I’m no gourmet. I grew up on fish sticks for Friday dinners, waffles, pan-fried chicken, creamed peas and potpies.
I understand a little about good cuisine, but like with wine, where I am very clear what I prefer but know little about it, I am hopeless when it comes to having the encyclopedic knowledge of gastronomic and viticultural arts that my wife and some friends do. I enjoy high-end meals and good wine but can no longer afford either and I no longer have a business travel budget. We troll for happy hours and senior discounts. And cook.
Fortunately, I am married to a gourmet chef. So I am the beneficiary of wonderful meals that I enjoy with my twenty-dollar, three-litre box wine, along with the forty extra pounds of waistline Alfredo that comes along in the bargain.
Perhaps I am more a “gourmand”, which connotes quantity or gluttony, like Jim Harrison, though his command of food and wine was indeed encyclopedic. But Jim ate and sipped a lot. He died.
My tastes and food passions run partly to finer foods, but more often to the mundane and the simple: people’s food, peasant food, country food, street food, and comfort food. Much of Italian, Spanish and southern French cuisine is like this versus the classic forms that require twenty people in the kitchen working for a week to please some bloated Versailles king or merciless Chinese Emperor. I love egg salad sandwiches, quesadillas, mac and cheese, risotto con fungi, ramen, peanut butter, popcorn, scrambled eggs with Hatch chilies, beans of any type and Gummi Bears.
But hamburgers top that list.
If I have my choice, I will want my last meal to be a hamburger.
Fifteen years ago I wrote a piece about the proper way to make the aforementioned popcorn, along with a stinging rebuke of the growth of popcorn transgressions committed in the name of health or variety or boredom. I am militant about popcorn. To date, the popcorn piece remains the one bit in fifteen years that got dozens of responses, with equally militant rebuttals, objections from the “health police” and very few standing with me in my purist camp. I still maintain popcorn should be cooked over high heat, using the best kernels, the best oils, in a dedicated pot, and that there are only two things that belong on popcorn: butter and salt. A whole lot of the former. Like a whole cube for a big bowl. Do not be putting wheat germ, Parmesan, kale flakes, chia seeds, red pepper or margarine on my corn. Do not try to foist off “air-popped” or microwave popcorn on me. But that’s off topic and I don’t want to rip the scab off that old wound. Perhaps, rather, to cause a new one.
But lately, I feel confident I may have perfected the hamburger.
I don’t claim mastery of all the various toppings and treatments one can add to the basic set-up. I admit, those “make” the burger. (And different from my popcorn chauvinism, I support adding all manner of extras to your burger, thoughtfully and tastefully selected for quality and freshness, of course.) I have some good combinations I love, but that is up to the eater.
Hamburgers are like vodka. Damned near anything goes with them.
The basic burger is the key. Like pizza or pasta. One must begin with a good base.
Here’s the reveal:
Use only 80% single ground chuck. Grass-fed. No hormones or antibiotics. Preferably from a gal you know who raises beef. Not every butcher does single ground. You can tell, because the sign will say so, but the meat should be heavily marbled, with large chunks of a white substance throughout. That’s fat. You need fat. Just don’t eat hamburgers every day. If you’re unwilling to get the single ground, what follows is lost on you. Stop reading. I love bison. Just not for hamburgers. It’s usually too lean. Buffalo Rib eye? You bet. Bring it. I was a vegetarian for fifteen years and can make a really good bean / grain / nut burger. But that will be a separate post. I love salmon burgers but that’s not what this is about. Hell, I’ll eat anything on a bun. Single ground 80% chuck. Made outta cows. Say some words of gratitude for eating the cows. They gave their lives that you might thrive.
Big Burgers have become a thing. I eschew that trend. Why ruin enjoyment of rich food by eating too much of it? This is why the French are svelte yet eat butter and fatty sauces and cheese and whatnot. “All you can eat” is a disgusting American practice. How little can you eat and still be satisfied? So, a quarter pound of meat per hamburger is plenty. No human being, possibly excepting riders in Le Tour, needs a half-pound of any meat. Americans are heathens this way.
Smash the ground meat on a plate or the paper it came in so that it’s thin, like a half inch. Liberally, and I mean it, liberally shake that hand, apply lots of salt, ground black pepper, garlic powder and chipotle powder. More than you think wise. It will mellow. Mash all that together. Ideally, cover and refrigerate the meat and let it meld for an hour or so. If you are shit-faced or hallucinating dragons and it’s 2:00 a.m. and you must eat right away, then just let it sit a few minutes. Smoke a bowl at least. It’s like the John Muir Volkswagen book every self-respecting hippie owned fifty years ago (even some folks who never owned a VW, just because it was good reading) where John specified you should let ‘er warm up long enough to roll and smoke a cigarette. Practical wisdom for the ages.
Make quarter pound round balls. Have fun with this part. Roll’ em.
Wash your hands a lot. Keep a clean and orderly mise.
