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

The Burger Lab's First Annual Burger (Outstanding) of the Year (The B.O.O.T.Y.)

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

"For many people, a burger is a blank canvas—something to be used as a means of self-expression. I like to express myself with pickles."

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Burgers are a fact of American life. Hopefully that will never change. That said, the concept of a burger is far from static. While at the beginning of the decade, the "ultimate" burger may have been a $29 job from a fancy-pants chef, the last couple of years have seen a welcome return to the basics, and a concentration on what makes a burger great, instead of gourmet.

In an effort to catalog the shifting tastes of casual burger eaters and aficionados across the globe, we've decided to start a new New Year's tradition at AHT: The First Annual B.O.O.T.Y. (Burger (Outstanding) of the Year) Award.

The author apologizes for the forced acronym, but B.O.T.Y. just wasn't nearly as fun.

If you've been following AHT for the past year, you've probably voted in at least one of Robyn's great weekly polls. Sprinkled throughout these polls were a dozen questions aimed at helping us design the perfect burger, as voted on by you, our readers. Using the results of these polls, I have constructed what should be the ultimate burger of 2009. In questions where more than the top answer could be applied (toppings, for example), I used the top two responses to form the burger.

Without further ado, the winners, after the jump.

Favorite Condiments

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Ketchup and mayo. The classic, and the contentious. Mustard came in a close third, and had it been used, it would have been yellow. I'm a mayo and ketchup fan myself, so so far so good for me.

Favorite Cheese

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American beat out cheddar by a single percentage point. I'm pretty strongly in favor of the neon slices myself—at least on a griddled burger. But in homage to those who prefer cheddar, I decided to go with American sliced at the deli into thick, 1-ounce slices, in lieu of the singles.

Favorite Burger Size

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Some people like diminutive sliders, while for others, the bigger the better. 5-ounces, the size favored by reputable joints such as Bill's and Le Parker Meridien's Burger Joint, was the happy medium. And the people wisely decided to form the patty 1/2 an inch thick, a size which maximizes surface area browning, while still being thick enough to offer a medium rare center.

Favorite Toppings

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It was a very close call, but lettuce and bacon just barely edged out tomatoes and raw onions as the top two burger choices. A wide variety of write-in votes indicates that for many people, a burger is a blank canvas—something to be used as a means of self-expression. I like to express myself with pickles.

Favorite Bun

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Potato rolls, favored by classics like White Manna, Shopsins, and Shake Shack, took it by a landslide, with nearly 50% more than it's closest competitor, the white seeded bun. And how do we like our buns done? Toasted, with butter, obviously.

Favorite Side Dishes

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Want fries with that? That's an emphatic yes, please. Not only that, but we want our fries thin and crispy, as only McDonald's can deliver. These guys are easy to make at home if you've got a fry-cutter, or just some good knife skills. Double frying with a stop in the freezer in between the two frying phases is the secret to getting them crisp, while maintaining their light blond color. Adding some rendered beef fat to the fry oil doesn't hurt either.

Favorite Drink

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Is it just me, or do I get the feeling that some of the 40% who voted for beer did so just to be manly? Cola is obviously the beverage of choice for burgers, but the people have spoken. If beer has to be consumed, the best options are crisp, cold, and refreshing. Call me a hipster if you'd like, but Dale's Pale Ale offers all the drinkability of an ice-cold PBR, with the same amount of can, a bit more cachet, and a lot more hops.

Favorite Cooking Method

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Looking for an answer to the great griddled vs. grilled debate? Keep looking. Both methods are equally loved. Since it was a beautiful snowy day, and this is the first time I've been able to use my deck in months (due more to my landlord's decision to tear down the adjacent building rather than the weather), I got up extra early this morning and built a fire to grill some burgers for breakfast. Added advantage: my beers were kept ice cold until the moment I cracked them open (yes, I waited until 10:30).

Construction and Assembly

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To make the burgers, I first decided to go with my own Blue Label Burger Blend— a custom blend of oxtail, brisket, and sirloin that I arrived upon after extensive testing. The meat was ground twice through the 1/4-inch die of a chilled meat grinder before being hand-formed into patties and seasoned (only on their exterior!). I started grilling the burgers over an intense coal fire (a full chimney's worth of coals, spread over 1/2 of a large kettle grill) while I took care of the rest of the toppings.

20091231- NY_Grilling.jpgThe buns were brushed with butter and toasted on the grill. Lettuce was placed on the bottom bun (to act as a barrier to any juices that might threaten the integrity of the potato rolls), and mayo and ketchup were both spread on the top bun.

The burgers were quite fatty and sputtered and sizzled enthusiastically as they cooked, competing with the Franklin Avenue Shuttle as it rumbled past my deck on its overpass. I swear I could see people on the train sniffing the air as they whizzed by.

Immediately after flipping the burgers (about a minute and a half on the first side), I added a thick slice of cheese to each, then covered the grill and let them cook just until the cheese melted (another minute and a half). After placing the patty on the bottom bun, I topped it with bacon (thick sliced, applewood smoked, cooked crisp in a cast-iron skillet over very low heat), closed the sandwich, piled on the fries, cracked the beers, and dug in.

Presenting, the BOOTY

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So was it really the best burger of the year? No, not by a long shot. A damn good burger? Yes. In the top 10% of the burgers I've eaten all year? Perhaps. I would venture to guess that of all the people who filled out our poll, at most 1-2% answered every single question in-line with the majority. As even the Beatles know, you can't please all the people all of the time.

Despite their homogeneity and outward appearances of similarity, burgers are by nature fiercely individualistic creations—anybody who has ever been really moved by a burger knows this. Ask yourself this: Was it just the individual components of the burger that made it so great? And were those even the components that you would have picked, had you not first tasted them all together? Most likely, you answered no to both of those questions.

The greatness of a burger lies somewhere between the synergy of its constituents, and the personality of the cook/chef/friend/establishment which served it to you. Timing, setting, mood, and above all, personality are inextricable parts of the perfect burger experience, and as such, the ideal burger will never be planned by committee.

And to anybody who's never been really moved by a burger: now you know why you've been in such a bad mood your whole life.

Moral of the Story?

The Burger of the Year might reach good—even great—status as the years go by, but it will never become the transcendent experience we, as burger lovers and human beings, should be looking for. It is an interesting exercise, at best.

Here's to looking forward to the great burgers of 2010!

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, about sustainable food and cooking..

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