Editor's note: Anyone with the drive to eat 12 burgers in 8 hours and spend 30 hours making hamburgers might be a little crazy but is probably a good person to listen to when it comes to burgers. That's why we're poking the burger-loving mind of AHT contributor and Cooks Illustrated writer Kenji Alt for this week's Grilled.
Name: J. Kenji Alt
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Occupation: Chef, test cook, food writer, burger fiend
How often do you eat burgers? I've been known to eat 12 a day from time to time. During the nine months or so that I was trying to perfect my own recipe—my personal testing continued long after finishing the Cook's Illustrated Drive-In Burger story—about a dozen burgers a week. Currently I'm down to about two per week, give or take.
Where did you eat your most recent one? Franky 'N The Boys, a new retro joint that just opened up in Brookline Village, across from my office. It's going for the low-brow, vintage, Coca-Cola, drive-in, chrome-and-leather feel. Super-simple menu. I love their concept, but their execution falls short. "Low-brow" comes off as "cheap," and the burgers are served on buns that are a little too Wonder Bread-y. They also coat their fries in some kind of gunk that makes them taste like Cool Ranch Doritos. Coating fries is a sin in my book akin to adding stuff to the patty before forming it.
Cheese: American, cheddar, other? Depends on the burger. My favorite kind of burger is the small, flat, griddled kind, i.e., the classic. For those, American or processed cheddar, definitely. But not all processed cheeses are created equal. I'm partial to yellow Kraft Singles, or the deli blocks of Land O' Lakes processed cheddar (do they make that in singles? I've never found it). I once made the mistake of buying "organic American" cheese (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). It wasn't pretty.
Ketchup or mustard? If those are the only options, a little of both. When available, I always take the "special sauce," my favorite kind of special sauce being sweet and vinegary thousand island. In a pinch, mayo and ketchup will do too. Or just good plain mayo.
Preferred bun: Sesame seed, plain white, brioche, or other? I'm a huge fan of Martin's Potato Rolls, so much so that I almost never use anything else for my own burgers, and give automatic bonus points to anyone who uses them (White Manna and the Shake Shack come to mind). Sesame seeds are for live birds or California Rolls, and I don't eat either.
Grilled, griddled, or broiled? Griddled 99 percent of the time. Grilling only on the rare occasions when the beautiful weather and the cold beer have come up with a pre-meditated scheme to seduce me. Griddling really showcases the meat—the quality of the beef, the grind coarseness, the fat content, crust development, tenderness—everything that makes a really great burger really great.
And how would you like that done, sir? I don't care, as long as it's got a good crisp crust, stays juicy and tender, and plenty drippy. If your meat is absolutely fresh ground (preferably after placing your order, like the Motz burger, which I've yet to try), you're cooking it on a griddle, and the ratio of meat to fat is just right, even a well-done burger can come out moist and tender.
So at Cook's Illustrated, have you become the go-to guy for burgery? I get the occasional burger question from co-workers and friends. When I was working on that burger recipe here, we started calling them Happy Kenji burgers (which were part of the menu of a fictional restaurant called Happy Kenji's Burger Joy), so occasionally people about to spend their Saturday grinding meat will tell me that they're going to have a "Happy Kenji weekend", which at least to me, sounds a lot more exciting than it really is. Just once I'd like to have my own Happy Kenji weekend (sniff).
