This coming Monday is Memorial Day, which is the unofficial start of summer, and Lag BaOmer, which was this week, plays a similar role on the Jewish calendar. More importantly it signals the start of grilling* season, although I personally believe if you try hard enough, any season is grilling season. The staple of any good grill session is the humble hamburger. I want to take you on a journey beyond the basic burger and bun bonding and explore the intricacies of this iconic institution.
It seems these days there are high end hamburger huts hitting every ‘hood, but paying $20 for a burger hurts. You can definitely make a perfect patty in your personal palace for a petite percentage of that price. Composing a burger is not hard, it is little bit like putting on a play or making a movie. If you pick the the right star, supporting actors, and a good setting, it forms a cohesive story and things come together nicely. With some simple techniques, basic ingredients, and a little creativity you can make a burger as good as any greasy spoon.
Where’s the Beef?
I recommend preparing all your components ahead of cooking, a process the French refer to as ‘mise en place’ which means “everything in its place”. For that reason, I will start with the ingredients and leave the cooking for last. When designing a burger, I like to start from the middle and work my way out. The patty should be the star of the show, with everything else complimenting it. Beef is the obvious place to start, but what kind of beef to get is the question. Most people will just pick up a pound or two of ground beef when making burgers, but what are they really getting? Ground beef is defined by the USDA as follows:
“Chopped Beef” or “Ground Beef” shall consist of chopped fresh and/or frozen beef with or without seasoning and without the addition of beef fat as such, shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders.
Generally kosher ground beef comes from the chuck (AKA the shoulder) of the cow, although it can technically it can come from any (kosher) part of the cow. The chuck has a good amount flavor and fat due to the fact that it is a muscle that the cow is constantly using. If you like, you can ask your butcher to grind a specific cut to get a different flavor and texture but expect to pay more for the privilege. Occasionally you will see ground meat in the grocery store marked “Hamburger” which is defined by the USDA as follows:
“Hamburger” shall consist of chopped fresh and/or frozen beef with or without the addition of beef fat as such and/or seasoning, shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders.
So the basic difference between “Ground Beef” and “Hamburger” is (assuming you have an honest butcher) “Hamburger” can have fat added to it and “Ground Beef” cannot. At the end of the day there is very little difference. What I pay more attention to is the fat content.
Facts About Fat
You need a good amount of fat for juicy burger so I wouldn’t worry if your meat gets close to the 30% limit set by the USDA. As I said before, most kosher ground beef comes from the chuck and ground chuck is usually 80 to 85 percent lean or 15 to 20 percent fat, which I think works well for a burger. I wouldn’t go any leaner than that, and I would definitely stay away from anything marked “Extra Lean”. Remember, fat is flavor! So for my money off the shelf kosher ground beef, is way to go. Just make sure to check that the fat content is at least 15%.
For something a little fancier, try making your patty out of ground veal or lamb both of which should contain the requisite amount of fat. If you want something healthier you can try ground turkey but make sure not to dry it out. Finally for the vegetarians you could go with some sort of veggie burger, but you would need to ask Rachel about that.
I like my hamburgers on the larger size, what one might refer to as a pub burger. I would go with 8 oz of meat shaped in to a 1-1/4″ thick by 4″ in diameter patty. Don’t pack your meat too tight, and don’t overwork it. Just lightly shape the burger using a minimal amount of pressure or you will end up with a tough and dense hockey puck.
Seasoning in a burger acts like make up for an actor, they are there to bring out the best qualities of the star. Good beef needs little more than salt or pepper. People debate if you should season your meat before making your patties. I generally don’t, especially because kosher meat is somewhat salted in the koshering process, and I don’t feel the need to add another step. That being said I always season the tops and bottoms of my burgers.
If you really want to, you can use something like seasoned salt or your favorite rub to add a little flavor, but realize you are covering up the flavor of the beef. NEVER mix things like onions, garlic, bread crumbs, or matzo meal in to your burger mixture. You will just end up overpowering the flavor of the meat and creating a burger that either falls apart or is dry. Some people like to add egg as binder, but I have never seen a good reason to do so. I prefer to add my flavor augmentation via toppings and sauces.
Toppings and sauces are the supporting actors that provide some variety in the burger show. The options for burger topping are endless. The trick is to use restraint and make sure there is balance. I would limit it to four toppings. Lettuce, pickles, onions, and tomatoes are classic, although I personally abhor raw tomatoes and raw onions. However, I love caramelized onions. Sauteed mushrooms are a great option to add an earthy note that pairs well with the smokey flavor of (Kosher) bacon. Pickles add acidity along with a great crunch to almost any topping combination. Finally, if you want to add some richness and moisture there is nothing like a sunny side up egg with a runny yolk.
