I have had hamburgers on the brain lately. I just read Hamburger America, Bobby Flay's hamburger throw down was shown again, Cooks Illustrated had an article on the best hamburger, and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives has had a bunch of tasty looking burgers on it.
Based on all of these sources (and more) and my own personal preferences, I made a mental list of characteristics an ultimate burger needs to have. Then I cooked it up. It was by far the best burger that I have ever had.
1. The beef needs to be freshly ground. Most sources agree that fresh ground beef makes better burgers and I like my beef rare, so I am not going to trust ground beef from a mega-mart. I ground equal parts chuck steak and well marbled sirloin tips using the fine setting of my Kitchenaid grinder attachment. Some sources suggest grinding multiple times to evenly mix the fat, but I didn't want overly ground mush. Since I was using a mixer anyway, I mixed the beef up using the paddle after grinding.
2. Thick patty that is very pink in the middle. The first time I can remember thinking that hamburgers were really good food was the first time that I ate at Flaky Jake's. As far as I know Flaky Jake's is long dead, but it was a place kind of like Fuddrucker's, only better. You could watch them cut up and grind the meat and bake the buns while you were standing in line. That first Flaky Jake's burger was a nice thick rare patty and I have never had a burger that I thought was exceptional that didn't have that characteristic since.
3. Loosely packed patty. This was my first effort at loose packing, but all of the most reputable sources agree that it makes the burger better because it gives the juices a place to gather. After this burger, I'm sold. I guess my nice aluminum patty mold is junk now.
4. Appropriate meat to bun ratio. I had a burger the other day at Picadilly Pub which should have been decent, but was actually very disappointing. The burger was medium rare and good beef. The bun was nice. But the bun was too big for the patty and there weren't enough tomato slices to get tomato in every bite. My son's kid's meal burger was even worse - same bun, much smaller patty. Things have to be in proportion. I didn't want to bust my diet completely for my ideal burger, so I opted for small classic Pepperidge Farms buns. In an ideal world I would like a bun with a bit of a chew to the exterior crust, but not too much, with a fluffy interior. That's what I remember from Flaky Jake's, actually. But I think I would have to bake that myself. I made the patty about an 3/4ths inch thick and a bit bigger around than the bun.
5. Mustard. Yellow mustard. Lots. I kind of like Dairy Queen hamburgers - I always have. I have decided that the reason I prefer them is their liberal use of yellow mustard. It makes an otherwise ordinary uninteresting burger tangy and delicious.
6. No mayonnaise or ketchup. I have almost always put both on my burgers. But mayonnaise is really a remedy for a dry burger and ketchup is really a remedy for bad (or absent) tomatoes. I resolved not to need either.
7. A good crust on the meat. The Maillard reaction reigns supreme when it comes to developing flavors in food. Especially in meat. I think one of the reasons burgers work so well is that the ground beef exposes more surface area to crisp up. For this reason I eschewed my grill (in 94 degree weather!) in favor of cast iron. I have no regrets. Bobby says that seasoning helps the crust form. I did salt before crusting and fresh ground black pepper after.
8. Crisp iceberg lettuce. From the middle portion of the head (not the outside, not the center). It's all about the texture.
9. Ripe tomatoes. Enough slices to cover the patty.
10. Cheddar cheese. Sharp. American cheese has its place on cheeseburgers (and IMO nowhere else), but I prefer cheddar. The best pre-sliced sharp cheddar I have found comes from Cabot. I will of course repeat this experiment with blue cheese. Stilton burger anyone?
This burger turned out amazing. I was in a completely zen place while eating it. There was just me and the burger and the eating. Yum.