The Best Burgers:
How to Make Yours Better

This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

A few years ago when a New York Times reporter asked French-born chef Daniel Boulud to comment on the vandalism of a McDonald’s restaurant in France, Boulud remarked, “If the French had invented the hamburger, this probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Whether or not he was correct, the interview inspired Boulud, who loves burgers, to create a kind of French hamburger, one stuffed with foie gras, short rib meat braised in red wine, topped with a tomato confit and frisée and put in a special bun sprinkled with Parmesan and toasted onion. Voila, the “db burger” at his db Bistro Moderne in Manhattan. At $29 it’s not only one of New York’s two most expensive burgers (it shares that distinction with the burger at the “21” Club) but, according to Boulud, “the most popular dish I’ve created in 20 years.”

This should come as no surprise. Hamburgers are America’s most frequently grilled food, according to surveys sponsored by the manufacturer of Weber grills. And though Boulud’s version may seem like an outrageous extrapolation of the simple beef patty millions of Americans will be flipping over the coals this summer, the fact is that the hamburger has undergone more physical transformations than Michael Jackson. We have turkey burgers, tuna burgers, and burgers made from things we’d rather not know about. At last year's Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest, sponsored by Sutter Home Winery, the Grand Prize winner was a Soy-Glazed Salmon Burger with Ginger-Lime Aioli.

These alternative burgers are interesting, even fun. However, the only true burger is made from beef. But what kind? Rick Rodgers, author of 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger and Other Ground Meats, likes chuck for its fat content. “Fat means juiciness,” Rodgers says. “Sirloin is more expensive but a sirloin burger is a dryer burger because it’s leaner.”

Erik Blauberg, executive chef at the “21” Club, prefers top sirloin and sirloin strip for his burger (served on a specially made brioche bun) because he likes the complex flavors such a mix produces. To keep the meat from drying out (especially when cooked well done), he mixes in rendered duck fat. Blauberg’s 12-ounce ‘21’ burger is crisp on the outside with a smooth, juicy and perfectly medium rare interior. It’s a delicious burger, though not as rich and multi-faceted as Boulud’s.

Stanley Lobel of Lobel’s, New York’s premium butcher shop, suggests equal parts chuck and sirloin for a hamburger grilled outdoors. For cooking in an oven or broiler, he recommends a leaner burger of two-thirds sirloin and one-third chuck to minimize the risk of flare-ups. Lobel also likes ground round (top round), the tail of the porterhouse steak, and hanger steak.

When I tasted different kinds of beef burgers, the first thing I noticed was that meat from Harry Ochs, my local butcher in the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, was clearly superior to standard ground beef I purchased at a mainstream supermarket, even when I had it ground to order. Top round was among my favorites. It had a classic hamburger taste and was surprisingly juicy given that it is among the leanest cuts. (Generally, hamburger meat should be 80 to 85 percent lean. Top round is usually 90 percent lean, or more.) Sirloin, also quite lean, had an unmistakable taste of steak but was a bit dry. When I added some goose fat, in an attempt to emulate Blauberg, I got a greasy-tasting result.
Chuck had a mushy texture and tasted disappointingly bland, surprising because it is so popular with burger lovers. Mixing it with top round didn’t help much. However, when I combined chuck and sirloin in equal parts, the burger became richer and meatier. Hanger steak is hard to find and expensive, but I thought it made a deliciously juicy and full-flavored burger.

Lobel recommends having your hamburger ground to order and using the meat the day it is ground. “With preground meat, you don’t really know where it comes from. If you use the meat the day it is ground, there will be less bacteria buildup. It will also taste juicier because as meat sits, it loses moisture,” he says. Having your meat ground to order is easy. Just buy a chuck or sirloin steak and hand it over to the butcher, recognizing that you’ll lose an ounce or two in the grinding process.

Good ground beef doesn’t need more than kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, especially if you’re going to load up on ketchup, mustard and pickles. Blauberg likes to mix in minced onion, a whole egg and some fresh herbs like rosemary, parsley, and thyme. Boulud adds freshly grated horseradish and minced onion. James McNair, chief judge at the Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest and author of James McNair’s Burgers, puts a few drops of Worcestershire sauce on his burger as it cooks. Others use everything from truffles to cilantro.

Whatever seasonings you use should be mixed in gingerly, as overworking compacts the meat and makes burgers tough. Make burgers big enough—at least six ounces, though I think eight ounces is ideal. Lobel recommends refrigerating the formed patties until they are ready to be cooked to minimize crumbling.

While hamburgers are a year-round food for most folks, Rodgers, who lives in New Jersey, says “I think of burgers like tomatoes. I only have them in season. I would never dream of cooking them in a broiler or frying pan.” He’s right--grilled burgers with that crisp, charred exterior and juicy interior are clearly the best. If you do cook burgers indoors, use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, preferably one with ridges to provide grill marks. Put it over high heat, then brush it lightly with oil just before the burgers are put in. Cook two minutes on each side over high heat to get those grill marks, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook another four minutes for medium rare.

On the grill, I prefer charcoal to gas. While gas gives a more intense heat, which makes for a nice crust, I find that hamburgers taste best when done over charcoal. Hardwood charcoal may give somewhat better flavor than briquettes, but it burns out faster. So consider using a mix of briquettes and hardwood. Figure about 3 minutes on each side for a medium rare, 6 to 8-ounce burger.

You may not want to have your hamburger buns specially made as Blauberg and Boulud do, but you’ll probably want something beyond the cottony rolls found in most burger joints. I like a brioche bun—it’s soft enough to absorb juices but firm enough to retain its shape. And don’t forget to toast. “I knock off points if the bread is not warmed,” McNair says.
For condiments, slices of local tomatoes in season, sweet onion and crisp lettuce are almost de rigeur. Boulud recommends horseradish mustard. Blauberg uses a zingy cocktail sauce made of horseradish, mustard and ketchup. Mayonnaise is “essential” for Rodgers.

Beer is a natural for burgers. I rather liked the 50s taste of Pabst Blue Ribbon over that of a microbrew I tried. When I asked Christopher Shipley, beverage director at “21” what wines he’d recommend for burgers he said, “Send me to the Rhone.” Indeed, the smoked meat and pepper elements of a Crozes-Hermitage were delightful with Boulud’s burger. I also liked Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, Cru Beaujolais and an Argentinean Malbec. Sweet and sour condiments can sometimes make wine matching difficult. Or perhaps not. The late publisher Malcolm Forbes liked Chateau Mouton-Rothschild with his Big Mac.

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