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In Pursuit of the Perfect Burger


What is the perfect burger? Is there really any such thing? 

Let’s be honest here - my idea of the perfect burger may be similar to yours, but it won’t be the same for everyone. In fact, in my house, I have four people who all love different levels of doneness, with or without cheese, bacon over or under the cheese, toasted buns or not, and then me – I go bunless, but with a bigger patty that includes ground lamb. I’m sure you can imagine the production burger night is at my home.

However, there is a lot that I’ve learned over the years to be able to boast that any guest in my house will be treated to as close to their perfect burger as possible, and most of that has to do with practice, along with some tips and tricks that I learned over the years. We’re not talking about secrets that were taught in culinary school or from working at a restaurant with a designer burger that costs upwards of $50 or more. No.  

What I’m talking about is one of the most educational jobs I ever held at a kitchen. It was at The Hotel on Rivington, and the restaurant was named THOR. Like many hotels that also have restaurants, the same kitchen that prepares fine dining is also covering the bar and room service. And so, between every lobster risotto and gnocchi I prepared, there were plenty of burgers being made for the bar crowd and the guests of the hotel. Since I always worked dinner shifts, the task often fell to me. However, what I find amusing is that when my shift finally ended and it was time for a meal, I almost always found myself making a burger. Just imagine if you had every ingredient, topping and condiment you could possibly desire, along with the ability to experiment to your heart's desire.

In the end, the two most important things I learned is the simpler you make it, the better, and that the quality of the meat is paramount. 

The video tutorial is packed full of hints and tips to cook the perfect burger.

The Perfect Burger:

Let’s talk about meat, which is the core of your perfect burger. First, think of it like a steak instead of a burger. It’s the flavor and texture that determines if your burger is juicy or dry. If you care more about condiments than the burgers themselves (you know who you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that), then you may want to skip ahead. However, if you’re a burger purist, and the thought of each luscious and flavorful bite means more to you, then don’t skimp on the meat. In a pinch, the most practical option to look for is 85% chuck to 15% fat, which you can find nearly anywhere. Personally, if I’m making burgers to please everyone in a crowd, I’ll go to my butcher and request a blend of 60% fatty chuck/40% sirloin, because that addition of sirloin adds so much meaty flavor. For those of you who are really adventurous, try substituting ground lamb for the sirloin - now we’re talking flavor, and believe it or not, quite a few restaurants’ burgers (especially those designer burgers) are made with complicated blends of different cuts and meats. As for the butcher, also look for someone who will grind the meat for you upon request; or invest in your own meat grinder, which would elevate your prestige level to “Burger Illuminati.”

Now let’s talk seasoning, which is where things get really subjective. No matter what you do, you’ll be seasoning with salt and pepper; however, a classic addition to your blend of meat that will make nearly everyone happy is Worcestershire sauce. Add about a teaspoon per each pound of meat before you form your burgers. Another option, which I would use instead of but not with the Worcestershire sauce, is magic mushroom powder. Again, add about a teaspoon per pound of meat. As for me, it’s just salt and pepper, and since I usually form my burgers right before they hit the grill, I add it to the mix. 

As for the cooking vessel, the sky’s the limit because in the end it’s about proper doneness. For those who want the lowest-fat option, burgers can be baked on a rack in your oven or under your broiler. However, if you want the flavor that only a char will bring, then it’s best to cook your burgers on the grill or in a cast iron pan. My personal preference is a cast iron pan, because you get more surface-to-meat ratio, which means more crusted goodness.

When it comes to toppings and condiments, it’s always important to load the plate up with palate cleansers, and that’s the reason you almost always get lettuce and tomato when you order a burger. While most people don’t eat these items, they are the perfect way to cleanse your palate in between bites so that each one is like the first. Pickles, coleslaw and relish are also perfect examples of palate cleansers. Then, of course, there’s the tactile desire to have something crunchy, such as chips, bacon or fries, that complement the burger. Make sure to have a selection of cheeses available, and don’t skimp on the bun, because your perfect burger patty deserves an upgraded bun. Personally, I’m a big fan of brioche, with just a little char from the grill. With hot sauce, ketchup and mayonnaise on the table, you’re ready to get grilling.  