One final note on toppings, cheese is notably absent from this guide. As a kosher keeper, mixing milk and meat products is prohibited for me and the few times I have tried non-dairy cheese it just has not been to my liking. For me a fried egg adds the gooeyness and richness that the cheese gives. That being said, if kosher isn’t your thing, go for the cheese.
When it comes to sauces use extreme restraint. Too much sauce is a one way ticket to a soggy bun. Limit your number of sauces to a maximum of two, one of which should be mayonnaise based. I recommend putting your mayo based sauces on the bottom half of your bun, as the fat in the mayo will act as a moisture barrier to prevent your bun from getting soggy. Thousand Island or “Special Sauce” are mayo based classics, but you can use mayo to carry all sorts of flavors. I love adding sriracha to my mayo for a little kick or some garlic and tarragon for some zip. For sweeter sauces obviously ketchup is a classic, but feel free to make a barbecue sauce like my Dr. Pepper sauce as a way of taking it up a notch. Finally, it is my opinion that mustard never belongs on a hamburger. Save it for the hot dogs.
If the meat is the star of the show and toppings and sauces are the supporting actors, then the bun is the setting. It shouldn’t be too big, small, hard, or soft. Pick your bun based on what is going in it which is why I put buns last in the ingredient section. Your bun should have roughly the same diameter as your cooked burger. If you have a lot of soft ingredients use a softer bun, if you have some heartier ingredients use a little harder of a bun.
All buns should be toasted to help prevent them from getting soggy, but make sure your temperature is hot enough to toast the surface to a golden brown without drying the bun out and not so hot that it burns. Never walk away from your buns while they are toasting, or they will burn.
The standard sesame seed bun is a classic that you can never go wrong with. The sesame seeds add just touch of texture to an otherwise soft bun that takes it from one note to a melody. Pretzel buns have become extremely popular lately. They are a little more hearty than your standard burger bun, making it great for a burger that is a little on the wetter side. For something a little different, try an onion or kaiser roll.
Cooking Your Burger
As far as I am concerned, to cook a burger correctly you need direct heat, applied either via a grill or a griddle, to create a sear. A sear is the brown crust that forms on meat when cooked with direct heat, that adds a tone of flavor. With apologies to mothers everywhere, baking a burger on a sheet pan is not the way to do it. You end up without any sear and by the time your burger is cooked through, it is usually dry and sitting in a pool of grease.
By using direct heat you take advantage of the Maillard reaction which creates a sear and cooks your burger with enough heat to cook it through without drying it out. Don’t over cook your burgers. I personally think a burger should be cooked to a perfect medium, but if you like it cooked a little more I recommend making your patty thinner.
Grilling Your Burger
If you know me, you know I love cooking outdoors over charcoal. Rachel and I have been competing in Kosher BBQ competitions for about 5 years. Cooking over charcoal adds a great char flavor. Start by building yourself a nice hot fire with all of your coals on one half of your grill, creating what I refer to as a 2 stage fire. If you have a chimney starter use it, it is a great way to get your charcoal hot quickly, but never use lighter fluid as it can give your burgers a chemical flavor. Don’t put your burgers on until your coals are all white otherwise you might end up with some acrid flavors.
Grill your burgers until you get a sear on each side, flipping only once. Whatever you do, please don’t smash your burgers, you will just squeeze out all of the juiciness. If after you get your sear you want your burger cooked a bit more, move it to the side of the grill without coals and put the lid on for a few minutes to achieve your desired level of doneness. You can accomplish a similar result with a gas grill by only turning on only half of your burners, although you won’t get the same flavor you get from charcoal.
Not everyone has the ability to cook outside. Maybe it’s too cold where you live (not that weather is a real excuse), or you live in an apartment without any place to grill (you should really consider moving). If your stove has a griddle attachment use it, otherwise I recommend using a cast iron skillet. Put the skillet over high heat. After a couple of minutes hold your hand over the skillet and if can’t hold your hand over the pan more than 3 seconds it is hot enough. Now cook your burgers similarly to way I described above when using a grill. Cook on each side until you get a sear on each side flipping only once. If you want to cook your burger a bit more, pop the skillet in a 350°F oven until you achieve your desired level of doneness.
Is there one right way to make a burger? I don’t think so. But I know there are definitely wrong ways. I hope I have been able to impart some wisdom when it comes to burger cookery, or at least teach you what not to do. How do you like your burger? Do you put any interesting toppings or sauces on your burger? Do you have any other burning burger questions? Let us know in the comments.
*You’ll notice nowhere in this post did I use the terms BBQ, barbecue, or barbeque with the exception of when referring to sauce. Burgers are grilled not barbecued. What’s the difference you ask? About 300°F and several hours, but that my friends is a discussion for another time.