Reliable sources inform me that May is National Burger Month. This seems uniquely fitting – burgers are the food of warm nights on the patio and summer days at the drive-thru. And those of us from the upper Midwest have always regarded Memorial Day as the start of the official grilling season.
Despite its official-sounding endorsement, the “National … Day” appellation is somewhat misleading, suggesting that some arm of the state has conferred recognition on a particularly deserving food. As a matter of fact, no such honorific has been bestowed on any of the hundreds of food days, weeks, or months. Although it is indeed possible to obtain official recognition for a particular cause, through act of Congress or presidential proclamation, that process is cumbersome and generally reserved for subjects with more gravitas or general relevance than, say, a chili dog or saltwater taffy. Indeed, but for Ronald Reagan’s exaltation of frozen food on March 6, 1984 (mark your calendars), not one president has recognized the national significance of any food, whether commodity or local speciality – not even the burger. (If you’re interested, the University of Houston political science department maintains a searchable database of presidential proclamations.)
Rather, the National Food Days are a creation of food industry groups and corporations, with no more formality than selecting a specific date to honor a particular food, and trying to remember to celebrate it from year to year. If you liked, you could simply declare a national day for a preferred food, although odds are that someone’s already though of it. If you were really committed, you might instead start a festival to celebrate in more elaborate fashion. You might have heard, for example, of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a late July observance of the annual garlic harvest, or the longstanding ramp festival in Helvetica, West Virginia. Harvest festivals are an ancient and universal tradition; a couple of summers ago, toward the end of August, my husband and I found ourselves in Arles just before the Feria du Riz, or Rice Bullfight. The festival, meant to both mark the Camarguais rice harvest and celebrate French tauromachy, takes place annually in mid-September. The next year, passing through Vézénobres in Languedoc, we encoutered remnants of the annual Fête de la Figue, an apt celebration as the town overlooks a vast garrigue punctuated with fig trees both wild and cultivated. In the case of the hamburger, Seymour, Wisconsin hosts an annual Hamburger Festival in early August, reinforcing its claim as the rightful home of America’s preeminent dish. (As an aside, the burger’s invention remains a matter of dispute. Although my home state has recognized Seymour as the birthplace of the American classic, the Library of Congress has identified Louis’ Lunch of New Haven as the home of the burger, and perhaps half a dozen others, from Texas, Oklahoma, and the too-conveniently named Hamburg, New York, also lay claim.)
There exists no harvest (or slaughter) season for burgers in this modern era of year-round meat production. Indeed, the hamburger has become so ubiquitous that it is synonymous with cheap, instant gratification – an unfortunate association, because a well-made burger is unbeatable. What makes a great burger? First, whether your patty is made from beef or turkey or plant matter, don’t skimp on the fat, and add some if you must. Burgers aren’t diet food, and if you’re concerned about calorie counts or fat content, the solution is to eat a smaller burger, not to serve yourself a dog chew toy. Second, if you use meat, grind it yourself from whole cuts. Mince is a great way to use up trim and scrap, and that’s good for long-cooked dishes like chili, but the best burgers require high quality meat. Third, the burger is as much about the accompaniments as the meat. Without tang, salt, and crunch, the burger-eating experience is somewhat soft and bland. And finally, a burger requires a bun, preferably a tender and fluffy one. If you’re an anti-carbohydrate fetishist, or committed to heresy as a way of life, you are free to reject the bun, but you’d then be eating steak hâché, not a burger.
Your goal, when crafting the perfect burger, should be to achieve the right balance of savory and sweet, tender and crisp, rich and acidic.
If you’re making a beef burger, choose a meat with a prototypically “beefy” flavor. This means, of course, choosing a fatty cut from a well-exercised part of the cow. Filet mignon won’t do; apart from being far too costly to grind in good conscience, it’s also not very flavorful and somewhat mushy. Think about the beefiest cuts you’ve eaten, like a ribeye, or short rib, or tri-tip (as much I I love hangers, I don’t use them for burgers as they can taste somewhat kidney-ish when cooked to or past medium). Go for between 70 and 80 percent lean, and 20 to 30 percent fat. This is a mix I use, which takes away a lot of the guesswork and leans toward the fattier side (ratio by weight):
2 portions beef short ribs
3 portions beef chuck
I use the KitchenAid food grinder attachment, which seems a popular way to grind meat at home. Cut your meat into 1″ chunks and freeze on a sheet pan for about 30-45 minutes if you can, to firm up the fat and connective tissue and reduce the chances of smearing. Grind with the smaller die. Your first pass through will be somewhat loose; if you grind a second time, the mince will more closely resemble ground beef from the market. You’ve probably been told not to “overwork” your meat when making the patty. It’s not because the meat changes character when you touch it; rather, the more you squeeze or pack the mince, the more tightly-knit your patty will be. Using a single-ground mince alleviates this problem because you just won’t be able to pack it that close, leaving plenty of room for the meat to shrink without becoming hard. A double-ground mince will, if over-packed, shrink and tighten more firmly. At the same time, however, single-ground mince can be harder to form into a patty that coheres.
