Monday, January 17, 2011


A really great hamburger seems to be a sort of Holy Grail in these days of American burger-mania. Every other restaurant that opens lately seems to be a beer & burger joint, ground-beef-centric gastro-pubs of sorts. Many of them tout their "signature blends" of beef, and some use sirloin, or short rib, or brisket. Home cooks who try to replicate the creations of their favorite burger chefs are often frustrated. Other people effortlessly turn out world-class patties in their own frying pans or grills with a Zen-like calm and assurance.

I'm not going to make any exalted claims for my own version of the Great American Sandwich. I'll only say that I've been making burgers this way for years, that we consider a hamburger dinner a treat of the highest order, and that there is never...any...nitpicking...criticism once we are done. We just sigh and lick our fingers, consider briefly that we'd maybe like another few bites, conclude that no, that was just right. Sip the rest of our beers and settle into deep contentment with life as we know it.

Let's assume you've got a good bun. I said all I care to say about the wondrous "Le Bun" in the previous post, and I'll leave you to your own counsel as to how to proceed regarding the bread component. The next thing, truly the main thing, is the meat. I use ground chuck. I grind it myself. This makes a lot of difference. I don't experiment with blends of beef because,

1) Come on, it's a hamburger, and
2) Fresh ground chuck is delicious. Deepy beefy, fatty enough to make a really juicy burger.

For two burgers, I grind 11 to 12 ounces of chuck. I grind it twice through the coarse blade of my KitchenAid meat grinder attachment. This grind is definitely coarser than a supermarket grind, and I think that makes an important difference in the texture. It's loose, almost fluffy if you can use that word for ground meat.

If you don't have a meat grinder, or just don't want to bother grinding your own, you may do all right getting regular or, if you insist, lean ground beef from a butcher you trust. One thing I firmly believe is that you won't get a great burger out of ordinary grocery store ground beef. For one thing, I'd be scared to eat that stuff medium rare, the way I like it.

To the ground meat, I add: a couple pinches of salt, a few grinds of pepper, maybe three, maybe four shakes of Worcestershire sauce, and about a half teaspoon of soy sauce. The soy and Worcestershire both give extra umami to the flavor, and help the patties brown up beautifully in the pan. Mix the seasonings in with your hands, be quick and light, and form the patties with a quick, deft touch, too--too much handling will compact the meat and wreck the texture.

Then chill them until you are ready to cook. Cooking: I always used to favor the grill, and in the balmy months we definitely enjoy a char-grilled burger from time to time, but more often now we do them in a heavy skillet on the stove. Mary has gradually convinced me that this is the superior method. The direct contact between meat and metal assures an excellent char, we have control over the heat, flames do not erupt to carbonize our burgers, and juices remain in the pan to nap over the burgers as we serve.

Very hot skillet, a thin coat of oil, three minutes a side should do it. Start the heat out very high but turn it down to slightly off maximum once the patties go in (if you don't have a good vent hood, station someone near the smoke alarms to wave a magazine/disconnect if required...).

Remove the burgers from the pan when cooked to desired doneness, and let them rest while you condimentize your bun. Toast the buns if you like, though if they are very fresh they'll just need a little warming. We always fry some onions in the pan drippings. This night I added some slivers of aged gouda, sliced cornichons (I would use sour dills but I didn't have any), grain mustard on the bottom, a little apple ketchup on the top. I don't really like raw vegetables on my burger, the classic lettuce and tomato, since I feel they dilute the flavor too much. Chacun a son gout.

Oven frites, some pickled ramp mayo, a little carrot-sambal slaw, and a fine Wisconsin brew rounds it out.

That's my burger. I'd love to hear about others' burger preferences, secrets, peeves, etc.

Here concludes the Trout Caviar (Not So) Fast Food Extravaganza.


That chuck roast, Hill & Vale from the Seward Co-op, was about two pounds, and I took it apart like this, basically following the muscle groups. The solid, marbled piece at lower right, that I cut in half the long way to make a couple of "bistro steaks," as we call them, a sort of faux hanger steak--beautifully flavorful and quite tender. The chunk on the left was ground for the burgers, and the pile at top right and other trimmings I ground also, and that went to the dogs, literally. Not a scrap was wasted.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


Low said...

Have you seen Serious Eats' Burger Lab with J. Kenji? He is maniacally obsessed with the perfect burger.

Your burger looks delicious!

Trout Caviar said...

Hey, Low, thanks for that, interesting link. Though I'm trying not to be too maniacally obsessed (!) about much of anything anymore, I find that I agree with pretty much all his points, except:

4) Using a meat thermometer. I can tell by the poke test when mine are done to my liking, but with fried burgers it's basically a case of when they're nicely charred on both sides, they're done.


6) Not salting before the patties are formed. I want the seasoning to go right through. I think those photos are kind of a set-up--I mean look at the texture of his "good" burger, and mine, they're basically the same. Simply salting before making the patties couldn't have that great an impact--well, it doesn't when I do it, anyway.

But now I've probably said too much, and may seem to be maniacally obsessed with the topic...!

Thanks again for writing, and tasty burgers to you~ Brett

Allison said...

Hey Brett, thanks so much for calling out Seward Co-op as your trusted source for local meat. AND for the awesome photo w/the P6 sticker on the packaging. We are so thankful to partner with amazing farmers in our area and to enjoy high-quality, healthy meats like this! Your burger looks delicious, to say the least. At my house, we like cooking them in a cast iron as well! (and we always have to watch out for the smoke detector :)

Allison A. Meyer
Communications Specialist
Seward Co-op

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Allison: Thanks for the note. All you folks at Seward deserve tons of credit for the fabulous job you're doing there. The whole store is great, but the meat department is amazing. Between Seward and Clancey's, we local carnivores are living high on the hog (and cow, chicken, duck, lamb...).

BTW, I just finished making home-smoked bacon from some pork belly I picked up there last week. Last night's dinner was pasta with La Quercia guanciale, kale, potatoes, and aged cheddar. We are in your debt...!

Cheers~ Brett

sylvie in Rappahannock said...

Ah Brett, here again you open my mind. Frying a burger... so... obvious! I love a good burger, and now there is one more reason to have it: here comes the Lodge! Keith now trusts me with the skillet, but when we met 20 years ago and I reached for the skillet to fry the steaks he brought for dinner, there was - to say the least - shocked protest! (granted it was not a cast iron pan). But since, we've come to an understanding that either way can work. Today, grilled steak: his turn cooking. Me: I reach for the cast iron pan.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Sylvie: The skillet-fried burgers, that's Mary's contribution. Me, I was always like, "Can we build a fire, can we, huh, can we?" But I've totally come around. I'm with you on the pan-fried steak, too. You keep all the crystalized juices to sweat a shallot down and make a nice pan sauce.

Man, it's no wonder I'm always hungry, with this sort of talk going around, and it's not even lunchtime...!

Cheers~ Brett

April said...

looks delicious and how lucky are you to be drinking an NG Brew? I grew up 10 minutes from the town where it's brewed and now live in Illinois and can rarely get my hands on any. I can't wait to try grounding my own chuck later today.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi April: Yeah, you know, it's kind of crazy, we can get New Glarus at just about any gas station convenience store near the cabin. And the "big" ones often have a mix & match NG display, build your own six-pack. I was buying a couple such just yesterday, and the tall guy behind me in line, wearing snowmobile suit, says, "Oh yah, I really like that Fat Squirrel."

On, Wisconsin!

Hope you enjoyed your burgers. Thanks for writing~ Brett