Friday, June 1, 2012

A Hamburger a Day

A hamburger a day keeps the doctor away. Or something like that.

Somewhere along the way, the hamburger got a bad rap. I suspect this was somewhere around the time those McDonald's burger counters got to 99 billion and stopped counting. But before we became accustomed to overcooked patties and preformed bricks of ground beef, fast food joints were serving up burgers made of fresh ground greasy goodness. If you've been to Redamak's in New Buffalo or Blimpy Burger in Ann Arbor, you've seen a great example of these old-fashioned style burgers.

The universe of burgers can be separated into two styles, what I loosely refer to as pub/steakhouse-style burgers and old-fashioned griddled burgers. Pub-style burgers are what typically pops into one's mind when they are asked about their ideal burger style - a 1/2-inch, 1/2 pound grilled over an open flame to a juicy pink medium rare. Old-fashioned griddled burgers are thin, loosely packed patties cooked over high heat on a griddle to get that delicious crust on the patty. I'm not here to convince you that one is better than the other. I've waited for over an hour to get a seat at Kuma's in Chicago and it's phenomenal (pro-tip: scope out the seats at the end of the bar and snag one when they open up), one day I'll make a trip to NYC specifically for the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern. I love a well-prepared pub-style burger as much as anyone - and we'll cover these later - but for my money, it doesn't get better than an old-fashioned cheeseburger on a squishy white bun that'll leave cheesy, greasy dribbles running down your arm.

I reached this burger epiphany a couple years ago after watching an episode of America's Test Kitchen on PBS on how to make old fashioned burgers and giving them a shot at home. Simply put, they were the best burgers I've ever had and still are to this day. Like all good things that come from the kitchen, there are no shortcuts and there is a little bit of work. Specifically, you have to grind your own meat - this is not negotiable, it is the key to the entire operation. If you have a Kitchenaid mixer, you can pick up the meat grinder attachment for about $50. Grinding your own meat can seem like a cumbersome undertaking initially, but keep in mind a few things:

1. Pink slime - By grinding your own meat, you'll know exactly what's in your ground beef (actual beef, for starters).
2. Cost - Contrary to what you  might be thinking, grinding your own meat is not cost prohibitive. You can usually get away with grinding fairly cheap cuts and you don't have to buy the pre-packaged packs of ground beef, which are often much more than you'll need if you're only making a couple burgers.
3. Texture - Ever notice how pre-packaged ground beef doesn't really crumble apart and tends to stick together in a big mushy blob? You will never get a juicy tender burger with that stuff. By coarsely grinding your own beef and making the burgers soon after, your final product will have a significantly better texture regardless of what type of burger you're making. There is some food science at play here - think of ground beef as a ton of small little balls of beef. Over time, the proteins in these balls will begin to stick together, become a more cohesive pile of meat - that is bad. By grinding meat fresh, you don't give these proteins enough time to bind to one another. Ergo, tender juicy burgers.

Now that I've got you on the hook, here's how you can make the best burgers you've ever had:

1. Get your beef on - what cut to get? The options are endless and the internets are full of varying opinions. I try to keep it simple. You want something with a fair amount of fat; specifically, marbled fat, not the hard chunks of fat - you can't grind that stuff. A good fatty hunk of chuck usually works pretty well. If you want to get a little more advanced, look for some sirloin (usually leaner than chuck) and mix it with short rib (very fatty).

2. Make sure everything is cold. Fat melts and Fat is Flavor, so we need to keep as much of it in a solid state so that it stays in our burger and not in the meat grinder tube. Before I start cutting the meat, I place the entire meat grinder contraption into the freezer. Then, cut up the meat into about 1 inch chunks, trimming off any big hunks of fat as you come across them. Throw the chunks of meat into the freezer for about 15-20 minutes, you want the meat to just be firming up a bit. This will ensure that it stays cold throughout the grinding process.

3. Grind the meat by dropping the cubes into the hopper and pushing them down with the plunger. Use the coarser (wider holes) grinder plate for burgers - I'd reserve the finer grinder plate for certain kinds of sausage. If you notice that the meat isn't coming out very well, take the cover off and clean out the blade a bit - sometimes fat can gum up the blade if the meat isn't cold enough.

4. Once you've ground the meat, loosely form the meat into patties. Do not pick up the patty. In fact, the patty should be formed loose enough such that it would literally be impossible to pick up with your hands. You just want to loosely form it into a small-ish patty so you can scoop it up with a big spatula. After you've formed your patties (I use a cookie sheet to hold them all), slide them into the fridge for about 20 minutes.

The mini patty is for our black lab, Lucy
5. Cooking surface - the key to the old fashioned burger is that delicious brown crust. This is no place for your non-stick stuff. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, go snake one from your grandma's kitchen or go pick one up for $25. A stainless steel saute pan would also work well. Put a little bit of peanut/canola/vegetable/safflower oil (not olive oil - it will burn) in the pan and crank it up all the way. Sprinkle the burgers with a good pinch of kosher salt. Once the pan is ripping hot - just before the oil starts to smoke - flip your burgers salt side down onto the pan. I say salt side down b/c salt facilitates the Maillard reaction - the scientific term to describing the browning effect on meat. Now sprinkle the side that is facing up with salt and press down with the flat side of the spatula on the burgers - you want to make sure the burgers are making good contact with the pan. After about a minute, flip the burgers - but DON'T push down on them now, you don't want to squeeze all those fatty juices out (we can squeeze down initially b/c the fat hasn't had a chance to render yet). Hit them with cheese if you so desire, I'm a fan of plain ol' American cheese, there is not a better choice of cheese for a griddled burger. After another minute or so, take them off and slide them onto your bun of choice.

The best bun for these burgers is the Martin's Potato Roll, but unfortunately, they aren't very widely distributed. A cheap grocery store bun is okay as a substitute. I like to throw on a sunnyside up egg just for good measure. Serve with fresh cut fries & garlic aioli.

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