Deconstructing the perfect burger(s)

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 16, 2014 

PERFECT BURGER 2

A plump tavern-style hamburger, left, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat, sits next to a traditional diner-style burger.

ANDREW SCRIVANI — NYT

How to make a great hamburger is a question that has bedeviled the nation for generations, for as long as Americans have had griddles and broilers, for as long as summertime shorts-wearing cooks have gone into the yard to grill.

But the answer is simple, according to many of those who make and sell the nation's best hamburgers: Cook on heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles. Cook outside if you like, heating the pan over the fire of a grill, but never on the grill itself. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook.

"That is the best way to do it," said George Motz, the documentary filmmaker who released "Hamburger America" in 2005 and has since become a leading authority on hamburgers. The beef fat collected in a hot skillet, Motz said, acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent. "Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself," he said. "A great burger should be like a baked potato, or sashimi. It should taste completely of itself."

Great hamburgers fall into two distinct categories. There is the traditional griddled hamburger of diners and takeaway spots, smashed thin and cooked crisp on its edges. And there is the pub- or tavern-style hamburger, plump and juicy, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat within.

Whichever style you cook, pay close attention to the cuts of beef used in the grind. The traditional hamburger is made of ground chuck steak, rich in both fat and flavor, in a ratio that ideally runs about 80 percent meat, 20 percent fat. Less fat leads to a drier hamburger. Avoid, the experts say, supermarket blends advertised with words like "lean."

There are pitfalls to buying preground supermarket chuck steak, experts say. In addition to concerns about the health risks associated with preground hamburger meat, there are culinary considerations as well.

The grind most markets use is "fine," which means the fat globules in it are small. That can lead to the dreaded mushy mouth feel of a substandard hamburger. Better (and safer) to have a butcher grind your meat, asking for a coarse grind so that the ratio of meat to fat is clear to the eye.

It is wise to keep the meat in the refrigerator, untouched, until you are ready to cook; you want the fat solid when the patty goes onto the skillet. That will prevent "smearing."

In choosing buns, commercial options are fine, in particular potato buns, which offer a soft and sturdy platform for the meat.

HAMBURGERS (DINER STYLE)

Time: 20 minutes; yield: 4 to 8 servings

1/2 teaspoon neutral oil, like canola, or a pat of unsalted butter

2 pounds ground chuck, at least 20 percent fat

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

8 slices cheese (optional)

8 soft hamburger buns, lightly toasted

Lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes and condiments, as desired

Add oil or butter to a large cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet and place over medium heat. Gently divide ground beef into 8 small piles of around 4 ounces each, and even more gently gather them together into orbs that are about 2 inches in height. Do not form patties.

Increase heat under skillet to high. Put half the orbs into the skillet with plenty of distance between them and, using a stiff metal spatula, press down on each one to form a burger that is around 4 inches in diameter and about 1/2 inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook without moving until patties have achieved a deep, burnished crust, a little less than 2 minutes. Use the spatula to scrape free and carefully turn burgers over.

If using cheese, lay slices on meat.

Continue to cook until meat is cooked through, approximately a minute or so longer. Remove burgers from skillet, place on buns and top as desired. Repeat process with remaining burgers.

Serving two hamburgers on a single bun is not an outrageous option.

HAMBURGERS (TAVERN STYLE)

Time: 20 minutes; yield: 4 servings

1/2 teaspoon neutral oil, like canola, or a pat of unsalted butter

2 pounds ground chuck, at least 20 percent fat

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

4 slices cheese (optional)

4 soft hamburger buns

Lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes and condiments, as desired

Add oil or butter to a large cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet and place over medium heat. Gently divide ground beef into 4 small piles of around 8 ounces each, and then lightly form these into thick patties of around 3 1/2 inches in diameter, like flattened meatballs. Season aggressively with salt and pepper.

Increase heat under skillet to high. Put hamburgers into the skillet with plenty of distance between them and allow them to cook, without moving, for approximately 3 minutes. Use a spatula to turn hamburgers over. If using cheese, lay slices on meat.

Continue to cook until meat is cooked through, approximately another 3 to 4 minutes for medium-rare. Remove hamburgers from skillet and allow to rest for approximately 5 minutes; meanwhile, toast the buns. Place hamburgers on buns and top as desired.

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