The Almighty Hamburger
Hamburgers are without question the most popular of American meals. Nevertheless, they’re a bright spot in the low end of the food spectrum. While a great hamburger is very enjoyable, great hamburgers are outnumbered by terrible hamburgers by a ratio of, I’d guess, about a million to one.
It is the hamburger’s misfortune to appear convenient to cook and serve. In fact, a great hamburger requires at least as much attention to detail as many more ambitious dishes. The corners cut by most vendors of hamburgers—particularly the fast-food places—are heinous.
That’s maddening (and I do mean mad), because it’s pretty clear to most people what they want from an excellent hamburger. But, to add a few cents profit to each burger’s sale, the typical hamburger-monger ignores those standards and demotes its product to mediocrity, or worse.
Let’s look at the criteria, part by part.
The Bun. The Ideal Hamburger starts with a fresh bun no larger in diameter than the meat patty it holds. It is toasted immediately before serving and is warm all the way through. There’s a texture difference between the crust and the interior.
The Beef. Ground very recently (preferably on the premises) from a good cut of fresh beef, USDA Select or Choice grade. (Prime is a waste, and less than Select may be from old cattle.) The best cuts are chuck and round, with about fifteen percent fat. The ground beef is made into patties by hand, with telltale irregularities and fissures. That let it cook up better than a burger punched out by a die. Its diameter should be no more than five times its thickness, so the inside remains juicy. Double and triple hamburgers are feeble ways to get around that need. (Bigger stacks are self-evidently insane.)
The Grilling Method. The Ideal Hamburger hits a hot grill only after it’s ordered. (It is in cooking your burger before you arrive that fast-food outfits go wrong.) The cooking surface can be either a flat-top griddle or a grill open to flames (preferably coming from charcoal or wood). But it is critical that the temperature be sufficiently hot to sear the exterior of the meat quickly, thereby sealing in the juices and creating a tasty, dark-brown crust.
The Seasonings. The chef applies seasoning to the beef while it’s on the grill—salt and pepper at the very least, but with an option for other ingredients, too. My own preference is for dry Creole seasoning and chopped fresh onions pressed right into the beef, but the important thing is that a customer has some options.
The Dressings. If this is really the Ideal Hamburger, then no dressings are necessary. A great hamburger should not need cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, mustard, relish, onions, or anything else to be delicious. (But all those and more should be available, of course. I’ll turn a blind eye to ketchup for the sake of the taste quirks of others.)
The Cheese? And The Bacon? A hamburger is better without either of those ingredients. For the majority who prefer cheeseburgers, freshly-grated sharp Cheddar or something of equal or better merit should be options. As for bacon, the only reason it ever went into a hamburger–where its flavor clearly clashes with that of the beef–is the widely-held but erroneous idea that everything tastes better with bacon.
The hamburger segment of the restaurant industry has lately come to understand how avidly American diners want hamburgers that meet these standards. They’ve found that people will pay prices an order of magnitude above what they’re paying for ordinary burgers. The ten-dollar hamburger and the thirty-dollar hamburger meal for two have become commonplace.