You know what I like to do every once in a while? I like to go up to all the stops and then just pull them out. I say, stops, I'm going on without you this time; but don't worry, I'm ultimately a lazy man at heart and will be back shortly. But until then, all of you, stops, you're all out.
Or something like that.
Point is, when this burger happened, that was one of those times. I spent the whole evening making one really delicious burger, I spent about ten minutes eating it, and then I was full for like three days. It was glorious. And as much as I'm inclined to simply post braggy, "hey look what I did!" types of things—because I am and I will—I really do think that there's a lot to be learned from the existence of a four hour burger. Even more so, I think there's a whole lot to learn from you going into your own kitchen and actually making it (or something similar to it).
Putting something like this together makes one think more deliberately about the texture, flavor, and intent of the ingredients. When you make a sauce from scratch it forever changes the way you taste it because you're seeing firsthand how all the ingredients work together to make a final flavor. I never really thought mayonaise had much going on, generally didn't care for it, but then I made it. Now I have a whole new respect for the condiment, for how versatile and delicious it can be. And it's no longer a stagnant thing that comes from a bottle in the store. It's something that I can transform a little bit or a lot depending on how I want to use it. That's cool. And that's true for every part of this burger. Especially the meat. It's not about learning to make one type of burger patty. It's about learning how burger patties work, so that you can make the perfect type for the burger you want to make. Getting a grasp on this was huge for me, and it made me a whole lot more confident cooking this essential American staple.
Spend a night not watching Arrested Development marathons and instead make a burger that is as delicious as it is arduous.
This burger started where most end, the bun. I wanted to use this particular ciabatta roll made at the bakery by my apartment, but it required some accommodation. These rolls have a really tough crust similar to a baguette, and that poses a problem when it comes to a burger; something commonly overstuffed with slippery ingredients. Burger buns are typically soft for a reason, it doesn't take much to set off an avalanche of mustard covered lettuce and tomato into your lap, and the soft texture helps prevent you putting too much pressure on the contents and thus prefacing them with the word "former." That's a good thing.
It would have made more sense to go with a different bun, but I was obstinant, I wanted this ciabatta, and countered all my own rational arguments against the roll with a defiant "but I wanna!!" and, as is too often the case, my inner tantrum throwing toddler won out. The toppings would be changed to accomodate the bun.
Here's what I did:
- First thing to go was lettuce. Way too slippery, and though the crisp texture is great, the roll, and thus this burger, wasn't lacking in crispness, so all of a sudden lettuce was showing up to the whisky party with the only beer tap in town. It was no longer needed. BUT, I did want something vegetal. Something bright. You know what is both? Pesto. And you know what makes a great pesto as well as snobby burger topping? Arugula. It's peppery, green tasting, and and totally invited.
- Tomatoes are classic, delicious, perfect, and second only to lettuce in the list of leading burger destabilizers Tomatoes were out.
- Onions. Already had pepper and brightness from the pesto, so raw onions weren't really needed. But cooked? Well, that could bring a great sweetness to the game. Make an onion jam with some hearty splashes of vinegar and now you've got sweetness and acidity to cut the fat from the, well, everything pretty much. Red onion jam was in.
- Mayonaise is great, but aioli is a much more difficult word to guess if you were on Wheel of Fortune and hadn't shelled out any money for vowels yet. It also has garlic. So obviously I was leaning toward an aioli here. Already having decided to go with pesto I was like, what if I roasted a yellow bell pepper and made aioli with it? Well, the answer is, it's ok but not all that great. I'll show you how to make that!!!!
- American cheese is fantastic and melts like a champ, but it's the cheese that thinks it's fun to show up to a black tie affair wearing a tuxedo t-shirt. I love it and hate it for that. 'Cause sometimes you're like, "yeah, this wedding needs karaoke!" and other times it's like, "dude, the judge is not amused." I wanted to mimic the impecable meltiness of American but maybe sub out it's plastic flavor (which, don't get me wrong, I kinda love). Luckily, the science that brought us processed cheese can also bring us fancy processed cheese. Raw pastured milk processed cheese is way easier to make than it sounds.
- Pickles are great. Guess what? I had still had some of those quick pickles from making the tofu dish. Bam.
- The bun was a rectangle. so the meat should be too. Easy enough.
Let's get started, shall we?
Chuck, Short Rib, and Myosin: A love story
The most important part of any burger is the meat. Toppings are important, but not critical. Meat is critical. It will dictate how good your burger will eventually be. There are two really easy ways to make it great. Grind it yourself and season it before you form it.
