Ich Bin Ein Burger

The burger is an archetypal American food, and it’s even more prominent in the warmer months. In my ongoing and intermittent series of from-scratch sandwich adventures, here’s a very good burger made entirely from scratch (though, as Milo pointed out, we did not in fact raise the cow).

There are many great burgers in the world, and certainly more than ever before. There was a hilarious designer burger arms race last decade, culminating in the DB burger, among others, which were as vivid and juicy as examples of shark-jumping get in the culinary world. I enjoy my perspective on such things: I laugh at both the airborne Fonzies and the jaded hipsters who proclaim that a given food is “over” as soon as it becomes popular. They’re all wankers. Good food, like good art, is not fashion. The medium of painting is not bell-bottom trousers: it’s not “in” or “out,” depending on the decade, and neither is making dinner.

It is, of course, possible to get into an unending argument about what the “correct” way is to make such things; even with such a basic food, controversies abound. There was even a contentious thread on the subject right here on this very blog a while back. Some people are purists, and others are libertines. There’s room for all of them. It’s like barbecue: no three people from Kansas City, North Carolina, and Texas are ever going to agree about how it should be made. But the rest of us are all richer for the variations.

I like to put a few flavors into the meat. My Grandfather added ketchup and chopped onion to his, formed them into almost-spherical lumps, and grilled them on a custom-welded apparatus that fit into the fireplace. My job was to sit in front of the fire with a plastic sprayer bottle and spritz any flareups. They tasted awesome; their rotundity made for a juicy interior, with some built-in latitude for cooking time, though they did not sit easily on a bun. I like garlic and an herb like parsley or chives in mine, along with either fish sauce, ketchup, or some other umami-boosting ingredient. Not a lot, but enough to enhance the beefy flavor of the grass-fed meat I exclusively use. Because pastured beef has less intramuscular fat than the diseased version in most supermarkets, I usually grind some form of charcuterized fat into the mix: duck prosciutto, bacon, lardo, or some ham trimmings. Lean beef needs fat to become a great burger, and cured/smoked pork or duck fats are better than beef fat in every way.

Burgers should never be cooked past medium rare. If you’re worried about e. coli, you’re buying the wrong meat. Grinding your own is the single most important part of this operation; if you’ve never done it I strongly suggest you give it a try. The flavor and texture are both incredible when you do it yourself. Also, this piece of beef was about six bucks and made four big burgers; you could easily spend $75 with tip, etc. on four fancy burgers out in the world. And when you teach kids that this is where burgers come from and what they taste like, it’s akin to vaccinating them against the corporate holocaust burgers that are so expertly pitched at them all the time.

This version was a hunk of London broil with a good-sized hunk of the homemade bacon ground in for fat and flavor and a bit of ketchup and fish sauce for umami. You can see just how lean the beef is. I sprinkled the meat with pepper, and a bit of chili powder, but held off on the salt. Salt develops myosin, a protein that makes the meat bind together, resulting in a tougher burger. Sprinkle salt on the outside of patties right before cooking them. I like to use this ring mold to make them. Don’t squash them too flat; a looser texture makes for a much more decadent bite.

I’m a big fan of wild yeast. I like it in wine, and I use it to make almost all of the baked goods (such as they are) that I make. Long, slow fermentations impart a flavor and character (and much better nutrition) to anything remotely bready. There’s no substitute. And yet I always have dried yeast on hand, just in case I have the urge or the need for something on shorter notice. Like squishy buns to go with home-ground burgers, for example. This version was pretty simple: an egg beaten into a medium-stiff dough with a bit of maple syrup to spur the yeast. I had no milk, so it was all water for the hydration.

Once risen and shaped, I brushed them all with an egg wash and sprinkled black sesame seeds on most of them (I had a request not to do all of them). Once they rose again–on a silpat on a cookie sheet–they went into the oven for about 15 minutes. I brushed extra egg on with five minutes to go so they’d get nice and brown. They were soft, but not too squishy, with enough character to soak up the copious juices and still hold together.

Burgers need something pickled on top. It’s still a bit early for cucumbers here, but a grab of the most recent batch of kimchi (see previous post) filled the position handily, snuggling down into the whorl of ketchup on the steaming meat like it was finally home after two weeks of busy fermentation. The arugula, picked, washed, and spun, was the finishing touch, and I scraped a little hot mustard on the top bun before gently pressing it down onto the greens, causing a lovely little cascade of ketchup-tinted pickle brine and meat juices to run out and soak into the bottom bun.

Every component was discernible, and the meat was superb: gently smoky, powerfully beefy, and ever so juicy. It wasn’t the apotheosis of a burger, but it was damn good. I’m not entirely sold on culinary apotheoses, anyway; I think the set, setting, and company have a huge amount to do with the pleasure quotient. And watching your child gleefully put away one of these, juices running down his chin, while you enjoy your handiwork on all fronts is pretty pleasurable.

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Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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