Would you do us the favor of describing your perfect burger? (Price and ingredients are no object.) From the bottom up:
- Martin's potato roll bottom, lightly buttered and toasted
- Special sauce (I use a mix of homemade aioli, ketchup, vinegar, sugar, and bread and butter pickles, which I make with a 3:1 mix of thin sliced cucumbers and shallots)
- Onion, sliced paper thin from pole to pole
- 1 slice tomato, ONLY when they are from your own backyard in August, or at the very least from a farmer that you know personally. Otherwise, skip the tomato
- Bread and butter pickles. Dill will do in a pinch
- 1/4 pound of super freshly ground meat, very lightly packed, seasoned only on the exterior with plenty of salt and pepper, seared on a hot griddle until crusty. For the meat: flap meat (sirloin tip) or skirt steak, brisket, and short rib, with suet added as necessary to achieve the right fat content (about 20-25 percent), plus a "secret" ingredient. Hint: it comes from the sea and rhymes with Bon Jovi
- 1 slice American cheese, melted
- More special sauce
- Top of the Martin's potato roll, buttered and toasted
The hamburger is a food item with which most Americans have strong childhood associations. Do you remember your earliest encounter with this delicious dish? My mother's Japanese, and even to this day the Hamburg Steak is a dish that's common in Japan. I understand that it used to be a popular dish in America and was a potential precursor to the hamburger as we know it today. My mom used to make it a lot, and I can't say I was awfully fond of it. I think she put Lipton's onion soup mix in it or something. Kind of tasted like a giant Swedish meatball from the chafing dish right next to the Crock-pot full of Whiskey Weiners at a Betty Crocker cocktail party. We also lived half a block away from a McDonald's (doesn't everyone?). But back then, just as now, I went there for the fries.
What's your favorite fast-food burger? There's a dearth of fast food burgers around here, McD's, BK, and Wendy's being the only one. We're supposed to be getting Five Guys soon, so I'm holding my breath. Out of the big three, I'd pick Wendy's, Five Guys beats them all by a mile, and my favorite fast-food style burger is definitely Shake Shack, though you can hardly call a 45-minute wait "fast."
What topping or condiment, in your opinion, should never grace a burger? I love burgers and I love pizza, but there's two thing I really hate: Pizza Burgers and Burger Pizza.
What's the most unusual burger you've ever eaten? (Or most unusual burger experience you've had? Barring, of course, your insane 12-burger-in-8-hour binge.) I don't know if this is really unusual, really grotesque, or really funny, but a few weeks back I was checking out the burger scene in Somerville and stopped at Spike's Junkyard Dogs (a place known for their unremarkable hot dogs). I ordered a "flame-grilled cheeseburger." While I was waiting, I asked the cashier, "How big are the burgers?" He quickly pulled a wax model of a big brown patty with perfect grill marks out of a hidden drawer and showed it to me. I realized I hadn't yet seen the cook do anything but start toasting a bun and thought, "How're they gonna cook a patty that big before the bun finished toasting?" Then I thought, "Wait a minute—how are they going to get grill marks on a burger when the place doesn't even have a grill?" Which immediately led to the realization: that's not a wax model. That's what they're about to serve me.
Needless to say, it wasn't the best burger I've ever had.
What's the most overrated burger you've tried? Most underrated? Are you trying to start a fight here? I'm still maintaining my position that (gulp) Corner Bistro (sorry George) has the most over-rated burger by far (phew). Despite having only given it one chance, there were so many grievous mistakes in their burger that it's not possible to attribute it to a "bad day."
Back in the days when Crystal Pepsi still flowed freely, I remember actually really liking the McVeggie Deluxe, which featured a seaweed and soy-protein based patty and came in a space-ship like cylinder designed to keep it standing tall. I remember reading about the burger bombing and being taken off the menu. Obviously my tastes and education have changed since then, and I'm sure I wouldn't feel the same way any more, but I remember getting really bummed about it (I had to resort to the McChicken Fajitas to carry me through the post-faux-meat fallout).
Burger Joints Referenced
Franky N' The Boys: 284 Washington Street, Brookline MA 02445
White Manna: 358 River Street, Hackensack NJ 07601
Shake Shack: Madison Square Park, southeast corner (Madison Avenue and 23rd Street), New York NY; shakeshacknyc.com
Spike's Junkyard Dogs: Multiple locations; spikesjunkyarddogs.com
Corner Bistro: 331 West 4th Street, New York NY 10014
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