The beauty of grinding meat at home is that you are in control of flavor, texture, and safety. Flavor wise, you get to choose your favorite cut or combination of cuts. It may be tempting to go for something like filet here, because the thinking is that more expensive steak cuts must make for better burgers. But steak cuts are generally prized (and thus priced) for their tenderness. Grinding meat voids this whole thing because it cuts into tiny tender pieces what would normally be tough and chewy. So you instead get to go for the best flavored cuts, which are typically the muscles that get a lot of use and have a decent amount of fat. Chuck is classic here because it is both, and it's a great place to start. I don't make a lot of burgers (which is why I really go for it when I do), so I haven't had the opportunity to really experiment with a huge variety of cuts and combinations, but I do try to buy something different every time. The good news is I have yet to be disappointed. Oxtail, brisket, hanger, short rib. All were excellent. On this particular occasion I went with a blend of short rib and chuck.
Whatever cut(s) you end up picking, make sure that you don't end up with something too lean. You need somewhere around 20% fat to make a good burger. Anything under and it'll dry out and taste like an argument for vegetarianism. You don't want that.
The other great thing about grinding meat at home is that you're in charge of the texture. Ground meat benefits from not being chewy, but it can suffer from being too dense. Once you pack it together too tightly it's impossible to undo. Buying meat from a butcher who grinds it on site and stores it in a sort of loose pile in a display case is going to be a whole lot better than buying it from a vacuum sealed pouch at a grocery store. But still, the best textured burger is the one you grind yourself (even if that means chopping it by hand with a knife). There's a great in-depth comparison of this over at Seriouseats.com that I highly recommend checking out.
Lastly, home ground meat is safer. Beef is more or less safe to eat completely raw. I'm no scientist, but from what I've read the basic idea is that most all the pathogens that can make you sick need oxygen to live. The inside of a cut of chuck in anaerobic and, thus, sterile. This is why it's totally ok to eat steak cooked rare. Anything potentially hazardous was breathing on the outside of the meat and killed very thoroughly when the cut was grilled. The problem with ground meat is that you are putting the outside of the meat on the inside, which is why food safety types recommend you cook it well-done. But well-done sucks. It ruins the texture and squeezes all the juices out of the meat and is, again, an argument for vegetarianism. Grinding at home limits the amount of pathogens that can get into your blend and makes the whole process a lot safer, which means, you get to cook your burger to medium rare. (Also, holding at temp in an immersion circulator will completely pasteurize the meat. Don't know what I'm talking about? Keep reading.)
I'm still unsure as to why it's not totally common practice to season meat before forming it into a burger patty. I mean, would you not season a meatloaf until it was formed? Do you let bread first proof in a pan and then sprinkle salt on top? No. You add salt as early as possible to allow it to spread throughout the whole dish. My only guess as to why this logic is generally not applied to burgers is that they're seen as a type of steak. But they're not steak. They're ground steak. And even with steak seasoning the whole trick is to try to get the salt in as deep as possible, hence the idea that you should season 45 minutes before you sear.
The other benefit of pre-seasoning is myosin. Here's the best way I can explain it, using everything I learned while earning my bachelors degree in English: It's a protein in muscle that is soluble in salt and when that happens it gets sticky.
Did you get that? Yes, yes, I'm an unreliable narrator. But also the part about it getting sticky? See, adding salt to meat helps that meat to stick to itself. This is useful in all sorts of applications, but especially so in burgers. Some people (especially British people) have this idea in their head that burgers need all sorts of things added to them so they'll hold together. They add breadcrumbs and eggs and then they go off on flavor tangents and spike the whole thing with herbs and worcestershire sauce and whatnot. This essentially turns the burger into meatloaf. Meatloaf is great, but it's not a burger. Plus, breadcrumbs gel when at temperature after they absorb water. Gelatinous bread doesn't sounds like a good burger to me. Good news is, you don't need it. Just salt the whole thing and then let myosin go to work. It will stick the meat to itself and your burger, though not packed densely, will hold its shape well enough to cook. And it will taste like beef. And only beef. Which is the point.
Here's how to do this assuming you're grinding the meat yourself:
Cut the meat into chunks that'll fit in your grinder and then put in the freezer until not frozen but almost. Place it next to the grinder parts that you keep in the freezer. Cold meat cuts clean. Warm meat smears and the fat melts out when cooked and, again, vegetarians. Everywhere. Ok, so weigh the cold meat and then divide the total by 100. That's how much salt you should add. Add that. Grind through a larger die. Let the meat fall into a pile and don't bunch it all up. Weigh out how much you want for your burger and then form the patty on your cutting board. Press it together into a circle. You should press firmly so that it comes together but be gentle enough to keep it from getting dense. Remember, it's going to start holding hands. You simply need to get it on the couch together in front of a movie with a blanket. The salt is the movie blanket. It brings it all together. Place that in the fridge for an hour to let the myosin go to work. Any longer and you start to cure it. Don't cure it.