Use a cast iron skillet or griddle. Lodge makes utterly serviceable cast iron cookware relatively inexpensively. If you don’t have a ten or twelve-inch cast iron skillet, go get one now. We can wait. One will last a lifetime. Or two. You can’t cook many things without an iron skillet. Season it well. Never put it in the dishwasher. Guard against rust (don’t let it soak a long time, hand wash, hand dry, put on the burner on low a few minutes to fully dry. Oil from time-to-time. Do not turn it on high then go to town or to sleep.)
Heat the skillet to a medium flame. If you have an electric range, I am so sorry.
For each hamburger patty shave off about one tablespoon or more of salted butter. Drop that butter onto the hot skillet. It should sizzle. Right away, drop the ball of meat onto the butter and then use an official burger smasher (Williams Sonoma, one million dollars) or a large spatula and smash that ball down for ten seconds. This sears the other side and keeps the goodies and the moisture in.
Let it fry until cooked about halfway through. Maybe 8 minutes. Don’t fool around with it. It’s doing just fine without you. Lesser cooks figure they need to look officious so they mess around with the food too much. Leave it be. I have taken to putting a lid on for a few minutes. This facilitates cooking through and through.
Flip it once. Before, salt and pepper that raw side. I know. Salt is supposed to be a boogieman. Salt is older than money. It may have been used as money, long ago. Try going a week without it. If it unnerves you to see how much salt you are putting on, close your eyes. Good chefs salt their working dishes when lay people are not looking. Be worth your salt. Salt = flavor.
The bottom side (now up) should be dark brown to even slightly charred. If not, quickly flip back. You flipped out too soon.
The second side should only take another 4 minutes or so. If you are uncertain, use a meat thermometer and shoot for 130 degrees or so. I am a medium rare guy. Suit yourself. If you only eat beef well done, you need therapy or to move to rural England. Or Oklahoma. Don’t waste good beef or bison or lamb by burning it black. You can simply set fire to an old pair of Earth Shoes, or a catcher’s mitt, and eat that. Well done is to meat like the Oakland Hell’s Angels were to Altamont.
Spoon some of that butter and fat up onto the burger by tilting the pan. Spoon a lot up there. You can diet and eat sprouts tomorrow. Tonight, we’re having burgers.
A minute or two before done, add cheese, if you like. We’ve been using pepper jack, but you can go wild with the cheese. See above. There are thousands of cheeses. Freak out.
The bun. I’ve tried everything in the quest for taste, quality and health concerns. Whole-wheat buns. Gluten-free buns. Potato buns. French brioche. I’m here to tell you we have come home, bun-wise. For us, it’s Oroweat or Sarah Lee white sesame-seeded burger buns. Totally proletarian. Available everywhere. I like to think of them as “The People’s Bun”. No, they are not particularly healthy. Refined flour and all and that dreaded gluten.
The key is that they are fresh. Spongy. Soft. Supple. Unlike all other foods I eat, I don’t need to know how they keep their buns soft to the touch.
Go ahead and sub other brands or even local artisanal buns. But avoid huge buns. We’re focusing on the meat and the splatter here, after all. And our meat is only four ounces. We don’t want to overwhelm it.
Avoid any strong bun flavors. Again, it’s the meat. If I wanted to eat an olive boule, I will, with oil and vinegar and pepperoncinis on it. But get away from my hamburger with that stuff. If I want a croissant, as I often do, I want it with cultured butter and Bonne Maman raspberry preserves. But not surrounding my hamburger. What’s wrong with people?
Toast the bun if you like. I always did but I’ve stopped. I want the bun raw, like the burger joints served when I was a kid in those innocent, black and white days.
Butter the bun. (Yes. More fat. Give up the diet thinking. This is sex, not a spa retreat. I mean, consider this analogy. “Oh, no, honey. No more lube for me. After all, I have my blood pressure to consider and I have that report due tomorrow and what about the sheets?”) Butter the damned bun. Have oatmeal for breakfast tomorrow. And a Lipitor. Get over it.
After that, you’re on your own, and I respect all after-market additives and splatters: goat cheese, prosciutto, avocado, tapenade, all manner of green leaves, Sriracha, Hatch green chilies, caviar, kippers, raw octopus, kim chee, fried oysters, lox, sprouts, papaya, whatever the hell. Go crazy. Capers, big flakes of Himalayan salt, cucumber slices, every possible kind of onion, tomato and pepper. Hell. Put boogers on it if you cotton to booger burgers. (Even the way some folks say it it sounds like “hambooger”. To each her own.)
I keep it simple with organic mayonnaise, jalapenos, Cholula, grilled red onion and spinach leaves.
Chili is another topic. I admit to not having perfected this and to being hopelessly loyal to Pink’s and Tommy’s chili in LA. (And for clarity, the original Tommy’s at Beverly and Rampart.) If I cannot make this topping such that it causes severe lower GI distress, then I’ll leave it to the masters.
After you add your preferred splatters and other toppings cut the finished thing in half before eating. That way you get to the innards twice, right?
Gown up. This is gonna be messy.
Do not have fries with your burger. They are decidedly not good for you, what with all that salt and fat. We have our health to consider, after all.