Tweaks take burgers from so-so to stupendous
A good burger is a glorious thing. The confluence of savory meat, fresh toppings, soft bread and flavorful condiments creates a nearly perfect bite. I say “nearly” because the burger-eating experience can’t go on forever. Eventually, you’ve eaten the thing, and that’s when the sadness sets in (that is, until you fix yourself another).
The thing about burgers is that burger nirvana teeters on the knife’s edge of mediocrity and greatness. Of course it’s easy to make an OK burger, but making a great one is — surprisingly — just as simple.
The blueprint for a great burger starts with — what else? — the meat. We won’t condescend to you: You probably know better than cooking from frozen: those dry, relatively tasteless pucks. The heart and soul of a burger, after all, is its juiciness. And while pre-packed ground beef will do in a pinch, it’s not always clear when it was ground.
Your best bet? Ask your
butcher or someone at the meat counter to grind your preferred meat blend. Whether you opt for chuck, brisket or a combination of meats, keep in mind fat content: You want at least 15 percent fat. But why stop there? Go for the gold with an 80-20 ratio for maximum juiciness.
Seasoning: When it comes to seasoning, salt and pepper are all you’ll need. You’re not mixing meatloaf, so don’t bother gilding the lily. Tenderly, gingerly flatten your patty to be just larger than your bun (burgers contract!), about 4 inches in diameter. Or smash it. At this point, you’re either going to grill or griddle the burger. Sure, a searing hot grill imparts smoky flavors, but the loss of liquid seems a terrible waste; a flat surface cooks the burger in its own juices.
Whatever method you decide, season the meat generously on both sides and throw it on the hot surface. Sear each side to desired doneness. Personally, rare to medium rare are ideal, but I don’t know your life … you may like it well-done! (The quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will
defend to the death your right to say it,” comes to mind.)
The rest: For a bun, you can go standard. Or pick a potato roll, brioche, rye or pretzel bun: No matter how you roll, butter the insides and throw it on the grill or grill pan. Don’t argue.
And you’re done! Or are you? If the patty is the canvas, the condiments are your colors. Of course you can go classic: Cheese (American or cheddar), crisp iceberg lettuce and a just ripe summer tomato, plus ketchup, mustard and mayo — like the Three Musketeers of Flavortown, they’ll never betray you. But we’re here to up your burger game. Get artistic with our mix-and-match categories here. Pick a cheese, a topping, a sauce. Layer as you like. Go!
Put down the basic American cheese. You’ve had enough burgers with the stuff, and it’s definitely not going anywhere. It’s time to branch out.
Go for the gold with oozy, gooey raclette, the Swiss cow’s-milk cheese that is, in a world, molten. It’s basically like pouring a cauldron of fondue on your burger, and what’s wrong with that?
If you’re looking for something less messy (napkins were invented for burgers, according to history, probably), opt for another Swiss cheese, Gruyere. Sweet and nutty when young, aged Gruyere would contribute rich, earthy flavors to your burger.
While raclette and Gruyere complement the meat, Stilton is an assertive choice that will reward you with creaminess, funky aromatics and an injection of salty goodness (and it goes great with sweeter toppings).
If you’re grilling,
take advantage of the already-hot surface to char some toppings and thereby add deeper smoky flavors with each bite.
First, seed and core a jalapeno (or any pepper) before blistering it over the flame (a vegetable grater will come in handy here), which will tame the pepper’s heat while coaxing out sweet, smoky flavors. Grill a slice or more of fresh pineapple. Then chop and mix with the pepper for an easy salsa
Steak Diane is one of those ’70s-era dishes that have gone out of fashion, but its flavors — thanks to a caramel-y sauce — are perfect on a burger. Rather than prepare the dish just for the sauce, it’s easier to saute earthy mushrooms in butter with a sliced shallot, finished off with a glug of brandy (or even a nutty, semi-dry sherry). The alcohol contributes a little more richness to the topping, marrying its flavors with the mushrooms and helping deepen the caramelization in the pan.
Pickling can be quite a chore, but “quick pickling” is a handy skill for any home cook. While store-bought pickles are great, the quick pickle allows you to play with different veggies, slices and flavors. Think of it this way: A quick pickle is basically a marinade for vegetables.
Sliced red onion on a burger can be too acidic and astringent, an
aggressive component that can throw a
burger’s flavors out of whack. Some time in a brine, though, softens its flavors while still keeping its crunch. In a clean jar, add 1 cup
apple cider vinegar and dissolve 1 teaspoon each salt and brown sugar. Add 6 white or black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper and 1 sliced red onion. Set aside for a minimum of 30 minutes to allow flavors to marry. Pickled onions can be prepared days in advance; they will keep for 3 weeks refrigerated.
Burgers should be juicy enough to stand on their own, but if you’re looking to amp up the flavor quotient, a sauce is your best bet. They can be mayo, mustard or ketchup, of course, or go more exotic and chef-y.
Argentinians swear by chimichurri, the piquant, verdant green herb sauce found on many a steak throughout the country. Beefy burgers benefit from the bright addition of chimichurri, and with market season in full swing, it’s easy to adapt your finds into the sauce.
A favorite is blending a bunch of garlic scapes — milder than their mature counterparts — with a handful each of parsley and cilantro, juice from half a lemon, a glug of red wine vinegar and enough olive oil to yield a chunky, aromatic puree.
Double down on the beef flavor with a little something my partner’s family likes to call
“marrownaise,” essentially an aioli boosted by extra-savory roasted marrow. After sourcing two or three (go crazy!) 4-inch pieces of marrow from your butcher, roast in a 425-degree oven for 30 minutes. Allow to cool, then scoop out the marrow into 2 cups of your favorite mayo, along with one clove finely minced garlic and 1 tablespoon minced parsley. Apply liberally to your burger.
Bacon on a burger is done, it’s old, stop it now. I don’t mean it, of course, because bacon on a burger is just one of those things that never go out of fashion. That said, it’s always OK to mix things up.
One way is with
bacon jam, a salty-sweet hit of meaty bacon and caramelized alliums (the family of vegetables made up of onions, shallots and garlic). And while it takes a little bit of time to make some at home, you can easily find jars of the stuff in grocery stores and specialty markets.