Editor's note: Several weeks ago, I got an email from Kenji Alt, a food writer for Cook's Illustrated magazine: "Have you seen Heston Blumenthal's burger recipe in his new book?" The recipe, it turns out, was quite involved, requiring you to make your own buns, create custom cheese slices, and grind the burgers in a most ingenious way. Kenji wanted to try the recipe and write about it for A Hamburger Today. Here are the results. Grab a coffee and start readin'! --Adam
England's Heston Blumenthal follows in the footsteps of Spain's legendary Ferran Adrià, in that he attempts to create a cuisine that places a high value on innovation and stimulation of the senses beyond taste. So what happens when one of the most highfalutin' chefs in the world tries to tackle the hamburger, one of the most well-loved yet humble foods in the world?
The Fat Duck, Blumenthal's restaurant one hour west of London, employs molecular gastronomy to produce such dishes as Nitro-Green Tea (a sphere of tea frozen into a capsule tableside in a vat of liquid nitrogen), or drinks that are hot when you sip from one side, cold when you sip from the other.
Interesting, to say the least, but what's it have to do with hamburgers?
Well, two years ago, BBC Four collaborated with Heston in the modestly titled series In Search of Perfection. Where I come from, "perfection" is a handle you generally don't self-apply. Anyhow, in each hour-long episode, the bespectacled, shaved-headed Blumenthal (who looks like the love child of Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds and one of WWE's Bushwhackers) reinvents a classic British dish.
So a dish like fish and chips turns into turbot coated with a batter made with vodka (its high volatility helps it evaporate faster, creating a crisper crust) shot out of a charged whipped-cream canister (to make it lighter). Roasted chicken becomes chicken injected with a brown-butter flavored chicken jus, blanched twice (to render fat, à la peking duck), air-dried, roasted at a low temperature, and finished in a skillet. You get the general idea.
In Further Adventures in Search of Perfection, his second book, Blumenthal tackles the hamburger, which from here on out will be dubbed The Blumenburger. And when someone claims to have created the perfect hamburger (a quest I've personally been on for almost a year now), I listen.
While I can't say that it's a particularly well-written book (the most interesting part—the science of cooking and his experimental methods—are sorely lacking in description and follow-through), it still has plenty of interesting ideas and is worth a read.
So in the name of science, research, and saturated-fat intake, I followed Blumenthal's recipe for the ground beef sandwich nonpareil. All 12 pages of it. Here's what I found.
- Number of ingredients to make a cheeseburger: 3 (meat, cheese, bun)
- Number of ingredients to make a Blumenburger: 32
- Cost of average homemade half-pound cheeseburger: $3
- Cost of Blumenburger: $9
- Time required to make average cheeseburger: 7 minutes (3 minutes of prep, 4 minutes cooking time)
- Time required to make Blumenburger: 30 hours, 4 minutes (30 hours of prep, 4 minutes cooking time)
And Now, Step by Step
Wednesday, 4:19 p.m.; Shopping
All ingredients except for beef are accounted for. Found the brisket and chuck, but can't find the 30-day dry-aged short ribs the recipe calls for. I'm pretty sure they don't exist. Who the hell ages short ribs? 99 percent of the time you're going to braise them, and you don't need the tenderizing effects of aging if you're going to braise something until it falls apart anyhow.
I end up buying 24-day aged rib-eye, which is within a few inches of the short rib on the cow.
6 p.m., Pre-ferment for Homemade Buns
Mix together the flour, yeast, and water that forms the 24-hour bun pre-ferment.
6:15 p.m., Testing
I perform more research on my own burgers. Today, I'm testing umami-rich ingredients ground in with the meat (marmite, dashi, anchovies). Anchovies are a keeper.
11 p.m., Retire
Go to bed, 4 1/2 burgers later.
Thursday, 3 p.m.; Salt the Meat
In my own tests, I've found that salting meat before grinding does the opposite of what you want—it breaks down some proteins in the muscle (myosin), which then cross-link with each other, making your burger dense and sausagelike. For me, the looser a burger is, the better. But Heston wants you to salt the chuck for 6 hours (why only the chuck and not the other two cuts is beyond me), so I do it.
