Dream Burger

by chubbywerewolf on 9 May 2011

dream burger

My dream burger, served with fresh asparagus and pasta salad

There’s a great burger-related moment in a recent episode of NBC’s comedy program “Parks and Recreation.” In the scene, two characters—Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe)—participate in a burger cook-off against one another. At stake is the right of the Pawnee City Hall commissary to continue serving hamburgers for lunch, even as the city attempts to combat its status as the fourth-most obese city in America.

The two men present their burgers to an assemblage of co-workers, who are serving as judges. Lowe’s character—an energetic, health-obsessed fitness buff who runs 10 miles daily—goes first. His entry, an Asian-fusion burger made with organic turkey, black truffle aioli, micro green, papaya chutney and a gluten-free bun, is a big hit with all of the judges.

Next up is Ron, the deadpan, mustachio’d, meat-loving embodiment of 1970’s middle America manliness. “Its a hamburger, made out of meat, on a bun, with nothing,” says Ron as he practically throws the burgers in front of the judges. “Add ketchup, if you want,” he adds, “I couldn’t care less.”

Ron wins the contest outright. Its not even close. Even Chris, who hasn’t eaten red meat in years, acknowledges the magnificence of Ron’s “artery-clogging” burger.

While the scene is exaggerated for the sake of laughs, I believe that it speaks to a couple of fundamental truths about burgers. First, burgers should always be made out of red meat, preferably beef. If tossing some tuna, salmon, ground turkey or soy product on a bun appeals to you, so be it. But it is no more a “burger” than a can of tuna qualifies as a lobster bake. Secondly, when it comes to burgers, less is generally more. Many of the biggest burger failures I’ve had have been those in which the meat itself got lost amidst too many other ingredients.

With these truths present in my mind, I set to writing about my “dream burger,” my contribution to the final installment of the Portland Food Bloggers O-Rama burger series. (Participants were asked to either write about the best burger they’ve ever had, or to create (and document) something that represents the perfect burger in our eyes.)

I’ve eaten too many outstanding burgers over the years to single one out as a favorite, so I opted to build a burger according to what I believe are the fundamentals of good burger design and preparation. I’m breaking the task down into three areas: ingredients, preparation and cooking.

Part 1: The Ingredients
There are three major components to any burger: meat, cheese and bun. I suppose that some folks will argue that cheese is not a “necessary” component, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a single instance in the last ten years when I’ve opted for a hamburger over a cheeseburger.

I sourced my meats from Whole Foods. While I know that in our “buy local” economy, the national chain of supermarkets is not everyone’s cup of tea, I chose Whole Foods because of the variety and quality of their grass-fed meats and the “can do” attitude of the employees in the meat department when it comes to special requests, such as giving me a coarse grind of beef for chili or stuffing a turkey breast for me. That said, I’ve found the meat at Rosemont Market (Brighton Avenue) to be just as good, and their butchers every bit as accommodating. If you are looking for a specific blend—like my brisket, chuck and sirloin grind—they will be happy to help you out with a couple of days notice. Additionally, Rosemont recently returned to carrying 100% grass-fed beef (Red Devons) from Woodbourne Farm (Bath, Maine), along with Caldwell Farm all-natural beef.

I phoned Whole Foods a day in advance and requested that they grind up one pound each of brisket, chuck and sirloin (more on that in a moment). When I stopped in the next morning, it had just been ground and was ready to go. While there, I also grabbed some twice-smoked bacon. If you’ve not tried double-smoked bacon (which, depending on where its made, might spend as long as 24 hours in a smoker), you don’t know what you’re missing. Because of the extra time spent in the smoker, the water content is lower, resulting in a slightly more dense piece of meat. It also has a deep, smoky flavor that you just won’t find in “ordinary” bacon.

Now, with regard to the blend itself, I recommend sirloin, chuck and brisket in a 1:1:1 ratio. The sirloin (try to go for around 93% lean) is going to be extremely tender and offer a nice baseline flavor. For the fatty component (absolutely critical, especially if you are grilling), I like to use ground chuck. The third element, brisket, is my personal preference. In terms of fat, its somewhere in between sirloin and chuck. What I really enjoy is the grassy, ever-so-slightly gamey taste that it imparts.

