A Disquisition on the Hamburger

I like to eat hamburgers. I am not alone. Google tells me that Americans eat fifty billion — yes billion with a “b” — hamburgers a year.

Not only do I like hamburgers, but I also think more about the minutiae of food, cooking, and flavor than should any person who doesn’t have to make a living in restaurants. In my house I don’t do all of the cooking, but if the dish involves beef, I get the job. I grill beef, barbecue it, sous vide it, saute it, braise it, pressure cook it, reverse sear it and stew it. I buy prime beef from Costco and beef marrow bones from a giant Asian grocery store. Preparing beef is one of my favorite pastimes and my beef dishes bring relatives — even the ones who don’t particularly like me — salivating to my house.

Beef has a rich but subtle taste. Although people don’t tend to think so, chicken is a stronger flavor. If you don’t believe me, make broth. The taste of chicken leaches easily from bones and meat into water where it becomes a satisfying winter cure for all cold-weather illnesses. Flavorful beef broth takes a lot of beef and costs a lot to make. Commercial chicken broths can be passable. Commercial beef broths are worthless. The flavor of beef may be subtle, but it is rich, satisfying, and addictive. Thus, all those hamburgers.

Almost all beef dishes require that the beef at some point be browned. Browning of food is caused by the Maillard reaction — that process in which at certain temperatures amino acids interact with sugars. The Maillard reaction creates flavors that humans love. Take a salty strip of greasy pork, give it a heavy dose of the Maillard reaction and you have bacon. Subject a couple of slices of bread to the reaction and you have toast. The famously delicious BLT is little more than a Maillard explosion in your mouth.

The flavors produced when dry beef browns on hot metal are particularly tasty. When faced with tough beef intended for braising or stewing, cooks brown the meat and deglaze the pan before sending it into the liquid. The brown stuff, whether on the surface of the meat or stuck to the pan, infuses the cooking liquid with Maillard deliciousness. With a tender cut — like a ribeye steak — a cook can use several ways to bring the internal temperature of the meat up to the 130 degree eating temperature. What makes or breaks the steak is not how the cook gets it to the correct internal temperature but how well the cook develops a salty crust, a crust obtained by carefully managing the Maillard reaction.

The challenge in cooking beef arises out of the disconnect between good flavor and good texture. The flavorful cuts are tough, and the tender cuts are flavorless. Shank meat has a rich beef flavor. So does ox-tail, chuck, and brisket, but these flavorful cuts have to be smoked, sous vide’d, or braised for hours before they become tender enough to eat. A tenderloin is as tender as butter right off the grill or out of the oven, but I serve tenderloin with horseradish or a flavorful pan sauce because the meat itself doesn’t taste very beefy. As the beef guy in my house, I am always working with the trade-off between chewability and flavor.

So how does one get both great beef flavor and chewability from a hunk of meat — preferably a cheap hunk of meat — when you want to quickly grill it? The answer is simple. We pre-chew it, and call this mechanically pre-chewed meat “hamburger.” By machine-chewing the beef before we cook it, the full flavor of those tough cuts emerges in a chewable form without the time involved in smoking, stewing and braising. If you then form the ground meat into reasonably thin patties, you have two convenient surfaces to give the Maillard treatment. Flavor plus tenderness plus browning equal deliciousness. And that is why Americans eat fifty billion hamburgers every year.

I think that about ten minutes after mankind discovered the tastiness of the hamburger, somebody suggested it would taste better if we added cheese and lettuce and tomato and ketchup and mustard and bacon and a fried egg and mushrooms and jalapeno peppers and a lot of other things. The people who came up with these additions were all correct. Almost anything tastes good on a hamburger.

The bad news is that as the hamburger became covered in condiments, vegetables, cheeses and everything else in the pantry, cooks lost sight of the beef. Hamburger was not being made from the most flavorful cuts but rather from whatever part of the cow that was left over. Another bad thing happened. In order to reduce the burden of storing hamburger, commercial butchers compressed the pre-chewed meat into molds. Then home cooks and burger joints squeezed the meat again into hard round disks that would not fall apart on the griddle. The result of all this squeezing and compressing was pre-chewed meat nearly as unyielding to teeth as the beef had been prior to being ground. Instead of a tender patty of flavorful beef that fell apart in your mouth, we had a tough flavorless disk which was only good as a browned protein foundation for creative add-ons.

