Updated: Nov 6, 2018
Is it the meat? The bun? The toppings? It's a subjective preference, no doubt, but I would argue that any great burger needs to taste amazingly delicious with nothing more than a buttery toasted bun and a hot, juicy burger patty made from quality, natural meat with plenty of fat! Cooked fresh and served hot, of course.
I recently had the pleasure of joining Jason and Brian of the Modern Rogue, a hilariously entertaining and educational YouTube channel, for an episode on burgers! We made a version of my favorite burger which harkens back to a burger experience from my childhood I still remember very well. Fast forward almost three decades later and I’m still thinking about that moment, but I’ve since learned a thing or two about burgers, evolving my tastes and preference for authentic, quality ingredients. If I had to guess, I’ve probably cooked somewhere north of 25,000 burgers at farmer’s markets, festivals, and food events.
Check out the burger episode we did on The Modern Rogue, followed by an explanation of what we used to make this cheeseburger and why.
We took things a step further in this video by grinding our own meat for the burger. This is an extra step which is frankly not necessary if you've got a good source for quality ground beef. However, grinding meat at home is a fun, easy hobby to take things a step above. You can make your own custom burger mix, or even grind bacon and/or pork fat into the blend for something extra special. I use a Cabela's Carnivore commercial grade grinder, but you can get a stand along grinder for less than 100 bucks these days, or go for the kitchen-aid meat grinding attachments if you've got the stand mixer. I prefer a stand alone unit which has a bit more power because I do more meat grinding at home than your average person.
MEAT. As I mentioned above, any ground beef from a quality, natural source will do, but if you want to geek out and start playing with your own custom burger mix, I recommend using parts from the front and rear of the animal. In the video we used chuck, rib, and sirloin. The chuck is a heavily worked part of the animal, so it’s got great texture and flavor. The rib adds richness and fat while the sirloin is a bit softer in texture but adds plenty of great flavor. Most of the connective tissue was trimmed off these pieces, so we ground it once through the medium sized plate, shooting for a lean to fat ratio of about 75 to 25. Bold, beefy flavor and toothsome texture. If you want a patty which holds together easier, you can also grind the meat twice (once on the large plate, once on the medium plate).
BUN. Brioche buns are perfect. Their soft, fluffy texture is a great addition to the meat, and their buttery flavor is subtle but adds a rich accent to the whole experience. Brioche buns also toast really well so you can get a slightly crunchy bun but soft, steamy interior. Baste with butter before toasting, because butter makes everything better. If you've got the energy and inclination, it's also worth baking your own buns at home. However, baking is a lot more demanding than grinding your own meat, which is why I normally just buy the buns from a local bakery or source which has a good, soft brioche bun.
CHEESE. American cheese is a classic, but I like the flavor and quality of more straight forward cheddar cheese. However, we still want that ooey-gooey melty quality that American cheese has. In the video, we used a combination of two cheeses. One is mild cheddar, and the second is a funky, almost fruity 30 month aged cheddar. The cheeses were grated and melted along with some water and 14 grams of Sodium Citrate. This is a special salt made from Citric Acid which lowers the pH of the cheese and helps us get that ultimate melty texture. You can read more about that here and here.
SAUCE. My personal favorite is basically a version of thousand island dressing. Combine 3 parts mayo, 1 part mustard, 1 part ketchup, 1 part sweet relish, and a dash of vinegar. Mix thoroughly and you’ve got a perfect tangy sauce that works well with all the other ingredients. I like using mayo that is made with avocado oil. It has a subtle flavor of its own which serves as the perfect base for the other sauce ingredients, plus I like to avoid vegetable oils as much as possible which is what most other mayo is made with.
LETTUCE. Iceberg lettuce all the way. Crunchy and fresh. You can get away with other similar versions, such as romaine or butter lettuce, but for me, the thinly shaved iceberg lettuce cannot be beat. I like to put the lettuce on the bottom bun to help serve as a kind of crunchy landing pad for the beef patty. The burger juices trickle down into the bottom bun through the lettuce but not so much that it gets soggy.
ONION. Red onion, raw, thinly sliced. The flavor compliment and crunchy texture from sliced raw onion is perfect with the beef. I like the flavor and look of red onions, but any onion will do. Grilled or caramelized onions are also a great way to go, though you're going to be lessening the texture and boosting the natural sweetness of the onion by cooking them. Sometimes I'll add both raw and cooked onion.
PICKLES. I like the sour funky flavors of fermented dill pickles. They help cut through the richness of the burger and also perhaps aid in the digestion process as naturally fermented pickles that have not been heat treated are probiotic rich (Lactobacillus bacteria). Canned pickles on the other hand have been heat treated so they may have that acidic punch your looking for but lack the elements of the fermented version.
TOMATO. Please, for the love of all things good, only use fresh, in-season tomatoes. If it ain’t tomato season, leave if off the burger. I can’t stand the bland, mealy texture of those "other" tomatoes you can find year-round at the grocery store. They taste like wet cardboard. Just don’t do it. It will make you appreciate the tomato that much more once they start coming in season again.
Cooking in Beef Fat
We did something a little different this time. Instead of pan searing or grilling the burger patty, which are both great options, we cooked the beef in hot beef tallow. There’s a place in Memphis called Dyer’s which is famous for doing this. I’ve not eaten there, but legend has it that they’ve never fully changed the cooking grease since they opened their doors over 100 years ago. I used fresh, never used beef tallow for this episode, but I strained the fat afterwards and put it into the freezer, and I’ll likely use it several more times before ditching it. Cooking in hot fat (around 375 degrees) did you what you might imagine, it made an incredibly juicy delicious beefy burger. I'm hooked!