The Burgers are Better…

I love a good burger. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I really also love a bad burger in the wee hours when I’ve drunk far too much. Who doesn’t?

For around 40 years, Australians accepted the mediocrity of the Hungry Jacks and McDonald’s duopoly until a bunch of various entrepreneurs decided to challenge the status quo. The mid-2000’s brought us the likes of Grill’d, Urban Burger, Burger Edge, BBNT; all of which seemed to practically pop up over night to rival the competition; each claiming to offer an alternative burger that’s well made (in that it vaguely looks like the picture above the counter) with quality ingredients (that don’t taste like cardboard) and in some instances deliver nourishment that isn’t two times your daily intake of calories in one sitting.

Some tried, some failed. Most though, are still around. Even before the great burger revolution of circa 2005, there are long-standing Melbourne icons like Andrew’s Hamburgers in Port Melbourne, Danny’s Burgers in Fitzroy North and even the Embassy Café in West Melbourne, where all the taxi drivers hang out.

They’ve been a staple on most pub menus, amongst the chicken parmas and beer-battered fish & chips, but some places are kicking it up a notch. And it makes sense, because they’re popular, can cater to most tastes and in most instances, a relatively inexpensive feed.

The Tramway Hotel, an iconic local pub in Fitzroy North recently changed hands. With the change of owners came a much-needed refurbishment and another attempt at opening the kitchen, which in years gone by has failed repeatedly. Although this time around, the canny owners went on the premise to focus on something particular and do it well. With 8 or 9 burgers on offer, some are constants that remain on the menu and others are seasonal. Your omnipresent Fitzroyalty vegans and vegetarians are covered, as are your hungry carnivores, coeliacs, pescetarians, etc. All washed down with a few beers, is there anything better?

But how much is too much for a burger? Many coveted two-hatted establishments also jumped on the burger bandwagon because it was cool, like, if you didn’t know. Rockpool Bar & Grill’s Wagyu Burger is probably the most renowned with its brioche bun, gruyere cheese, bacon, zucchini pickle from the Zuni Café in San Francisco and of course, its namesake, a David Blackmore Full Blood Wagyu burger patty. Some may scoff at paying $24 for a burger, but it’s probably a reasonable price point in the context of the venue and although it’s around four times the cost of a Whopper, it’s only twice the cost of a burger at Grill’d.

Of course, the more you pay for your burger hopefully indicates that you are getting better quality ingredients. Although the ongoing publicity surrounding high fat, high sodium take-away food has meant that the ‘alternative’ burger franchises attempt to win over customers by offering stuff like “97% fat-free beef”, which as far as burgers go, defeats the purpose of what actually makes a good burger. Fat equals flavour and provides the much needed moisture to make your hamburger juicy. As I continually need to explain to my four-year old daughter, a burger (amongst all of the other junk food she likes) is a ‘sometimes’ food and I’d sooner have a juicy, tasty burger occasionally than a ‘guilt-free’ 97% fat-free burger patty, which will give you nothing more than a dry, tough and tasteless puck of meat.

Making a burger at home is a very satisfying undertaking, especially with some care and forethought. Although my home version is naturally better and far more satisfying than that famous  twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun, there are a couple of elements in my burger that pay homage to the evil duopoly, because at the end of the day this is what I grew up knowing a burger to be and let’s be frank, some things just work so there’s no point in trying to reinvent them.

As I’ve also mentioned previously, you can go as far as Heston Blumenthal and make your own ‘processed’ cheese like he did in his In Search of Perfection series. Perhaps even go the whole hog and attempt to make every single element of the burger from scratch, like this guy did.

Personally, I don’t have 30 hours to kill. However there is one non-negotiable that must be obeyed and that is the meat patty. Like I said before, there needs to be a reasonable fat content. There are many lean to fat ratios thrown around as to what is the ultimate and everyone’s get a theory on the best cuts to use. As for fat, the general consensus is around 80:20 (80% lean to 20% fat). Chuck steak seems to be the preferred sub-primal cut, although if you’ve got lots of time on your hands, you can mix it up with ratios of chuck with some brisket, sirloin and even beef short ribs (boned, of course), each cut adds a different dimension in terms of meatier flavour, texture and mouthfeel.

You can buy the meat and grind it yourself, if you have the equipment and enthusiasm or your butcher can grind it for you. If you’re really pressed for time (here’s my first tip that might cause a little unease as to my pedigree as a ‘foodie’, but hey this is my recipe and my thoughts on my favourite burger to make at home. If you disagree or have other thoughts, I would love to hear them), buy regular standard minced beef from any of your garden variety supermarkets. Don’t buy the premium quality 5-star lean, or 4-star for that matter, as both are too lean. The regular 3-star mince has the appropriate lean to fat ratio for this purpose.

The next step is to flavour your meat. Of course, there are lots of options here: garlic, onion (raw or sweated off first), breadcrumbs, herbs, spices, worcestershire, mustard and so on. Personally, I don’t want to add anything to the meat other than some salt and a little white pepper before it hits the grill. Both enhance the flavour of the meat and I do not like to detract from this at all. There’s enough going on in a burger with the other ingredients and condiments, than to have to add more flavour to the meat.

You do not need egg to bind your minced beef, nor do you need to slap or overwork the meat – it just makes it tough. Simply make sure your meat is well chilled and formed into uniform patties. There’s no need to handle the meat more than you have to… unless you’re into that kind of thing. Also, a tip I’ve stuck with is to place your burgers in the freezer until they’re very chilled, but not snap-frozen. An hour or so before cooking on the grill is just about right.

