Celebrity chef John Ash shares his secrets to the best burgers
In recent years, burgers have moved up from just being fast-food fare to ultra-chic and hip, with top chefs creating all kinds of exotically flavored and constructed burgers made with expensive Kobe or Wagyu beef, braised short ribs or beef cheeks or stuffed with foie gras, wild mushrooms, truffles and more. I confess I’m one who likes mine in a simpler vein.
First, we should probably define what a burger or “hamburger” is and where it came from. The word “hamburger” has a relatively short history, and first showed up in print around 1890, according to Alan Davidson in his encyclopedic book, “The Oxford Companion to Food”(Oxford University Press 1999).
Cooked, flavored patties of meat, however, date a long way back and appear in many cuisines. It’s thought that the port of Hamburg in Germany and its Hamburg Steak, enjoyed by sailors there who introduced it to others in their travels, is probably the birthplace for burgers as we know them today. Their fate was sealed when “hamburgers” served in a bun were introduced at the St. Louis World Fair of 1904. The rest is history.
Burger purists will insist that burgers are only made from beef and that any other base ingredient puts it in a different category. I tend to agree with this, but like so many culinary traditions, “burgers” have evolved and now appear on menus when they are made from fish, birds and even vegetables.
So in the spirit of ecumenism, I’ll begin with what I think makes the best, juiciest and tastiest classic beef burger and then include recipes for my favorite pescatarian, poultry and veggie burgers.
Beef burger tips
1. The right meat and fat content is critical. I prefer ground sirloin or chuck with 15-20% fat. The old axiom “fat is flavor” really applies here and fat is also what keeps the meat juicy. More fat however doesn’t necessarily make it better. For this article I tried burgers made with 25 and 30% fat, and though delicious and juicy, at the end they left a greasy mouthfeel. Ideally, meat should be freshly ground, and if you have a store with a kind butcher, ask him or her to do that for you. Alternately you can grind your own (see accompanying box.)
2. Mix in whatever seasonings you are using very gently. Like pie dough, the more you handle the meat, the tougher your burger. Loosely mix to incorporate seasonings and gently but firmly form the patties. Wetting your hands will help to prevent them from getting sticky and helps the meat to come together faster.
3. Make patties a little thinner in the center. I shoot for something like 1 inch on the edges and about 3/4 inch in the middle. As the meat shrinks during cooking, they’ll even out and the meat also will cook more evenly.
4. Keep the patties cold until you are ready to grill them. This keeps the fat firm and helps it stay in the meat, adding flavor and juice, which is what we are aiming for.
5. Cook on relatively high heat. Obviously make sure your grill is hot, clean and well oiled to prevent the burgers from sticking. Remember, too, that the hood is your friend. Open the vents so that the fire stays hot but put the lid on while cooking. This provides an even heat and takes advantage of the convection of the heat rising and circulating around the meat. Note: I’m in favor of grilling as opposed to cooking beef burgers in a pan. If you don’t want to fire up your grill, however, a ridged grill pan on your stove top is an acceptable alternative.