant discs that didn’t make the grade?

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