I had an even easier time of it with the whole square burger thing. Just put the ground meat into a square container and cut it out when the time came to cook. Speaking of cooking, you're definitely going to want to melt some butter, place that in a freezer ziploc bag, place the patty in it and then...
...put it in your immersion circulator.
Ok, I realize that you probably don't have an immersion circulator. I realize that some of you may not even know what an immersion circulator is. Well, it's used for what I hesitate to call "sous vide" cooking because that's not technically entirely correct but, whatever. If you want an in-depth idea of what that is, go here.
In general, the basic premise is that if you put your food in a bag and then put that bag into water set at the exact temperature you want said food to be cooked to, your food will eventually reach that temp without one part of it overcooking. So you have perfect food. See the picture above? That water is exactly 54.8C (which is the lowest temperature that will still kill pathogens). After an hour in the water the burger will also be 54.8C. Perfectly medium-rare. Quickly sear it off to get a crust and you have a perfectly cooked burger. Don't have a circulator? You can still do this. I have on more than one occasion used this exact technique here. It works great for anything with a cooking time under a few hours. Good news, a burger has a cooking time of an hour.
Red Onion Jam
Red onion jam is really easy to make. It's basically two steps:
- Make caramelized onions
- Add wine, sugar, and vinegar
I used red wine, red wine vinegar, and simple white sugar. Towards the end of the cooking process when your onions are just about done, add a 1/4 cup red wine, a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar, and a few tablespoons of sugar. Stir that all together in the pan and reduce until basically gone. Taste. What do you think? Sugar and acidity balance each other right? Right. So is it too sweet? Add more vinegar. Too sour? Add sugar. Maybe it needs both. Maybe it has enough vinegar but could be brighter. Add some lemon zest or an herb. Thyme is a popular addition for this recipe. Keep playing with this until you're happy with the result. This sort of dish is a lot less about me telling you proportions and more about you adding and tasting until it works. So do that.
Fancy-Assed Processed Cheese
Processed cheese on the other hand, well that's all about proportions. Ratios really. Here's how it works, grate a bunch of cheese, any cheese you think would be good on a burger. Not sure what kinds? Go to a fancy wine and cheese store and ask the people there. Or do what I did. Walk into Whole Foods, look around, buy at random. I ended up with an English raw milk cheddar that tasted like grass and a German soft raw milk cheese that had beer in it. They made for a really great combination.
So what's the deal with processed cheese anyway? Isn't it evil and corporate and whatever hippies say about it? Well, I mean, it's not health food. But it's not poison either. I think it's actually kind of brilliant. See, cheese is an emulsion of fat and water trapped in a protein network. A cheese that melts well is one where the protein breaks down at roughly the same temperature as the emulsion. But most cheeses don't do this. What happens instead is that the emulsion break before the protein does and instead of perfectly melted cheese you have kinda melted cheese leaking all sorts of fat. Need an example? Think cheese pizza. Well, without getting too into it (because I don't understand it) sodium citrate is a salt discovered in the early twentieth century that basically holds that emulsion together long enough for the protein to fall apart, ensuring that the cheese melts perfectly. Modern processed cheese goes one step further and actually builds it's own emulsion and protein network designed to melt perfectly. If you read the label on the back of Velveeta for example, you can actually see how each ingredient plays a role in achieving perfect melt. You have your milk fat and water as the emulsion, the whey as the protein, the sodium alginate and calcium phosphate gel the whole thing, and then there's our pal sodium citrate. It's brilliant really. Sadly, almost none of those things are contributing much to flavor. Don't get me wrong, I think the flavor of American cheese is kinda terrific, but at very specific times (read: 3am on nachos). So when I want great melt with great flavor, I reach for a beer and my jar of sodium citrate.
I bought the above jar on Amazon for $13.62. It's more or less a lifetime supply.
The process is rather simple:
Grate your cheese and toss it with a bit of corn starch so it doesn't stick together. Now weigh out your cheese. Multiply that by .39 and you have the amount of liquid you need to add. Now, add the total weight of liquid and cheese (don't combine them physically yet though), and multiply that by .028. That's how much citrate you need. As for liquid, I used this beer:
Over a medium heat in a sauce pan dissolve the citrate into the beer (or water or wine or stock or whatever you want) and bring to a simmer. Now, add small portions of cheese, whisking each until fully dissolved. Keep doing this until you're out of cheese. Dump this out onto a baking sheet lined with a silpat or some parchment paper. Spread it out thinly. The cheese sets pretty quickly so it's not a bad idea to have your baking sheet sitting in a warm oven before you use it.
Another great tip is to not spend like two very vital minutes taking pictures while it's cooling off. Else you get the result you see there on the right.