The optimal patty size for a generous burger is 5 ounces/140 grams. Larger than that and you will overwhelm the typical bun. If you grind your own meat, don’t worry too much about packing too tightly – especially with a mince made from whole cuts with a decent amount of fat, your burgers will not become hockey pucks. If you buy store-ground mince, especially cryovacked meat, be sure to avoid packing too tightly as its high connective tissue content all but guarantees it will toughen as it cooks. Flatten the patty slightly in the center to account for tightening-up; if you don’t, you’ll be left with a golf ball at the end of cooking. Salt the hell out of both sides, or your burger will be bland however high quality the meat.
Grilling enthusiasts may consider this heresy, but a juicy burger with a crusty, browned exterior is the province of the flattop/skillet, not the grill. If you use frozen or pre-formed patties from the store (see Note below), you probably will have greater success on the grill than you would with fresh product.
As important as the meat is, you should consider baking your own buns if you have the time. It sounds like crazy talk, but baking buns is easy and requires nothing more than a sheet pan, an oven, and about two hours of mostly hands-off time. I’m not a baker so I rely on others for these recipes, and the best is a recipe from Comme Ça, published a few years ago in the New York Times. It is foolproof, less rich than a standard brioche, and sturdy enough to absorb meat juices without disintegrating.
For added savor, toast your buns (on the cut side only) before serving, or place them, cut-side down, in the hot pan of burger drippings so they can soak up the fatty, meaty goodness.
Burgers require pickles, or something pickled to cut the richness of the meat and perk up the blandness of the bun. This is where you can have some fun. Crunchy cucumber pickles are pretty standard, but provide crunch and sourness, especially when you make your own. For a Korean twist on your burger, top it with spicy-sour kimchi; for Vietnamese flair, with pickled carrots and daikon. My favorite pickle for burgers is rounds of flash-pickled red onion, tart with sherry vinegar.
Burgers do not require raw vegetables. Unless they’ve been partially dried (or compressed), tomatoes just turn the bun into a soggy mess. Raw onions are just harsh and you’ll be tasting them for days. Although I almost never use it for any other purpose, I recommend iceberg lettuce, stored in ice water in the refrigerator, and dried well. Cut the lettuce into thick-ish (1/3″) shreds and toss with mayonnaise. Butter lettuce, although delicious and sturdy, slips around too much and delicate salad greens are immediately wilted by the burger’s heat, becoming slimy.
If you like cheese on your burger – and many people consider it essential – choose a cheese that melts well. Not only does it coat the meat uniformly, but it helps some of the more slippery toppings like pickles stick to the sandwich. American cheese is the obvious winner in the meltability category, with Port Salut a close second, but other, stronger cheeses may stand up better, flavor-wise, to the meaty burger. I’m partial to smoked Cheddar, or a five-year aged Cheddar from Vermont, but the older the cheese, the more crumbly. If you are of a scientific or adventuresome turn, consider making your own “processed cheese” from your preferred cheeses: it melts like Velveeta, but tastes like something you’d rather be eating. You can make it in varying quantities; ratios are expressed below in percentages by weight. I typically use the cheese scraps and ends in my refrigerator, and ale, like a copper ale.
100% cheese, any rennet-based type (note: non-rennet, acid-curdled cheese like ricotta does not melt and is unsuitable)
105% non-dairy liquid, including water or beer
6% sodium citrate
Shred the cheese or break it into very small chunks.
Combine the sodium citrate, salt, and liquid in a pot and bring to a simmer, dissolving the sodium citrate and salt entirely. The mixture will have the consistency of a gel. Maintain a bare simmer
Using an immersion blender, blend the cheese bit by bit into the simmering liquid, pausing to incorporate the cheese completely before adding more. Blend until the sauce is completely smooth. Pour into a clingfilm-lined mold, fold the clingfilm over the top, and chill.
Slice with a wet, sharp knife when ready to use. Refrigerated, this will keep for several months.
Note: as an exercise in doing things a little differently, I agreed to try the Ripken Burger, a frozen product of Maryland’s esteemed Roseda Black Angus Farm. Roseda supplies beef to a number of esteemed restaurants in the Baltimore area, including Woodberry Kitchen, so I looked forward to good quality meat. The resulting burger, cooked in a skillet, was pretty juicy and tasty, for a frozen product.
At six ounces, it was about 20 percent bigger than I typically would serve – see how it is out of proportion with the bun. I haven’t cooked a frozen burger since my grad school days (a ritual, with Swiss cheese and mushrooms atop a toasted English muffin, before Golden State Warriors games), and I’ll stick with my habit of grinding meat just before cooking, as it only takes a few minutes, but if you are the sort of person who wants to keep burger patties in the freezer for impromptu grilling, you certainly could do worse than these. Their firmer texture makes them good candidates for the grill, as they are far less likely to fall apart when turning.