5:30 p.m., Preparation
Gather remaining ingredients for the burgers. My lovely assistants Addy, Yvonne, Meredith, and Kira arrive, as chipper and willing to help as ever. They bring beer.
Unfortunately for Kira, she had given up meat for Russian Orthodox Lent, which was in full swing as I made The Blumenburger. She brings a Boca Burger (All-American Flame Grilled flavor). This will be my first (and last) experience with these flaccid hockey pucks.
6 p.m., Make the Dough for Buns
This requires 11 different ingredients, including butter that has been melted, browned, and strained; skim milk powder; shortening; and 200 grams of egg yolk (apparently British eggs come in grams). The dough resembles opaque ectoplasmic residue à la Ghostbusters, but I trust Heston when he says it'll firm up after a stay in the fridge.
6:58 p.m., Make the Cheese Slices
While Yvonne diligently grates $20 worth of Comté and Addy steeps thyme and garlic in precisely 750 mg of sherry (250 mg of which bafflingly gets tossed out in the recipe—we find stuff like this occurs several times throughout the course of the recipe: "Gather 10 pounds of this, then use only 2 pounds of it and discard the rest." I'd hate to see the waste that goes on in his restaurant), I weigh out sodium citrate.
Here's what's going on: The beauty of American cheese is that it's packed with emulsifiers that help it melt without breaking, so that every crack and crevice in your burger gets filled with fatty goodness. Flavorful aged cheeses don't melt so well. Heston's solution is to make a fonduelike sauce with the cheese and infused sherry (emulsified with sodium citrate to keep it smooth) then chill the sauce on a silicone sheet, and cut it into slices. Voilà: cheese that tastes like Comté but melts like American.
We'll find out after letting it chill.
7:20 p.m., The 58th Variety
Is anyone too good for ketchup? Apparently so. Rather than use the ubiquitous spicy-sweet-vinegary condiment, Heston opts to make a tomato concentrate by cutting open 6 1/2 pounds of tomatoes and carefully spooning out just the seeds and jellylike pulp. This jelly is then pressed through a strainer, and carefully reduced over low heat.
No word on what I'm supposed to do with 6 1/2 pounds' worth of hollowed-out winter tomatoes.
7:36 p.m., Check the Cheese
Cheese sauce is still liquid. Instant read thermometer shows that it's at 48 degrees. It's got 10 degrees left to get from goo to sliceable (my fridge keeps at 38 degrees). Not holding out hope.
7:41 p.m., Fooling with Foil
The bun dough is so wet that it can't hold its shape on its own. Heston calls for the help of 1/2-inch-tall foil-ring molds (which require 10 square feet of aluminum foil to make). Addy, keen on improving her origami skills, wholeheartedly goes at the job. She lasts four rings then tag-teams off to Kira.
Forming the dough into balls is a problem (it has a consistency somewhere between warm tar and used bubble-gum), but we manage to get them in them in their molds to proof.
8:15 p.m., What Hydroponic Tomatoes Are Good For
Tomato concentrate is just about done. I decide the best thing to do with 6 1/2 pounds of hollowed-out winter tomatoes is to put them in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator and forget about them until they turn into green slime, at which point I can throw them away without feeling like I've wasted them.
8:29 p.m., Problem
Three more guests arrive, bearing more beer. They're hungry. That may be a problem.
8:31 p.m.; Solution
Problem solved. With the scraps from trimming the meat for the Blumenburgers, we make four White Manna–style burgers. Delicious. The bar for burgers tonight has already been set high. Heston better deliver. I also find a package of Sabrett's Hot Sausages, Sabrett's Sauerkraut, and Sabrett's Brown Mustard in my fridge next to a tray of still-gooey, un-set Comté cheese. I live in Boston, but I grew up in New York. I have to have my dirty-water dog fix now and then (before anyone points it out, I know that the photos show top-split rolls—hardly an authentic choice for a New York Sabrett's dog. Apparently New England is the only place in the world where you can get top split rolls. I believe it's also the only place in the world where you can't get normal rolls).
I write myself a note to pick up more hot sausages the next time I go to New York to eat a burger (Boston is also apparently the only major city in the world without a decent hamburger). Having refueled, we press on.