Here there was a hamburger fork in the road. The Maillard reaction produces so much flavor that any sort of browned protein is going to make a passable foundation for a sandwich. Burger makers had no need to squeeze out real beef flavor when they had bacon and mushrooms and blue cheese to carry the dish. Most burger joints and most home cooks took this fork.

I did not.

I like burgers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Red Robin, Five Guys, In and Out Burger and the grill at my church picnic. I eat and enjoy burgers at all these places. However, in my home, I go back to what made hamburgers so enticing in the first place — great beef flavor, perfect browning, and fall-apart tenderness.

I grind my own hamburger. I do it using the meat grinder accessory on my Kitchenaid mixer. It works fine for me. I produce my best burgers when I throw them on a griddle within a few hours of grinding the meat. My hamburger is made primarily from chuck, but I kick up the beef flavor with the addition of shank, rib or brisket. I even like a little sirloin in the mix. I shoot for at least a twenty-percent fat content and add beef fat to the grinding mix to get there. When shopping for ribeye’s I am alert for the marbling — that lattice of fat that runs through the body of the meat. When making hamburger I can control the marbling. Beef fat is delicious and I like a lot of it in my burger.

When I make burgers I form the patties gently. I need them firm enough to hold together while cooking, yet loose enough to fall apart in your mouth. This takes a bit of practice and putting the patties in the refrigerator after forming them helps. Sometimes I go small, three-ounce patties on small buns — almost sliders. Sometimes I go as big as six ounces but never bigger. Beyond that, the balance of crust to interior gets out of whack.

I do grilling on my patio. Over the years my patio has seen nearly every conceivable outdoor cooking device. My current darling is the PK360, a monster of two-zone cooking. It can reverse sear a ribeye to Saturday night perfection. However, when I cook hamburgers I pull out the griddle from my old Weber gas grill and lay it over the grates of the PK360. Hamburgers deserve a griddle so that the beef fat, rather than dripping into the coals and starting flare-ups, pools around the meat. The burgers cook in their own sizzling fat.

I season my burgers with salt and pepper just before they go on the griddle and brown them almost to the point of burning. There is no need to leave the inside of the burger medium rare. We do that to steaks to prevent toughness. My burgers are pre-chewed. They will not be tough. Let them sit on the griddle in their own juices until the exterior is a deep brown. Despite what I said earlier about add-ons, I like a slice of Boars Head yellow American cheese on my burger — just one — applied at the end and left on until thoroughly melted.

The burger buns should be soft. The rule of sandwiches is that hard fillings need a hard bun and soft fillings need a soft one. My burgers are tender, and the buns should be as well. If you make your own buns, make potato buns. Potato in the buns keeps them tender. If you buy them, don’t fall for the idea that some high-quality crusty bun will help. The crunchy bread will compete with the beef patty. I brown soft buns lightly on the griddle, give them a swipe of mayonnaise for an oil barrier against the beef juices that will come flowing out of the patty, and serve.

Your guests may clamor for mustard and ketchup and onion, but force them to try what you have made. After the first bite, they will remember how delightful beef can be, and the requests for condiments will end.

I understand that the vast bulk of the fifty billion hamburgers eaten in America are “fast food,” and my hamburgers are the opposite of fast food. They are not, however, as impractical as they might seem at first glance. I usually grind about thirty ounces of hamburger at a time and make five six-ounce patties. My wife and I eat a couple on the day the meat is ground. I freeze the other three, vacuum sealing the patties after they are partially frozen so they hold shape. Thereafter, I can fry one up using the same technique one uses to cook commercially prepared frozen patties. The results are not as good as on the first day, but close, and a world apart from their factory-produced brethren.

Often when I go to a restaurant my friends are loath to order a hamburger, the consensus being that hamburgers are only on the menu for those diners too timid to try something adventurous. To a certain extent, I share that prejudice. However, if you want to test the cook to see if he or she is truly paying attention to the food being served, order that hamburger. You will learn things, both good and bad, about the quality of what is going on in the kitchen.

The point of all this, I guess, is that the hamburger patty is a remarkable invention. It can be the canvas on which to apply a myriad of ingredients and flavors, or it can be a soloist and carry the load alone. We need to respect and appreciate its greatness. If you haven’t let the beef be the soloist in a while, perhaps it is time you remembered how enticing the flavor of browned beef can be. Make yourself a good hamburger.