Jeffrey Steingarten attached his obsessive, fertile food brain to the not-so-lowly hamburger in this month's Vogue magazine, and the results were mouthwateringly insane. Since the good folks at Vogue don't share well with others (the magazine doesn't put Steingarten's pieces online), I am going to do my best to summarize his findings. I also managed to talk to Steingarten for a few minutes about hamburgers, so stay tuned.
Steingarten on hamburger greatness:
What do we demand of the perfect hamburger? That the meat patty be profoundly beefy in flavor, mouthwateringly browned on the outside, and succulent (a combination of juicy and tender) on the inside. The bread or bun should not interfere with any of these virtues. It should be soft, mild, and unassertive; its job is to absorb every last drop of savory juice trickling from the meat while keeping the burger more or less in one piece and your hands dry. Mouthwatering, beefy, juicy, and tender—not too much to ask from life, but entirely elusive, at least to me. It's not as though I haven't tried. God knows, I've tried.
Where his hamburger exploration takes him after the jump.
Starting From Square One Steingarten discovers that most of New York City's great hamburgers are made with a blend of chuck (specifically the chuck flap) and brisket. Some chefs ask that short rib or hanger steak be thrown in. [Editor's note: I had a very tasty burger last night at a new New York restaurant, Shorty's 32 made with hanger steak, short rib, and brisket. It had tremendous beefy flavor. With a better sear it would have been a top 3 New York burger.]
The Daily Grind
Steingarten tries to develop his own signature blend. A Waring blender is destroyed in the process. He fails, so in his words, he decides to "forge somebody else's signature." Jeffrey's forged signature blend is two parts chuck, two parts boneless short rib, and one part brisket. He notes that "fat is extremely important to excellence in the hamburger arts because most of the beefy flavor in beef is in the fat." (Who knew the lowly hamburger had arts associated with it?)
Nearly Universal Truths Some of these AHT readers know well (but I digress):
- No Pressure: "While cooking your hamburger never press down on the patty with your spatula or with anything else." An esteemed New York City chef, Lee Hanson, of Balthazar, Pastis, and Schiller's Liquor Bar, further advises Steingarten that broiling from above is much less likely to dry out the burger.
Fluff That Stuff: "When forming a hamburger, don't compress the meat. The fluffier, the better. A raw burger should be airy and full of tiny holes that can hold the juices released during cooking, when the fat melts and water is squeezed out from between the proteins."
Steingarten quotes Harold McGee on this issue: "The gently gathered ground beef in a good hamburger has a delicate quality quite unlike even a tender steak." Steingarten decides that one of the many reasons much of his hamburger experiments had gone awry is that "I don't think I had ever gently gathered!"
- Grind or else: Steingarten concludes you must either grind your own meat or have a trusted butcher grind it for you, for reasons of taste and safety (or, perish the thought, be sentenced to a life of consuming well-done burgers). "Never buy supermarket ground beef unless the butcher there grinds it specially for you." He explains in painstaking detail all of the ways supermarket ground beef can be contaminated. His solution, if you have any questions about the chopped meat you've just bought: "Drop the meat into a pot of boiling water for a minute, fish it out, and pat it dry. Yes, it'll turn gray, but only on the outside, and this will get ground into the rest of the meat and vanish."
- Chill Out: "Before grinding chunks of beef, before forming a hamburger, and before cooking a hamburger, make sure that the beef is ice cold. Otherwise, the fat may melt and separate from the lean.
- Season Well: "Don't salt hamburger meat either before or after it is ground. Just before you cook the burger, liberally sprinkle salt on both sides of each patty, and press it lightly. After they're cooked, sprinkle with freshly ground pepper."
Buns and Brains In searching for the perfect bun, Steingarten notes that "An article in Cook's Illustrated said the best hamburger buns are Pepperidge Farm's Farmhouse Sandwich Rolls (not the company's classic hamburger buns). He tries them and finds them to his liking, though he says "they do need to be compressed a bit before using." He does not tell us if he has found a hamburger bun compressor, though I am sure if I had 15 minutes to go through his kitchen, I would find a reasonable facsimile.
Searching for the proper and most delicious burger-cooking technique, Steingarten ends up asking for advice from Kyle Connaughton, the head chef of development at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in England. Connaughton follows Harold McGee's finding that if you flip a burger or a steak every fifteen to 30 seconds, the outside surface will get nicely browned while the inside stays relatively cool.
Just Add Water Here is Steingarten's eureka hamburger moment. Forty-eight hours before the Vogue article was due, he discovers that adding a tablespoon and a half of liquid to the ground meat immeasurably improved the burger. He tried cream and water, and they both produced a superior, succulent, juicy, crumbly (which, Steingarten discovered, is a good thing) burger.
When I spoke to Steingarten this week about the burger article, I asked him for the recipe, which he says in the magazine is going to be available online. (It's not been posted online yet.) He says he will have it for us this weekend, but I am not holding my breath. His two pieces of advice:
- Grind your own meat or have a butcher grind it for you
- Adding the liquid is literally the secret sauce that will make any burger sing
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