9:14 p.m., Grinding the Meat
First I preheat the oven for the buns, then start on the meat. The brisket and short rib first get ground through the small plate of the grinder, then get mixed with the chunks of chuck and reground through the large plate (to allow some steaky chunks of chuck to remain). I handle the preliminary grind. Addy and Meredith want in on the action, so I let them take on the second. Two girls, one meat grinder. My heart skips a beat.
Here's the trickiest, and maybe the most useful part of the recipe. Normally, you'd let the meat fall directly into a bowl and gather it into burgers afterward. Instead, Heston instructs you to align the strands of meat as they come out of the grinder in parallel rows on top of a piece of parchment (I use foil), eventually forming a pile of aligned meat strands about 12 inches long and 5 inches wide. The whole thing is rolled up torchon-style, and then burgers are cut out of it in slices. The process is a major pain in the ass.
The idea is that the grain of the burger will be running in the same direction as your teeth, making it seem more tender. We'll see if the theory holds.
9:47 p.m., Buns in the Oven
Buns go into the oven, and then get brushed with egg wash and sesame seeds 7 minutes later. Another 7 minutes and they emerge looking beautifully golden brown. Unfortunately, the beauty of its top is mirrored by the ugliness of its burnt bottom. In fairness, I do have a horrible oven that may have had something to do with the burning.
10:30 p.m., Final Preparations
Time to get all the condiments ready. Heston recommends shredded iceberg lettuce, onions that have been blanched for 15 seconds, mayo (oddly enough, not homemade), mustard, and pickles (he doesn't specify, but we use homemade just the same).
Another snack attack strikes my guests. I valiantly try to save the pickles but fail.
10:43, Laugh at the Veggie Burger
We do a side-by-side visual comparison of the regular burger and the All-American Flame Grilled Boca Burger, precooking.
Now, although I'm an atheist, I perfectly respect Kira's thinking that God doesn't want her to eat meat during Lent and all that. But whatever God's intention is, I'm fairly certain that yeast-extract-flavored soy protein pucks don't fit anywhere into his master plan. But who am I to judge?
At least she'll have a nice bun.
10:45 p.m., Burger Time
The instructions don't say to use pepper, but I do anyway. Meat without pepper is like a bath without bubbles. In frying, Heston follows a technique proposed by food scientist Harold McGee: By flipping the burgers every 30 seconds (or faster, if you can manage it), the meat cooks much more evenly than it would if you only flipped it once, developing a nicely browned crust while maintaining an interior that's more evenly cooked from edge to edge. It's a good technique that's worth employing on small-scale burger-making operations like this. It's a little harder when you have a whole griddle full of them.
While I tend to my meat, Addy, Meredith, and Yvonne butter the buns. The recipe calls for brushing the buns with browned butter, placing cheese slices on top, then broiling them. Unfortunately, the cheese is still soupy. We debate whether to ladle it on anyhow, then determine that Comté makes better fondue than hamburger topping, and resolve to forge on, cheeseless.
10:53 p.m., Assembly
Each burger gets the following (from ground up): bottom bun, tomato concentrate, mustard, mayo, pickle, lettuce, tomato slice, blanched onions, patty, top bun. Then we eat. Yum.
The burgers are good. Damn good. Very beefy, with a nice loose texture, and little chewy bits of chuck (not chewy in a gristly way, but chewy in a steak way). Can't say that the fastidious arranging of several hundred parallel strands of meat did much for them—I've had freshly ground and packed burgers that were just as tender. But nonetheless, definitely top ten burger patties I've ever made.
Tomato concentrate is a wash-out. Heston claims that its intensity means you only need a little bit. We can't taste it at all. Everyone reaches for the ketchup bottle. Maybe these burgers are the kind that are only good in late August, when you make the concentrate from tomatoes you've grown yourself. At least Heinz is in season year-round.
Other than the burn, the buns are pretty good. Nice and soft with a kind of melty, fatty texture. A little too eggy and brioche-like for my taste (the gold standard for me is the Shake Shack's potato buns), but not bad, nonetheless. Worth the 28 hours they take to make from start to finish? No chance. With that much time, I can drive down from Boston and hit Louis' Lunch, Shake Shack, White Manna, and Burger Joint, with time for a late night Wendy's drive-through (and it wouldn't cost me much more than these burgers cost).