STAND AWAY FROM THE GRILL, CHEFS SAY, AND USE A SKILLET.
‘Making a medium-rare burger is actually a good test of a young chef’s abilities.’
By NINA SOVICH
April 5, 2016 12:19 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal Online
The ingredients are simple—salt, pepper, ground meat and the inalienable belief that any American can make a decent hamburger.
Yet as the days become warm and bright, countless home cooks will fire up the grill only to stare in wonder at the disc of meaty disappointment they have produced, cheese or no cheese.
What makes a good hamburger is a perennial obsession, though it feels ever more difficult to achieve perfection. How does a home cook compete with restaurants’ Wagyu beef burgers, procure duck fat or bake buns? Even fast-food restaurants like Shake Shack and In-N-Out Burger have raised the bar with fresh tomatoes and good quality beef.
“Cooking a hamburger is no joke,” says Mark Lapico, the executive chef at Jean-Georges restaurant in New York who likes to cook his burgers at home with dry-aged beef and on a piping hot Japanese binchotan grill. “It has to be crispy on the outside, moist on the inside. Making a medium-rare burger is actually a good test of a young chef’s abilities.”
THE ELEMENTS OF A BURGER
The Bread: There should be a 1:1 burger to bun ratio. Brioche or a potato roll work well because they don’t overtake the patty. Some chefs like a kaiser roll for keeping mess together.
The Meat: Grind your own chuck, which comes from the steer’s shoulder. The more an animal uses a muscle, the tastier it is. Burger meat should have at least 20% fat.
The Method: An iron skillet is better than a grill for making burgers because it heats the patty evenly, allowing caramelization to coat the crust of the burger.
The Fixings: Most customized sauces use mayonnaise and another ingredient such as sriracha, garlic or salsa. Mayo soaks up any flavor easily.
The Pickles: Most restaurants include a pickle on a burger. Don’t forget them at home. The fermentation makes them healthy and the tang offsets the fat and sweetness of the beef.
There is disagreement over the details. Some chefs require pasture-raised beef. Others say cornfed is sweeter. Some swear by the Kaiser roll, and others the soft potato bun. Some chefs smash the burger down until it is ragged and crunchy, others like to maintain a cool and rare center.
“A hamburger is a sandwich,” says Alex Tishman, a private chef and regional director for Big City Chefs, a chef service in the San Francisco Bay Area. “You need to balance flavor and texture.”
Think of hamburgers in terms of ratios, says Mr. Tishman. The bun and burger should have a 1:1 ratio. The meat should be between 70% to 80% protein and 20% to 30% fat. Any less fat and you will lose the vital mouth feel, any more than 30% and it will start to taste greasy.
Chuck from the animal’s shoulder is good for burgers because the steer works that part of its body. The more an animal uses a muscle the tastier it is. Mr. Tishman adds brisket and trimming from hanger steak, but makes sure that 50% of the burger remains chuck. He says to avoid adding egg or breadcrumbs that change its consistency.
He and other chefs are dismissive of using expensive cuts of tenderloin, Kobe or Wagyu beef, which can bump up the price for a restaurant hamburger over $50. “That kind of beef has almost no flavor,” says Mr. Tishman. “It’s terrible for a hamburger.”
Freshness is paramount. Ground meat bought in the supermarket can come from any number of cows and often harbors unhealthy amounts of bacteria. Hamburgers cooked with meat from an unknown origin should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, or well done. For a rare or medium-rare hamburger, best to ask the supermarket butcher to grind the meat or, even better, do it at home.
A stand-alone grinder retails for between $100 and $600, but KitchenAid sells a stand mixer attachment for around $50. Some people grind meat in their blenders, though they can get hot and melt the fat, making for mushy, dense patties. Experts recommend putting the device and the meat in the freezer before grinding.
The reason people like hamburgers so much, chefs say, is partly due to the way proteins and sugars react when they are heated to between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Dubbed the Maillard reaction, it creates a meaty umami flavor that makes the outside of the burger taste more distinctive from the cool and velvety inside.
For this reason most chefs council using a griddle or a cast iron skillet. The consistent heat across the burger enhances the production of sugars on its surface.
“That’s why places like Shake Shack have such a successful burger,” says Graham Elliot, Chicago-based restaurant owner and chef, who keeps his burgers ½ inch thick and puts an ice cube in the middle to keep them moist. “That crunchy caramelized outside is the good part.”
Mr. Elliot says he would chose a pan or griddle over a grill any day, but concedes that most Americans will end up grilling hamburgers in the spring and summer. About 75% of U.S. adults own a grill or smoker, roughly the same percentage believe they are proficient or extremely proficient at grilling, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a barbecue trade group.
Grilling is one of the most difficult ways to cook, and the people who grill are often the least experienced cooks in the house. Heat is inconsistent, flare-ups occur and the caramelization is difficult. Humidity and ambient temperature can also affect the cooking process.
“The grill has to be clean and hot, and I mean hot,” says Mr. Lapico, anywhere between 400 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Many gas-fired grills have trouble reaching this temperature, or they lose too much heat once the cover is opened. Unless you have a high-end gas grill, a charcoal grill is better for burgers, he says.
Several private chefs said that Heinz 57 Ketchup remained among their favorite condiments for burgers. Ketchup, like caramelized onions, adds a sweetness that evokes childhood memories.
Customized sauces have recently become popular in restaurants, though several chefs say that the sauces are often just mayonnaise with one other ingredient.
“I go to the Indian grocery, get some green mango pickle. Mix it with mayo, slather it on a burger, delicious. I got special sauce,” says Malcolm Riley Gay, a chef in New York City. The mayonnaise can absorb pretty much anything, he says. When he goes to people’s houses to cook, he often makes the hamburger sauce from ingredients in their pantry, adding sriracha to mayonnaise for example, because people have on hand what they like to eat.
The Bun & The Extras
As for the bun, most chefs agree that making a hamburger bun at home is far too much effort for the return. A brioche or soft potato bun is sufficient. Mr. Gay says a Kaiser roll with its slightly tougher exterior, works wonders holding a messy burger together.
Bacon has such a strong taste it can overwhelm good beef, say several chefs. If used, bacon should be moist enough to break off easily in the mouth, and used sparingly.
Cheese can also improve a hamburger but should be considered carefully, chefs say. American cheese melts well and goes well with a traditional burger. Gruyere is strong but tastes good with dry-aged beef.
For home chefs who want to add something special, Mr. Gay says homemade pickles are a nice touch. Adding a fermented food also enhances the nutritional benefits.
“Pickles really are the unsung heroes of the hamburger,” Mr. Gay says.
Write to Nina Sovich at email@example.com
This article has been abridged from the original.