After all the heat and hyperbole of the past few weeks, let’s take a break today. Instead of politics, let’s argue about something that’s really important: how to make the world’s best hamburger. A former classmate of mine spent a fortune trying to determine the answer. With the official start of summer this weekend, let’s see if what he learned can help you be a backyard hero.
Years ago, I thought I had the best job on Earth. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I got paid to talk. And unlike a salesman, I didn’t even have to get an order when I did. All my bosses wanted was to hear the phones ring.
This was in the early days of talk radio. My task was to sit behind the microphone and, when the light came on, try to say something interesting enough (or controversial enough) that a listener would pick up the phone and call “The Chip Wood Show.” All of us “ringmasters,” as the talk hosts on WRNG Radio were called, were pretty good. One, however, was the master. And he’s still at it today, 34 years later. Anyone heard of Neal Boortz?
My job at Ring Radio was so much fun, I almost would have done it for free. But then, at a high-school reunion a few years ago, I learned one of my former classmates had an even better gig. As the food critic for The Wall Street Journal, he got paid to fly around the world and eat. Yep, his publisher picked up the tab for him to dine on and then describe some of the hottest of the world’s haute cuisine.
Of course, you don’t just walk into the boss’s office and say you want such a job. You have to earn your stripes… and your expense account. My classmate Raymond Sokolov had certainly done that. For many years, he was the restaurant critic for The New York Times. He has written a number of award-winning cookbooks. Later, he became the Arts & Leisure editor at The Wall Street Journal. In short, he knows food. And he can string words together pretty well, too.
A few years ago, Sokolov told me he would be coming to my hometown of Atlanta to do some culinary research. He asked if I had any suggestions for him. No, he didn’t want suggestions on our greatest chefs, fanciest meals or finest wine lists, darn it all. His subject this visit was hamburgers.
As The Wall Street Journal said in the introduction to the lengthy article that resulted: “Our food critic takes a cross-country, artery-clogging journey to find burger perfection.”
Today, I will tell you about Sokolov’s quest… the characteristics all his favorites shared… and the surprising switch he made before his journey was over. I will also throw in some suggestions from other cooks and critics to determine what makes the world’s best burger.
Where’s the beef?
Sokolov says, and I agree, that the world’s best burger is made with ground chuck. Forget the fancier grades of meat. Ground sirloin is unnecessary; ground Kobe just a foolish extravagance. Sokolov says chuck has “the Goldilocks amount of fat.” It’s not too fat and not too lean. In short, it’s just right. The patty should be thick enough that you can char the outside and the meat will remain moist on the inside. And we both like ours medium rare — hot enough to melt the fat, rare enough so you get the full flavor of the beef.
Another food critic says the only way to get the perfect burger is to grind your own hamburger, from meat you have carefully selected from the butcher’s counter. He even gave instructions on how to pulse it properly in a food processor, but that sounds like a prescription for disaster to me. If you’re going to be this authentic (which certainly isn’t necessary), why not go all the way and buy an old-fashioned grinder with a hand-turned crank, like your grandma used? Does anyone anywhere do this at home?
How do you cook it?
Grill or griddle? Ah, there’s a division that could keep strong men arguing for weeks. It seems to be a truism in America that if it’s cooked on a stove, the women do it. And if it’s cooked outdoors, that’s a guy’s job. I don’t mean to be sexist here; I’m just passing on an observation I’ve heard many others make.
So I was surprised to learn that all of Sokolov’s favorites were cooked on a griddle — and most of the time (but not at his No. 1 choice) by a man. Maybe there is something special about the taste from a griddle that hasn’t been cleaned in years. (Scraped, sure. But washed — with soap, water, and a wire brush? — never!)
Cook and critic David Rosengarten says he comes close to duplicating the magical flavor of a well-seasoned grill at home. What’s his secret? He keeps some beef fat in his refrigerator for just such occasions. And don’t worry if it’s been in there a while. He says it won’t go bad. In fact, he insists a little age is good for it.
“Just get that pan a little shiny with melted fat,” he says. When you’re done, “put your fat treasure back in the fridge. You will have made a major advance toward the ravishing taste of griddledom.”
