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

The Burger Lab: The Fake Shack

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I admit it: my tastes are not strikingly original. I'm obsessed with the Beatles, Beethoven is my god, and I even think Bono is a pretty neat guy. Nevertheless, I've consciously tried to avoid all things at the intersection of over-hyped and New York, until a couple years ago when I finally forced myself to stand on line for a hamburger in the name of research—a hamburger that changed my life.

Yes, I'm talking about the Shack Burger from Shake Shack, of which more than enough has been written about already. I'm not here to wax poetic about what Josh Ozersky has dubbed "the platonic ideal of a hamburger"—rather, I'm here to talk about a way to skip the line that doesn't involve standing outside at 9 p.m. on a rainy Tuesday night: Just make the Shack Burger at home. Easier said than done.

There's nothing special about the burger—regular squishy bun, a 1/4-pound patty of griddled meat, lettuce, tomato, and sauce—but like all good burger experiences, the sandwich is far more than a sum of its parts. To recreate the experience at home, I had to eat it, dissect it, deconstruct it, research it, eat it some more, rebuild it, break it down again, reconfigure it, taste it, eat it one more time, and finally reconstruct it again. Here are the results of my labor, from the ground up.

The Bun

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This one's easy. The soft, squishy buns have the unmistakable sweetness and pale yellow hue of Martin's Potato Rolls, the sandwich roll size. East coasters can buy these in pretty much any supermarket, or you can order them online by the case (that's 48 buns, which you can freeze and toast straight out of the freezer) at their website. The buns are very lightly buttered, then toasted to a light golden brown.

The Meat

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According to Adam's sources, the meat is a 50:25:25 blend of sirloin, chuck, and brisket. On the other hand, according to Ozersky, the mixture is actually mostly brisket, with chuck and short rib mixed in.

I did a side-by-side comparison of the two purported blends next to a Shack Burger, and found that Adam's mix is closer in flavor, offering the right level of tenderness from the sirloin, rich beef flavor from the chuck, and slight sour/metallic notes from the brisket.

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20091016-fakeshack-closeup.jpgEven the most casual of Shack fans knows the smash and scrape technique: forming the patties into hockey puck-shaped disks, placing the on the griddle, smashing down with the back of a spatula, then scraping them off when it's time to flip. But despite the right meat blend and following this technique, I wasn't getting the right texture. The crust on a Shack Burger forms a sort of flat sheath over the top of the burger, rather than the crispy nooks and crannies I was getting on my burgers at home. What was I doing wrong?

At first, I thought it was my grind size. I was passing the burger once through a 1/4-inch die, which was giving me a rather coarse grind. Doing a double pass helped the texture come closer to Shack standards, but I still wasn't getting the right crust.

After closely examining the highly informative behind-the-scenes video from the Feedbag, I discovered the secret: don't use too much oil. Normally, when I cook in a traditional (IE, not nonstick or cast iron) skillet, I'll add a generous amount of oil to prevent food from sticking. With a Shack Burger, you want the meat to stick to the pan—that's how it gets that flat, sheath-like crust.

The Toppings

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This part was also a snap. Neon-yellow American cheese, placed over the patty soon after flipping to give it ample time to melt into the meat is a given. The shack uses two slices of ripe plum tomato in each sandwich—always cut from the center of the fruit—and one piece of green leaf lettuce, the tender green ends of the leaf only.

The Sauce

I would argue that the Shack Sauce is almost as important on a Shack Burger as the patty itself—it's what differentiates the Shack Burger from Shake Shack's regular cheeseburger. It's by all accounts a "secret" recipe that was going to take a bit of hard core investigative journalism to uncover.

My first attempt was to play the Shack-virgin card. When I got to the front of the line at the Upper West Side location one Monday afternoon, I innocently asked the cashier, "So, what's the Shack Sauce?"

Her response: "It's mayo-based. Sweet, sour, hot."

I went fishing: "How spicy is it? Like it's got hot sauce in it or something?"

But she didn't take the bait: "A little spicy. But also sweet and sour."

One last try: "So, sweet like thousand Island? Like it's got relish in it?"

She's an inscrutable blank wall: "No, no relish. Mayo-based, sweet, sour, hot."

I give in: "Okay, give me a Shack Burger, extra Shack Sauce on the side."

Upon tasting it, my immediate thoughts are mayo, ketchup, a little yellow mustard, a hint of garlic and paprika, perhaps a touch of cayenne pepper, and an elusive sour quality that I can't quite pinpoint. It's definitely not just vinegar or lemon juice, nor is does it have the cloying sweetness of relish. Pickle juice? Cornichon? Some other type of vinegar? I can't figure it out. This was going to take a little more effort.

My next strategy was a little more drastic: "accidentally" walking through the hidden door in the downstairs rec-room that leads to the kitchen in the hopes of taking a sneaky glance at their pantry for hints. No good. I got halfway through the door, only catching a glimpse of a few cans lining the right-hand wall before it was pointed out to me by a friendly employee that the restrooms were actually behind the doors clearly labeled "restroom."

I sat on the bench outside contemplating a bit of dumpster diving when a thought struck me: Maybe I was going about this all wrong.

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I walked back into the restaurant, went straight up to the manager, and asked point blank: "Is the Shack Sauce a secret, or can you tell me what's in it?"

A little laugh, and then, "It's mostly mayo, with some ketchup, mustard, a few spices, and pickles blended in."

"So, pickle relish, or pickles?"

"Actual pickles—the sliced pickles we serve with the burgers. I couldn't give you exact tablespoon measure or anything because I don't know them off hand, but that's the general idea."

Note to self: always ask nicely before moving on to breaking-and-entering.

20091007saucingbun.jpgThe rest was easy: I brought the extra sauce home, the tinkered around with a blender and my spice rack until I got a pretty damn-close approximation. Can you pick out which is the real sauce in the pic above?

As for applying the sauce, the key here is generous, even coverage. For the sake of absolute authenticity, I transferred the sauce to a squeeze bottle, and squeezed out three lines onto the top half of the bun, going back and forth three times along each line.

The Assembly

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Final phase of construction: place patty with cheese on toasted bun bottom. Close bun to encase patty, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and sauce. Slip into a wax-paper sleeve (or in this case, a jury-rigged parchment paper sleeve), wait 30 seconds for steam from patty to penetrate and soften bun, then consume. A perfect taste-alike.

Continue here for The Fake Shack Burger 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.

Related

The Burger Lab: Mastering the Art of Burger Blending with Eight Cuts of Beef
Shake Shack: A New York Spin on the West Coast-Style Burger

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