Size is everything. Too big and you’ll end up with most of the burger in your lap as you struggle to get your mouth around it. Too little and you’ll lose the meat flavour amongst the other wonderful things you add to your burger. I’ve already briefly mentioned uniformity. Call me anal, but when I’m making burgers, I’ll grab the scales and weigh out the meat. Not to stop the fights because “her burger’s bigger than mine”, but so I can get the burger size right in respect of the bun I am using, the accompanying ingredients and whom I am cooking for.

According to my maths, McDonalds’ Quarter Pounder is 112.5 grams in the metric system. I find the substance of one patty at that weight just a little underwhelming and two a little too much meat. I’ve found making a burger with a weight of 150g – 170g is a good sized patty for an adult. For kids, no more than 100g will suffice. Just remember, varying sizes will require different cooking times.

Next is the bun. Controversial tip number two is that I don’t mind using your run-of-the-mill, store-bought hamburger buns. As long as they are fresh… and they don’t tend to stay too fresh for long either. Those flat, squished looking buns that supermarkets and bakery chains sell also do a reasonable job. The bun needs to be able to withstand the juicy ingredients, without falling apart and making you angry. You also don’t want a bun that’s too tough, bready or doughy.

I’ve made my own buns on a number of occasions and if I’m making burgers on a weekend and therefore have the time, I would probably do just that. There’s a really good brioche-style bun recipe I’ve used a number of times. They’re light enough to not dominate the other ingredients and sturdy enough to hold up.

Cooking your burger is the same as cooking any piece of meat; it has to be done right. Season your meat just before you cook, that way the salt doesn’t start to leach out all of that much loved moisture and get your BBQ or grill as hot as you can to sear the meat well. You only need to flip the burger once and please try to refrain from squishing your burger when it’s on the grill, as fun as it is. As for cooking your burger on a hotplate or directly over grill, the choice is yours. I am a big fan of the smoky flavour imparted by cooking directly over the grill, however once I’ve flipped the burger and there’s only a minute or so of cooking time to go, I’ll add the cheese so it begins to melt and transfer the burger to the hotplate, so the cheese doesn’t melt through the grill and onto the hot coals. Remember to rest your meat.

As for the remaining ingredients or condiments, it’s all about personal taste. Sometimes, if there’s an excess of onions in the pantry, I might get all fancy and make up some onion jam. However, mainly at our place it’s the usual suspects: lettuce, tomato (for me only), beetroot, egg (again, for me only), bacon, cheese, pickles, mayonnaise and ketchup.

Remember, these ingredients are just as integral to compliment the whole burger, so use them judiciously. I’ve searched far and wide for my favourite types of condiments and I’m happy to say that I’ve found my preference for each ingredient, which I’ve listed below in terms of importance:

Pickles. Ah, the polarising little things. My sister hates them. When ever she had a burger, I was the fortunate recipient. Unfortunately I now live in a house with pickle-lovers, so as judicious as they may be served in the burger (three slices only), there are usually a few extra slices served on the side or eaten whilst preparing the other ingredients. The best pickles I’ve found are of course, American. I discovered Vlasic Sea Salt Kosher Dill Pickles at Costco, but they are also available through a number of online American food stores in Australia.

Mayonnaise. Although K loves the Thomy Deli brand, I find that Best Foods or Hellman’s (same thing, just different branding) is better in a burger.

Ketchup. Since I lived in the UK, I’ve been a fan of Heinz Original Ketchup. Not sauce, whether it be Big Red, Rosella or Fountain. The only acceptable sauce I’ve found is made by Three 3’s and it’s packed with flavour through the addition of some extra spices and some horseradish.

Lettuce. Iceberg, sliced into 0.7mm shreds. Don’t ask me why, but it can’t be too thick or too thin. God invented iceberg lettuce for two reasons; Sang Choi Bao and hamburgers. Save your fancy lettuce for another day.

Cheese. If you must, you can go all fancy and buy some mature or tasty cheddar slices. Most people are accustomed to your bog-standard Kraft cheese slices and that’s OK with me.

Mustard. I’ve stopped putting mustard on my burgers as I found it was one condiment too many, but if you’re that way inclined I recommend French’s Classic Yellow Mustard. Yet again, it’s American and it’s as close as you’ll get to the mustard used in McDonald’s.

Order of stacking is also important. Do the salad ingredients appear above or below the meat? Is this important? I don’t know, but everyone seems to have a theory. There’s a school of thought that the lettuce should go on the bottom of the burger to protect the bottom part of the bun from moisture and imminent collapsing. However, if you’re using shredded lettuce, it might not make too much difference. Maybe a slice of cheese is better? My preferred order (bottom to top) is: Bottom bun, meat, cheese (melted onto burger whilst cooking), egg, bacon, ketchup, pickle, beetroot, tomato, lettuce, mayo, top bun.

Finally, if you wish to replicate the experience of a burger that’s been sitting under a heat lamp and / or in that brown paper bag until you get home, I suggest wrapping your burger in baking paper and bunging it in the microwave for 25 seconds before eating. It just adds a little more authenticity to your homemade masterpiece.

So this week, I suggest you dedicate some time to think about burgers and without getting too hungry and heading for your closest drive-thru, wait until the weekend where you can have a go at mastering your own burger.

You won’t be disappointed.

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