Personally, I think a red-hot grill seals in the flavors in a way no griddle can. In the past, I didn’t care if the flame came from propane or charcoal. That’s a view that would be considered heresy by all of my barbecue buddies in the South. I recently got a Big Green Egg® and I suspect by this time next year, I will be as intolerant of propane grills as they are.
There’s just something special about a burger that’s seared on a grill. Slap a piece of cheddar on top, close the lid and let the cheese melt while the burger steams. The result will transport you to hamburger heaven.
What about the bun?
I have heard there are places where hamburgers are served on toasted white bread, but I have never seen such apostasy with my own eyes. There are many ways to serve hamburgers that are wrong. Kaiser rolls, for one. But as far as I’m concerned, only one way is right. Go to your local supermarket and get yourself some plain hamburger buns. Not bagels or buns covered with sesame seeds. Not pretzel twists or other weird concoctions. Just plain buns. Nothing does a better job holding everything together while it keeps your fingers clean.
Slice them in half and, when your burgers are almost done, lay them cut-side down on the back of the grill. Keep them there for no more than two minutes. If your timing is right, your lightly toasted buns will be ready when your hamburgers are.
What else do you put on it?
If you think there’s disagreement about where the world’s best burger is cooked, wait until you ask a few folks what should go on it when it’s done. Or, in the case of cheese, just before it’s done.
I’m perfectly fine with turning a hamburger into a cheeseburger. I’m not even all that fussy about what kind of cheese is used. Those single slices of processed something are OK by me, but many critics will turn up their distinguished noses at anything but hand-sliced pieces of the finest cheddar.
Pickle slices? Not for me. But I’ll have them handy if someone else wants them. Lettuce and tomato? Sure. (But if I use them, I like a spoonful of mayo, too.) Crushed corn flakes? I’d never heard of such a thing until I read Sokolov’s column. That still strikes me as a bit weird. But hey, I’m the guy who believed for years that the only thing that would make a fresh-grilled burger taste even better was a big dollop of peanut butter. (Creamy, not chunky.) So who am I to argue?
Under the right circumstances, I can go for a nice slice or two of bacon on top of my cheese. But please don’t overcook it. I want it to be a little bit chewy, not dry and crunchy. And please note: If you’re going to put bacon on your burger, you must lay down a slice of cheese first. As Frank Sinatra used to sing, you can’t have one without the other.
What about onions? Most of the time I skip them. But sometimes, I really crave a medium-thick slice of a Vidalia onion. Others feel the same way about Bermudas. Raw is fine. Sautéed until they’re slightly caramelized is even better. But don’t expect that when I’m cooking; that’s too much extra work for me.
And if you want someone to sauté onions and mushrooms together for your burger, I’ve got news for you, buddy. You don’t want a hamburger; you want a Salisbury steak.
Now, are you ready for the shocker? Somewhere on his cross-country odyssey, Sokolov was persuaded that mustard is better on a burger than ketchup. How did this happen? Who got to him? I can’t prove it, but I suspect that money from the Mustard Council may have changed hands.
Out of respect for my former classmate, I did try a bite of burger with my favorite mustard — stone ground brown, with some real “bite” to it. Sorry, Sokolov, but I think both the burger and the mustard suffered. I’m still squarely on Jimmy Buffett’s side: “I like mine with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57® and French-fried potatoes.” And as far as I’m concerned, you can hold the BLT and the French fries.
Where’s the best burger stand?
Now you know all there is to know about making the world’s best burger at home. (Or at least start a mighty good argument about how to do it.) But where did my burger-buying former classmate find the juiciest, tastiest commercial version? I’m very proud to announce that it was at one of our down-home recommendations: Ann’s Snack Bar on Memorial Drive in Decatur, Ga.
Sokolov declared Ann’s “ghetto-burger” — a two-patty concoction with cheese, bacon and a light dusting of cayenne pepper — as “the next level in burgerhood.” So when you can, come on down and bite into one. Once you do, you will never need to ask: “Where’s the beef?”
Meanwhile, I hope you and your friends enjoy some fabulous cookouts this summer. I promise I’ll be following my own recommendations: ground chuck cooked medium rare, with cheese and some other accoutrements on top. If I’ve done it right, the bun will be lightly toasted. And the applause will be gratifying.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone. And until next time, keep some powder dry.