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Archive for January, 2011

Guest post: on Burgers

I’ve banged on before now about my darling boyfriend’s obsession with the humble burger. And now, I’m delighted to present his own words on the matter, exclusively for readers of TOE. So listen up, both of you.

How to avoid the three great errors of British burger making

by the wonderful Hopi Sen

If asked to explain why I like Burgers, I could lay out a whole series of reasons for my affection for cooked mince beef patties.

These range from the psychological (Burgers as a moment of childhood luxury often denied but now constantly available) to lyrical (the moment of biting into a burger, feeling the crunch of the sear and anticipating the taste and juices of the beef you’re about to eat) to the gender-political (Burgers as a food whose production and consumption, whether in Fordist fast food restaurants or garden barbecues, is somehow identifiably masculine, thus making it OK to like and obsess over in a way that doesn’t quite apply to soup).

Ultimately though, I like burgers because they taste good and are pretty simple to make.

To begin with, cooking a good burger is more a question of good assembly than good cooking.

A burger is more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are more important than chefly brilliance. This is not Pigs Trotter we’re talking about, where technique can transform the mundane into the divine. A burger lives or dies on the quality of its components.

You begin with the beef. A good burger mince should be fatty, from a well reared animal, and have real flavour. The first mistake people in Britain make with their burgers is to try and make them with ultra lean mince. No! You need the fat for flavour and for cooking.

In’n’Out burger, possibly the best fast food Burger restaurant in the world, apparently uses a 60-40 protein to fat ratio. It’s unlikely that any store bought beef mince will be as fatty as that. (and Thank god, Sixty-forty is even a little much for me!) How do you solve this problem? Many burger aficionados suggest grinding your own mince from cheaper cuts of beef, so you can get the fat/protein balance to your own taste*, I’m yet to go down that road, though I hope to soon, but if you’re can’t or won’t mince your own beef, getting mince from a good butcher is worthwhile. Whatever you do, avoid the ultra lean mince. Make sure you buy a good quality, coarse, relatively fatty mince.

Next, pay attention to your supporting cast. Where American and fast food burgers fall down, in my opinion, is using thick cuts of an enormous cheap, nasty Tomato and flavourless lettuce and too much raw onion. Better leave these things out than to have them making your burger bland. Even better, a thin slice of a good tomato, a crispy, small lettuce leaf, a little mayo and caramelised onions.

I will stand up for American cheese in a burger. I reckon the point of a cheese slice in a burger is to add a melting unctuousness to the burger. If you’re making a classic burger style, the cheese shouldn’t beat the beef into submission with a more powerful flavour. So I steer clear of the punchier cheese. Top chefs make stunning blue cheese burgers. I don’t think I could. I’d end up with a nasty melted Roquefort on beef sandwich. For simpler burgers, American is good, as is mild cheddar, Havarti or Gouda.

Make sure your salad and condiments are pre prepared before you approach the pan or griddle. You want to eat your burger as soon as it’s cooked, so your supporting cast need to be ready to roll.

The final ingredient problem is the bun. I don’t like standard Burger rolls in the UK. I dunno, they just seem too insubstantial, and fall apart way too easily when faced with a good, juicy burger. Now I vary between Ciabatta and Large Baps. Having said that, Ciabatta is too chewy, So I generally stand in the supermarket bakers umming and ahhing. Americans talks about things called potato rolls. I don’t know where to find such things. A good quality soft white bap will generally work.

Once you have your ingredients, don’t mess about with the beef. The second terrible mistake people in Britain make with Burgers is that they don’t make burgers at all, they make meat loaf sandwiches. Breadcrumbs and onion do not belong inside a Burger. Don’t do it.

Instead, put your mince in a bowl, add pepper. If I’m feeling radical I’ll add a little Worcestershire sauce, maybe some chopped caper (heresies, but I like caper so I don’t care), then form into lightly formed, ball like patties then put in the fridge to cool, that’s it. Don’t mess about with the mince too much. You don’t need to squelch it into a little flat patty. You’ll do that later, and for a good reason.

What about Salt? I hear you cry. Yes, you must salt, but when?
You can salt the mince before forming the patties. That worked for me. Or you can salt them afterwards. The High Priest of Burgerology, Kenji Lopez Alt, has written that you should salt afterwards because too early a salting breaks down the proteins (or something. The science is beyond me) giving you a rubbery burger. I trust him, so I’ve started doing what he says, but I think you can salt before making the patty too, as long as it’s not too long a wait between salting and cooking.

Once you have you nice cold patty, and your supporting cast all ready it’s time to cook. I use a frying pan to cook, and I like a good sear on my burger, so I favour an approximation of the “smashed” burger technique. You heat the pan up high, apply a little butter, put a fairly ball-like patty down and then press firmly to flatten it. I use a metal potato masher to press down on a spatula. If the pan is hot, this gives you a beautiful crunch on the outside of the burger,
(You can see a video of a Burger place doing this here or read a how to here)

Then, once both sides are seared, I cook for however long I reckon the burger needs. Not long. I like a little pink inside. If it’s a thin patty, it could as little as a couple of minutes. If I’ve made a thicker “pub style” burger, I’ll cook for longer, flipping regularly, because I get bored.) Honestly, if you make a good, juicy burger it tastes pretty good from rare to medium, so I don’t really mind if it goes a bit wrong.

If I’m making cheeseburgers, I’ll put the cheese slice on the burger as it’s cooking the second side. This is to avoid the third great error of British burger making – cold, hard, cheese on your burger. Ugh.

As I’m cooking the burgers I also toast the rolls, or, sometimes if there’s a lot of lovely buttery meat juice in the pan, I sort of fry the open face of the rolls using the butter and burger juice. This crisps up the roll and helps it support the weight of the burger, as well as to give a pleasant buttery crunch.

Then you put the burger on the roll, with the cheese already melting, add your toppings (for me, caramelised onions, ketchup, mayo, pickle or green pepper for sharpness, a thin slice of good tomato and a little lettuce.

Then you eat.

Total time from pan to plate should be about ten minutes.

*Annoyingly, most of the best burger writing is American, so you have to find a way to translate the cuts of meats they grind into English Basically they seem to use Chuck and Blade, thick rib and fore rib.

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