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Burger recipes and cooking tips from J. Kenji López-Alt.

The Burger Lab: Bacon Attack!

It's time for another round of The Burger Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming burger? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Bacon Attack! Recipe

Ready to get hit by a Bacon Attack!?
Here's the recipe for the Bacon Burger »

Anyone who's vaguely into bacon (and who isn't?) or follows important internet memes has surely born witness to the bacon burger—that is, a burger patty entirely made up out of ground bacon. The trouble is, anyone who's actually followed through and made one of these things has probably come to the same conclusion that I have: they just aren't very good.

Overly salty, overly smoky, overly fatty (I didn't believe it, but yes, there is such a thing), and just plain overly bacon-y, they make for an interesting story, but are hardly good eats.

Still, the concept is sound: Bacon is delicious, burgers are delicious; why shouldn't the two go hand-in-hand to make something extra delicious? The goal of this week's Burger Lab is to do just that: Take a burger to the bacon extreme, while at the same time coming up with something that is as good to eat as it is fun to gawk at.

I present to you, The Bacon Attack!

As usual, I'm going to build the burger one piece at a time before putting it all together, starting with the grind.

The Meat

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To begin my testing, I opted for good quality cured—not brine-injected (i.e. Oscar Meyer-quality)—smoked slab bacon over the pre-sliced stuff in order to allow me maximum mobility in terms of grind size. I didn't want to limit my options before I'd even started. I could go into the relative merits of nitrate-free vs. traditional, or hickory vs. applewood smoke, but that's another story for another time. Personal taste reigns supreme.

Just to get my bearings, I made a single patty out of 100% pure ground bacon, and as expected, couldn't get through more than a bite and a half of it (If anyone has any suggestions of what to do with the quarter pound patty of cooked ground bacon with two bites taken out of it sitting in my fridge, I'm all ears). Like a good cocktail, this patty was going to need a mixer.

While grinding it together with beef was certainly an option, I found that beef ended up fighting with the bacon. It became a beef burger flavored with bacon, rather than a bacon burger. Whenever I'm at a loss, my first instinct is to grab a package of pork butt, and this time was no exception. When ground together with the bacon 50/50, the well marbled meat diluted the flavors of the bacon to acceptably delicious levels, without introducing any odd flavors of its own.

The Toppings

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Crisply fried, thick-sliced bacon was a no-brainer—I did mine in a cast iron skillet over low, low heat for even, spatter free cooking, though if I were doing a larger volume, I'd do it on a sheet tray in the oven. But if this recipe is really about optimizing bacon, it would've be a shame to throw out all of that flavorful rendered bacon fat that comes out of those slices. The solution? Bacon fat mayo, of course.

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If you missed last week's Food Lab post, it was about the science behind making mayonnaise by replacing vegetable oil with rendered animal fats. For this burger, a solid dollop of bacon-fat mayo (studded with bacon bits, of course) is just what the doctor ordered*.

* The doctor in my mind, that is.

The Bun

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Here's where I begin heading into personally uncharted waters. I've made burger buns a few times, but in all honesty, I'm a cook, not a baker. But on the other hand, I do know exactly what I'm looking for in a burger bun. It should have a soft, golden crust, a slightly sweet and savory flavor, and a tender, almost squishy interior. The key to these qualities is fat. Because fat interferes with the formation of gluten—the protein network that gives baked goods their structure—a fatty dough ends up less tough and more tender.

20091030-burger-buns.jpgI started with my basic burger bun dough, which uses yeast, water, oil, sugar, an egg, and flour, and started upping the bacon. Stage one was to introduce crisply fried bacon bits to the dough before allowing it to rise. The crisp bits studded in the finished bun add sudden bursts of salt and smoke that pop on your tongue as you chew the soft bread. But to really take the bacon to the extreme, I replaced the vegetable oil with the bacon fat that I had just rendered off of the bits.

Perfect. I think I may have invented the only Atkin's-friendly burger bun in the world—the thing tasted almost more meat than bread.

The Assembly

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The bacon patty gets plenty crisp and flavorful on its own, so there's no need to use the smash and scape technique here—just form the meat into patties, and fry away. While pork is really just as safe to eat as beef even at rare, most people find soft, cool pork to be off-putting, so I try and get my patties to at least a nice juicy pink stage. Because cured meat proteins are able to hold more water than unadulterated proteins, the bacon meat helps the patty retain moisture as it cooks, so luckily, slight overcooking doesn't pose too much of a problem—these things come out juicy no matter what you do to them.

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I toyed briefly with the idea of adding cheese, but found that it only distracted from the baconiness, and that really, it doesn't need it. Perhaps in future experiments I'll attempt to make meltable cheese slices flavored with bacon to accompany the burger, but I'm afraid my past attempts at making meltable cheese have ended in failure.

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The end result? Bacolicious! The soft, smoky bun with crisp, salty lardons is just strong enough to support the juicy patty inside, but soft enough to melt into a wash of bacon flavor on your tongue. The crisp strips and intense baconnaise, while hardly necessary, work together to turn this into one of the purest expressions of bacon I have ever put in my mouth—and I've put many expressions of bacon in my mouth. The only accompaniment that the Bacon Attack! needed (incidentally, even in the middle of a sentence, the Bacon Attack! should always be punctuated with an exclamation point—it's just that kind of a sandwich) was a batch of homemade B&B pickles to eat between bites and help cut through some of the richness.

I haven't decided yet whether the "Attack!" in Bacon Attack! is a noun or an imperative verb (as in, "Bacon, Attack!"), but after eating it, my mouth is telling me it's the latter.

Continue here for The Bacon Attack! recipe »

About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org.

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