Grilled Hamburgers 101 Ingredients (Makes four burgers): 

1 ½ pounds ground meat - chuck 85% fat, or fatty chuck 60%/sirloin 40% or fatty chuck 60%/lamb 40%

6-8 slices of bacon

Fresh hearts of romaine lettuce, washed and dried

One large tomato sliced crosswise

One yellow onion sliced crosswise (you can roast these under your broiler or serve them raw)

Choice of cheeses for topping (American, cheddar, blue, etc.)

Chips (on the side)

Pickles sliced lengthwise (on the side)

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Cooking oil (high heat oil such as canola or grapeseed oil) 

Optional Additions:

Worcestershire Sauce (1 teaspoon per pound) or Magic Mushroom Powder (1 teaspoon per pound) 

Wine Pairings:

US Cabernet - Featured: 2016 Silver Ghost Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Find it on Delectable.

Primitivo - Featured: 2017 Schiena Tre Compari Primitivo. Find it on Delectable.

Priorat - Featured: 2017 Clos I Terrasses Priorat Laurel. Find it on Delectable.

Zinfandel. Find it on Delectable.

Share your own wine pairings on Delectable and check out what others have paired with the perfect burger.

The Process:

1. Take the meat out of the refrigerator one hour prior to starting to bring it to room temperature. If grinding it yourself, grind the meat cold and then allow it to come to room temperature.

2. Place a cast iron pan over medium heat; your grill over high heat and turn on your broiler or set your oven to 350 degrees.

3. Season the ground meat and form your burgers. Depending on your guests, each burger should be between 6-8 ounces. Avoid over compressing the burger patties.

4. Make sure to ask everyone's preference for doneness. Keep in mind that a medium-rare lover will detest a well-done burger and vice versa. 

Drizzle oil over each burger before seasoning with salt and pepper.

5. Drizzle a little oil over each burger and use your finger to spread it into an even coating.

6. Season each burger with salt and pepper, and place on your cooking surface.

7. Set a timer for two minutes, and then rotate the burgers 45 degrees to form crosshatch marks. Then set the timer for another two minutes prior to flipping to the other side and repeat this process. In the end, the burger will spend about eight minutes on the grill. (Resist the urge to press down on the burgers with your flipper.)

After four minutes, flip the burgers for eight minutes total on the grill.

8. While the burgers are grilling, use this time to cook your bacon in a cast iron pan. The bacon should cook completely during the grilling process and can be moved to a paper towel-lined plate. Then, turn the heat off under the cast iron pan.

9. Once the burgers have been grilled for four minutes on each side, check for doneness. See my guide for doneness below.

Cook the bacon in a cast iron pan while the burgers are on the grill. 

10. Each burger should be one degree below desired doneness - a medium-rare should feel rare, and a well-done should feel medium-well.

11. Any burger that has not reached desired doneness can stay on the grill. Also keep in mind that you can start a burger destined to be well-done before all of the others.

12. Move the burgers to the cast iron pan, which should still be holding enough residual heat to slowly continue the cooking process. Add cheese if desired at this time and place the cast iron pan into the oven for one to two minutes.

Place burgers in cast iron pan and add cheese.

13. Take your burger buns and place them onto the grill to toast them slightly, but be careful not to burn them.

14. Move the buns to plates and pull the burgers from the oven. Place the burgers on the bottoms of the buns but leave the top bun off. Like steaks, burgers should rest, and this will give you the time you need to build your plate.

15. Top your burger with bacon. Place two pieces of lettuce across the bun top, and then two slices of tomato. Add the onions, along with a pickle and chips.

Add bacon and preferred toppings to your perfect burger.

16. It’s time to serve your perfect burger.

My Burger Doneness Guide:

This is one of the most valuable things that I’ve learned. It can be used for nearly any kind of meat, and all it takes is your hands.

1. Hold your left hand in front of you, looking at your palm. Relax your hand.

2. Press the index finger of your right hand against the meaty part of your left hand below your thumb. That feeling is the feeling of “rare”.

3. Now take the pinky of your left hand and touch it to your thumb. Press the same spot as before with your right index finger. That is “well done”.

4. Take the ring finger of your left hand and touch it to your thumb. Press the same spot as before with your right index finger. That is “medium-well”.

5. Take the middle finger of your left hand and touch it to your thumb. Press the same spot as before with your right index finger. That is “medium”.

6. Take the index finger of your left hand and touch it to your thumb. Press the same spot as before with your right index finger. That is “medium-rare”.

7. Practice makes perfect.