Throw that in the fridge for a few hours to firm up, cut it into squares, and layer with parchment paper. There you have it, processed cheese for your fancy ass.
Fact: You Can Make A Pesto Out of Anything
Ok, not anything . But still.
When I was first learning how to cook I thought pesto was this sacred sauce that couldn't be changed from it's true authentic roots (which I believe at the time was a recipe in a Giada De Laurentiis cookbook) and I spent way too much money buying pine nuts and too much time worrying I was wrong about something. Turns out, nope. Pesto is good with most anything green and whatever nut you fancy. For this recipe I went with a favorite of mine, equal parts basil and arugula (the more peppery the better) and toasted walnuts.
Basically, just grap a couple handfuls each of basil and arugula, and shove them into your blender or food processor (or mortar and pestle if you're a badass). To that, add a half cup of walnuts that you toasted for a few minutes on a skillet over medium high heat. Dump in a half cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano (or some other hard cheese that you like), a couple cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, dried chili flakes to taste, and about a half cup of extra virgin olive oil.
Bend, adding oil if necessary, until you reach the consistency you want.
The Sort Of Failure That Was Roasted Pepper Aioli
Ok, so it wasn't like the entire aioli failed. It worked great in that it came together into an aioli. The failure was that it just didn't have the flavor of roasted pepper I was looking for. Problem with adding something like this is the water content of the pepper. It bogs down the aioli and forces you to add more oil to stabilize it, thus dulling the flavor. In the future I'll either dice the pepper fine and mix it in after the fact or simply flavor my aioli with dry spices.
Oh, and if you don't know how to roast a pepper, the above two photos sum it up pretty well. Place it over an open flame (or under a broiler) unti the whole thing is charred. Then put it in a bowl, cover with a towel, and let the residual steam loosen the burnt skin from the flesh. Then, after about 15 minutes, simply wipe the skin off with a paper towel.
But moving on, how to make an aioli to begin with. Well, that's really easy. The basic idea is that you need to get a whole bunch of oil droplets dispersed into water in such a way as the whole thing thickens up in the the gloriously goopy mayonaise. Add some garlic and it's an aioli. Obviously, water and oil don't like to mix so it takes a bit of coaxing to get them to hang out together. Shear force can do the trick short term, but if you want your aioli to be stable you need to bring in some reinforcements. The main player here is egg yolk, which contains the protein, lecithin. Lecithin is perfect for the job because one side of its molecule loves water, while the other is quite fond of oil. It serves as a bridge between the two, thus helping establish and preserve your emulsion. Mustard does a similar thing, while also providing a great acidic note to a food product that is mostly fat (thus, in dire need of acid). Oh, and if you happen to be vegan, great news, you can buy soy lecithin and make all the veganaise you want.
To make aioli, all you need to do is combine 1 egg yolk, a teaspoon or so of mustard, a tablespoon of lemon juice (more acid), a tablespoon water, a clove of garlic, and a pinch of salt in a blender or food processor. Get that all blended up and then slowly add a cup of neutral oil. And by slowly I mean, really slowly. At least at first. The beginning of your emulsion is critical, and if you add oil too fast here it will stick to other droplets of oil rather than being dispersed in water, and your aioli will break. As it starts to thicken though you can add the oil faster. To see a great set of videos on the science of emulsions, go here.
Oh, and don't throw out that egg white you're not using. Make a cocktail instead.
My favorite method of making aioli is to use a stick blender in a jar. Simply add the ingredients to the bottom, stick the blender in, and while it's running pour your oil in. It all comes together about ten times faster than will a standard blender or food processor and, seeing as how you're making it in a jar, there's practically no clean-up.
While it's possible to add the oil in with the rest of the ingredients and just blend slowly from the bottom to the top (like shown here), I still prefer to pour in the oil while the blender is running, you know, for safety. It's fun living on the edge and all, guys, but keep in mind, sometimes that sort of behavior kills Goose.
Sear. Stack. Savor. Something else with an s.
Last step is to get a pan with a thick bottom nice and hot over a high flame for a few minutes. Take your patty out of the bag you cooked it in, drizzle some neutral oil into the skillet, and then place the patty in the oil to sear for about 30 seconds. Flip and place your processed cheese single on top and cover with a lid. After 30 seconds everything should be all seared and melted and you should be really, really hungry.
Slice the roll in half and toast it in the residual fat left in the pan from the burger.
To assemble, smear a layer of aioli on the bottom, top that with the onion jam, a layer of quick cucumber pickles, the patty, the pesto, and top with, get this, the other bun. I know. Crazy.
Eat this. You deserve it.
See what readers made inspired by this post right here.
Cook something inspired by this post, take a picture, and then send it to me telling me what you changed or liked or whatever at email@example.com. I'll post your pictures and explanations on a this site. Thanks!