Since early this year, Portland food bloggers have been eating hamburgers all over town, arranging our favorites into several categories, in an effort to find the best burgers available. This month, our cooperative coverage comes to a close (though of course, it’s not going to stop us from continuing to sample every burger we find). For this edition, we’re going to be describing our ideal hamburgers, or in our case, “The Hamburger We’re Eating When We’re Eating Hamburgers at Home.”
Beginning to organize your thoughts on a perfect hamburger can be more difficult than you’d think. We decided to immediately forgo more “exotic” burger toppings. While delicious, they’re not always accessible; a great burger should (hopefully) come together based on ingredients you already have in your fridge. We tend to keep things a little more classic, preferring lettuce and tomato to foie gras and black truffles. When the hamburger craving hits, it’s the meat and cheese that immediately spring to mind.
In designing our burger, we considered each element separately:
The bun: We considered several options for our “From Away” burger bun. Store-bought hamburger buns were out. They’re too cottony and small, and wouldn’t stand up to the beefy onslaught that was to come. Brioche is too delicate for me, gets totally obliterated by the juice from a burger, and I think skews a little too sweet. We considered pretzel rolls, but were concerned they would prove too chewy, and the burger toppings would all end up on the plate, rather than on the burger. Ultimately, we settled on these light rye hamburger buns. They are light, fluffy, and with just a hint of rye flavor to add a tiny bit of depth.
The cheese: I am a firm believer that individually wrapped American cheese slices are the best possible choice for a cheeseburger, and I’ll go to my grave defending that choice. While utterly lacking in flavor, the melt and ooze, which begins on contact with the sizzling hamburger patty, is immediately what I think of, when I imagine a cheeseburger. It recalls late Saturday afternoons, when your dad burnt the hell out of a burger on an outdoor grill. It drapes around the edges of the burger, and it fills in the nooks and crannies on the surface. Jillian, however, was unconvinced, thinking we needed a cheese with more flavor. Blue cheese, while delicious, overpowers the flavor of the meat. I don’t like the way Swiss melts. It turns kind of plasticky and sweaty. Muenster, Monterrey Jack, or Mozzarella weren’t going to bring the additional flavor “oomph” that we needed. And so we settled on using two cheeses: A slice of American for texture, and a slice of Cheddar for flavor. This decision helped shape another decision for our burger, as well…
The hamburger: We already knew that we were going to do our own custom grind (recipe follows), but we weren’t sure what form the hamburger patty itself was going to take. I’m not crazy about huge hamburgers, and am kind of irritated when a restaurant sets a 10 ounce monster hamburger in front of me. For me, much of the joy of the burger comes from the crust around the outside. Since we were using two cheeses, we decided to maximize the crust factor by opting for two 3.5 ounce patties, as well, instead of one larger burger. More patties means more surface area, more places for cheese to go, and more seasoned crunch.
The toppings: Again, we kept things simple. With two patties, we felt like adding bacon would make the burger too meaty. Exotic toppings were already out of the question. The only point where we wavered was on a fried egg. You’d be hard pressed to find a more delicious topping for a cheeseburger, since adding runny egg yolk to anything improves it by 200%. That’s science. Ultimately, though, we realized that what we had subconsciously built was almost like an “ultimate fast food” burger, and a fried egg strayed from that theme. Finally, since we were already baking our own buns and grinding our own meat, we decided to keep it classic, and use as many of our own homemade ingredients as possible. Our burger is topped with our own homemade ketchup, our homemade mustard, mayonnaise, Romaine lettuce, sliced tomato, sliced dill pickle, and sliced raw white onion.
A week’s preparation, hours of brainstorming, and sheer minutes of analysis and discussion resulted in one of the single best cheeseburgers we have ever tasted.
First, you absolutely must grind your own beef. Do it once, and you’ll never buy a package of pre-ground hamburger again, that E. Coli-tainted, ammonia-soaked meat slurry made from parts of hundreds of different cows. Grind your own meat, and you control everything, from the fat content to the coarseness of the grind. The resulting hamburger treats beef with the dignity it deserves, and has the pleasant side effect of being outrageously delicious.
Second, the way you handle that beef is key. In short, don’t handle it. Don’t press it, form it, mold it, shape it, or squeeze it between your fingers, even though that’s fun and awesome. Hamburgers aren’t supposed to be perfect little pucks, and when you overwork the meat, you destroy the grain, the heat from your hands starts prematurely breaking down the fat, and that’s how you end up with mushy little gray discs. Rather, quickly gather the ground beef (some notes on meat grinding follow) into loose little piles, and press those piles flat with the back of a spatula. We weighed our patties out at around 3.5 ounces each, but if you like a thicker burger, use more. You’ll have ragged edges (read: “crispiness”) and an imperfect, cratered surface (read: “pools for cheese to gather”). Season heavily with salt and pepper; ground beef can take more than you’d think, and will help form your perfect seasoned crust.
Finally, be careful how you cook it. Get a cast iron skillet almost smoking hot, and place your burgers. You want to get a great sear, and a sear requires heat. When they pull away from the pan easily, they’re ready to be flipped. Resist the urge to press down on your hamburger patties; they’ll release all of their juice, and you’ll end up with a dry burger. Apply your cheese right after you flip, and cover. When the cheese melts, the burgers are ready.
Signature Series: The Cheeseburger
Makes three cheeseburgers
- 3 light rye hamburger buns
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 7 ounces beef sirloin tips
- 7 ounces beef brisket
- 7 ounces boneless beef short rib
- Salt and pepper (to taste)
- 3 slices American cheese
- 3 slices Cheddar cheese
- 3 leaves Romaine lettuce
- 3 slices tomato
- Slices of white onion
- Sliced dill pickle
1. Put all knives, bowls, and meat grinder pieces in the freezer to chill. Anything that touches meat, should be kept as cold as possible. Cut beef into 1-inch cubes, and arrange on a baking sheet, leaving space in between each piece. Put baking sheet in freezer, and chill until meat is very cold, but not quite frozen; about 10 minutes. Toss partially frozen beef in bowl to combine, and push meat through meat grinder using the coarse attachment. After all meat is ground, grind again; this helps mix the different cuts thoroughly.
2. Quickly and loosely shape ground beef into 6 piles (approximately 3-4 ounces each), and press flat with the back of a spatula. Don’t overwork or overshape the meat; you want loose, ragged strands, not a hard-pressed patty. Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat until nearly smoking. Season hamburger patties heavily with salt and pepper, and place in the skillet, working in shifts if needed. When burgers release from pan, flip and add American cheese to three patties, and Cheddar cheese to three patties. Cover and cook until cheese melts, about two minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to rest, while you assemble the buns.
3. Split each bun in half, and grill cut side-down in butter in a large frying pan, until lightly browned. Remove from heat and apply mustard to the bottom half, then lettuce (this will act as a barrier, and keep the bottom half of your bun intact when you release the juicy fury of the burger). Add a Cheddar-topped hamburger patty, then an American patty. Top with onion, tomato, and sliced pickles. Spread top half of bun with mayonnaise and ketchup, and place on top of the burger. Eat immediately. Growl a little, if you’d like.