From Left to Right: Brisket, Chuck and Sirloin

From Left to Right: Brisket, Chuck and Sirloin

When it comes to your burger blend, don’t be afraid to experiment. Want a fattier burger? Try using short rib in lieu of the brisket or the chuck. Looking to hit a grand slam in the flavor department? Consider using oxtail in your blend. With a half-dozen or so cuts of meat to choose from, the possible combinations number in the thousands. And there are very few “wrong” combinations.

Whatever you decide on, the important thing is that you put some effort into it. Stop buying the pre-packaged meat that’s been sitting in the supermarket cooler for God-knows-how-long. Put our local butchers to work for you. (Butchering, in general, may be a dying art, but we’re fortunate to still have an abundance of skilled, knowledgeable professionals in our town. In addition to the aforementioned options, there’s Pat’s Meat Market on Stevens Avenue and the Meat House locations in South Portland and Scarborough.) Ask your butcher questions about the meat you are buying. Seek out their recommendations. Educate yourself on the differences between grass-fed and corn-fed cattle. When it comes to beef, a little bit of education goes a very long way.

Next up is the cheese. For me, there were really only two choices here: extra sharp white cheddar or an aged gruyere. Both melt fairly easily and both have a flavor that is distinctive but not overpowering. Ultimately, I chose the gruyere due to its smoothness.

The third component is the bun. I knew from the get-go that the bun would pose the greatest challenge in the preparation of my dream burger. A great bun can make a so-so burger seem much better than it is, and a bad bun can absolutely destroy a burger with otherwise great potential. The sad-looking, mass produced buns in the bread aisle at the local supermarkets might be fine for a tailgate party or afternoon picnic, but in the context of a dream burger discussion, they simply aren’t an option. Likewise, the buns produced by the so-called “in-house bakeries” at these same stores. While they may look slightly more appetizing than their bread aisle counterparts, I’ve too often found them to be stale or chalky-tasting.

Calls to various bakeries didn’t yield much better results. Scratch Bakery does produce buns that—according to the woman who I spoke with on the phone—”could be used as hamburger buns,” they only bake them on certain days and didn’t have any in supply on the day I called. The Standard Baking Co. sells hamburger buns during the summer months (and I’m told they are pretty good), but they won’t start production until Memorial Day weekend.

Seemingly out of luck, I called Local 188 which, as far as I’m concerned, has the best hamburger bun in town. In turn, I was referred to Sonny’s Restaurant and Bar (Local 188’s sister restaurant), where the brioche buns for both restaurants are made daily by a baking Demi God named Preston. Unable to reach Preston directly, I instead spoke with a woman named Kelly, who—after listening patiently to my desperate plea—was more than happy to assist me in my burger bun plight. Though she was unable to sell me any burger buns (Sonny’s gets frequent request to sell their bread offerings, which they always decline), she was happy to donate a few buns to the cause.

With the key ingredients all in place, I was now able to move on to…

Part 2: Preparation

The "dream" burger, pre-grilling

The "dream" burger, pre-grilling

The prep work pretty much consists of mixing the burger blend and forming the patties. You’ll want to mix the meat together with a large spoon. It might seem less taxing to simply use your hands, but in doing so, you’ll pack it together too densely.

I was working with a total of 3 pounds of beef, so I decided to make six 8oz burgers. Those are some pretty generously-sized patties, and you probably don’t want to go any larger that that.

Some people are obsessed with having every burger be the exact same size. Not me. I simply divided my blend into two batches of roughly the same size, and then divided each mini-batch into thirds. Just eyeball it. A burger that is a half ounce larger or smaller than its brethren won’t even be noticeable when everything is said and done.

Next, I took each “blob” of meat and formed it into a rough patty. The key here is to pack them firmly, but not too tight. If you overpack them, you’re going to wind up with dense, dry hockey pucks. But if you’re grilling your burgers, you want to avoid packing them too loosely. Otherwise, you risk the burger falling apart on the grill and perfectly good pieces of meat disappearing in between the grates of your grill to die a horrible, pointless death.

