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The Burger Lab: Foolproof Jucy Lucy

Head straight into the sideshow for full instructions on how to construct a cheese-stuffed burger.

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As far as singing the praises of the Jucy Lucy goes, I'm hardly qualified to add to the choir. I've never been to Minneapolis and I can't confirm whether or not Matt's Bar should be credited with its invention. Heck, I can't even tell you if I like the darn things. Fact is, and I'm going to admit this up front: I've never even had one.

Which, in a way, has helped me out on my mission this week to create a foolproof Jucy Lucy. When you have no prior experiences with something, you have no built in biases, and this naiveté can occasionally lead to great results. Would I have ever have considered sticking vodka in pie crust to foolproof it had I been raised making pie crusts on my grandma's knee? Probably not, and good thing I wasn't.

First off, if you've been living under a rock and/or outside of Minneapolis, a Jucy Lucy is essential an inside-out cheeseburger. To be honest, I believe that the appeal lies more in the ability to surprise unsuspecting eaters-by with a liquid hot cheese burn rather than with any real culinary appeal. But, seeing as I like pretty much anything with a liquid center, I was game to work this one out.

Now as far as I can see, there are two problems with the thing.

Problem the First: Blowout

Adam had this problem when he initially examined homemade Jucy Lucys a few years back. As the burger cooks it begins to contract, putting pressure on the melted, liquefied cheese in the center. If any faults occur in the structural integrity of the patty, the cheese bursts out in a miniature lava flow and burns on the griddle.

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Photograph: Adam Kuban

Pricking the surface of the burger with a toothpick seems to be the recommended solution for this problem, but when I tested it out, there didn't seems to be much benefit. Poorly constructed burgers exploded nonetheless. The real answer lay in construction. In order to get the patties thin and intact, I took a hint from my arepa-loving wife's Colombian cuisine and decided to flatten the ball of meat between two pieces of plastic using the bottom of a pan. With two perfectly even, intact patties, it was a simple matter to insert the American cheese, and tightly seal the edges. I cooked eight burgers this way, without a single explosion.

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Problem the Second: Temperature

In order to get the cheese to melt into an oozy, gooey mess, the patty needs to be cooked well done. Thus far, I don't think anyone has come up with a really good solution to this problem. Most people just accept it for what it is, hoping that the gooey cheese will make up a bit for some of the lifeless meat. Others have tried adding a milk and breadcrumb panade to the burger meat to keep it tender even when fully cooked. Of course, the (pitiable) results are like meatloaf on a bun. Not exactly what I'm after.

The first step to improving the texture of well-done beef was to ditch the pre-ground stuff from the store in lieu of home-ground (in this case, I went for straight ground chuck, with a bit of hanger steak scraps added to it).

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The difference in quality is pretty striking. Store-bought ground beef is usually ground too finely, and always compressed into a block on a Styrofoam tray. Rather than having the distinct grain and almost fluffy texture of fresh ground beef, it comes across as mealy—pulpy, almost. The tightly packed beef shrinks during cooking, squeezing out juices and fat. Fresh ground meat, on the other hand, has a much looser texture. As it cooks, fat melts, forming little nooks and crannies in its internal structure for juices to rest in, rather than being forced out of the patty. with fresh ground beef, even a well-done burger can be juicy.

Still curious, I tested one last theory. Perhaps the whole well-done-in-order-to-melt-cheese thing is a myth. I tried melting slices of American cheese in water baths set at different temperatures. You know what? Even at 120 degrees, American cheese is almost completely liquefied.

This means that even a completely rare Jucy Lucy can still have a molten cheese core, albeit one mixed with red meat juices. It's doable, but not too pretty:

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With construction method and meat in place, the rest was simple. To be truly authentic, the cheese should be folded in half once before inserting between the patties, but I discovered that once the burger is cooked, as long as the molten center stays put, it really makes no difference how you fit it in there.

Now doesn't that just make your insides melt to pieces?

Click through to the slideshow at the top for full instructions!

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 enjoyment.

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