After preparing my burger patties, I used my thumb to make an indentation in the center of each. This is a little trick I learned a few years ago. When you put burgers on a grill, the center tends to “inflate” with the juices from the meat. Creating that small indentation helps offset the bulge, and allows for a more-or-less flat burger surface during the cooking process.

Salt and pepper both sides of your burger patties and you’re read to start…

Part 3: The Cooking Process

I’ll be honest. If I’m describing my dream burger purely on the basis of flavor and texture, then I’m most likely to choose one that has been cooked on a griddle or a skillet. A flat surface allows the meat to cook in its own juices, generally resulting in a juicier, more flavorful burger. There’s also that great “crust” that you get from cooking on a super-hot surface.

On the grill

Adding a little pat of butter to your burger right after you put it on the grill is a great way to add just a little more "zing" to it (and help keep your burger from drying out). In this case, its probably overkill, but thought I'd demonstrate it, nonetheless.

That said, I love cooking on my Weber charcoal grill… especially on sunny weekend afternoons with a cold beer in hand. There’s something almost therapeutic about building a fire, watching the coals turn white hot, the sizzle of the burger patty as it first hits the grates of the grill, the smell of the cooking meat permeating the neighborhood. Since I’m applying the “dream” label to both the cooking and eating processes, I decided to go with grilling.

When it comes to grilling, I have a few basic rules:

  • No lighter fluid or “pre-treated” charcoal briquettes: As someone who abhors the noxious taste and smell of lighter fluid, I use only chemical-free charcoal (preferably natural lump hardwood, newspaper and a match. The best way to get a fire started quickly is to get yourself a chimney starter. Dump your charcoal in the top, stuff a couple of sheets of newspaper in the bottom and take a lit match to it. You’ll have a fire started within seconds.
  • Don’t rush things. When cooking with charcoal, people often underestimate the time that its going to take their grill to become adequately hot. Wait for the coals to become white hot before you even think about putting the meat on. I allowed my grill to preheat for 30 minutes and, as you can see from the orange embers in some of the photos, I easily could have allowed it to preheat for ten minutes more.
  • No flipping! No smashing! We all know that one guy (or gal) who insists on lording over the grill, flipping the burgers every fifteen seconds. Its usually the same moron who uses his spatula to press down on the burgers as they cook, releasing every last bit of flavor and moisture into the hot coals below. All you have to do is put your burger on the grill, close the lid and walk away. (When you leave the lid open, you lose much of the heat from the coals, resulting in a burger with raw interior and burnt exterior. Closing the lid allows the heat to stay trapped within the grill, where it can be properly circulated.)The burgers should be flipped ONCE during the cooking process. You’ll know that the burger is ready to be flipped if there is no resistance when you attempt to pick it up off the grate using your spatula. If the meat “sticks” to the grill, its not time to flip yet.

With the burgers on the grill, I fried the bacon (two strips per burger) and sliced & toasted the buns. I also decided to sauté some mushrooms in butter and a splash of cabernet sauvignon. I’m not sure that the addition of mushrooms would be looked up kindly by Ron Swanson (after all, they are almost a vegetable), but them’s the breaks.

I returned to the grill, flipped the burgers, added the cheese and closed the vents on the grill (effectively killing the heat). A minute or two later, the cheese was melted and the burgers were ready to go. They had a nice deep brown char on the outside. Perhaps just a tad overcooked, but there was still a good dose of pink on the inside, and the meat was moist and juicy.

For condiments, I set out some country-style ketchup and horseradish mustard (both from Stonewall Kitchen), but we barely touched either one (not that they weren’t delicious… we were just really satisfied by the great combination of the cheese, the bacon and the beef). I served the burgers with pasta salad, fresh asparagus and a nice Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Avalon Winery, 2007).

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Malcolm May 9, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Bravo, sir. Very nicely done.

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jillian May 9, 2011 at 11:14 pm

First of all, you put a pat of butter on your buger. Second of all, Ron Swanson is a god among carnivores. Third of all, gruyere. enough said.

Reply

S. May 10, 2011 at 5:52 am

The burger looks divine.

Reply

kate May 10, 2011 at 7:01 am

my first thought was, where did he get that bun?!? and i sampled that wine at leroux on sat.- good stuff. look like an awesome meal.

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