Continuing with last month’s theme and since we’re smack dab in the middle of summer, let’s talk about America’s favorite sandwich — the hamburger! It used to be America’s favorite fast food until pizza dethroned it years ago. This simple sandwich consisting of a ground beef patty served between two slices of bread created by — according to The Library on Congress — Louis Lassen in 1900, unless you believe it was actually created by Charlie Nagreen in 1885, Oscar Bilby in 1891, the Menches brothers in 1885 or Fletcher Davis in 1880. Either way, America’s favorite sandwich has come a long way in the past 100-plus years.
The Traditional Burger
I think most Americans will agree that the traditional hamburger is made with beef. Period. There are excellent burgers made with alternative proteins but the traditional patty is made with beef. And I’d be willing to bet that the ratio of lean to fat by most chefs and home cooks is 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat, ideally from freshly ground beef. However, past the lean to fat ratio is where you see a divergence of burger creation. Most chefs use ground chuck, while others may blend some ground brisket or even ribeye into the mixture, though I personally feel that as long it’s a quality beef, freshly ground using the 80/20 ratio of lean to fat, you can’t go wrong … especially if it’s Hawai‘i-raised beef. Some chefs also feel that hamburgers should simply be seasoned with salt and black pepper just on the outside of the burger, while others feel that internal seasoning is a critical component of the perfect burger. Others even go as far as seasoning with chopped onions, garlic or even “secret” seasoning blends. However you like to season your burger, the next step is critical for all hamburgers: forming the patty itself. Whether you like the thinner half-inch patties all the way up to those inch-and-a half rounded orbs, you never want to compact the meat to the point where it cooks up to a tough hockey puck of a burger. You simply want to use the gentle pressure of a lomi lomi massage versus the muscle splitting pressure of a shiatsu massage.
Then there’s the ultimate cooking of the hamburger, which is usually split into two schools; those who cook on a flat top grill or frying pan versus those who grill over open flames. Each method has its pros and cons. Flat top cooking allows for full “crustification” of the surface and also allows you to prepare your burger toppings like sautéed onions or mushrooms adjacent to your burger. But grilling over an open fire adds smokier flavors to your burger and gives a flavorful char to your burger. The key in cooking your burger is to let it cook as is — DON’T press on your patty once it’s been on the flat top or grill for more than five seconds. Whenever raw meat hits a heated surface, it starts to cook, which means muscle fibers contract so that your raw patty that was pressed to perfectly fit the bun is now half an inch to an inch smaller (and a little taller), which now means that your initial bites of your burger will be more bun than burger. So you squash it to get back to the original diameter … But all that accomplishes is that it simply squeezes essential fats and juices out of your patty leaving a drier, tougher burger. Create a patty wider than your bun then just let it cook on its own.
Though Congressionally recognized Louis’ Lunch simply uses two slices of toasted white bread (and believe me, if I’m ever in Connecticut, I’ll eat their burger as dictated by the Lassen clan), I personally feel that the bun should be sturdy enough so it doesn’t collapse from the juiciness of the burger. While brioche buns amp the richness factor several degrees, they along with simple sesame seeds buns have a tendency to disintegrate with a juicy burger especially if said burger also contains juicy tomatoes or semi-liquid dressings.
So I’m a big fan of toasted (like sandwich breads, hamburger buns should always be toasted) ciabatta or pretzel buns. They have the heft to remain intact until the last bite but not too tough to cause upper palate scars or jettison toppings out of your burger.
The Avante Garde
First of all, there are burgers with toppings that extend past your usual lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and bacon. Often a second savory protein is added to the mix like sautéed pastrami or pulled pork or brisket burnt ends. Sometimes they’re worked right into the beef itself to fortify the beefy flavors, often the usual toppings are worked into the patty like the Juicy Lucy, that’s stuffed with cheese that turns into a molten cheese filling or Slater’s 50/50, which employs 50 percent beef, 50 percent ground bacon patties.
Then there’s the alt-beef patties employing ground poultry, ground pork or even seafood and some patties that don’t even contain any animal proteins but are based on beans, rice and nuts that you can easily find in your supermarket freezer section. As I mentioned previously, my local Safeway carries Beyond Meat, The Beyond Burger, which looks and cooks just like a beef patty but is pure vegetarian. In fact, if no one told, you would think you were consuming a burger made from lean ground beef.
The classic partner to a burger is a nice slice of cheese to enhance the richness of charred beef. I personally favor lighter cheeses like Swiss, smoked Provolone or smoked Gouda though blue veined cheeses also pair nicely with beef. Beyond cheese, the next personal requirements are slices of fresh, ripe tomatoes and slices of onion which can either be thinly sliced sweet raw onions (like Kula onions) or caramelized onions. And I do like a little “greenery” whether it’s Bibb, curly leaf or Manoa lettuce or even a bunch of arugula to adorn the patty. And though I’ve been known to slather my sandwiches with multiple pestos or savory spreads, I keep it simple with burgers using just plain mayonnaise and ketchup. And like Miles from the movie “Sideways,” a glass of Bordeaux makes an exceptional pairing with a hamburger.
Burgers from the Past
One of my favorite burgers from the past was from a hole-in-the-wall eatery that used to be located on the mountainside lower level of Ala Moana Shopping Center called Jon’s. They created a simple single patty burger that was simply garnished with that mustard-based yellow relish. The burger itself was unique in that it seemed to be made from both pork and beef, as it had a lighter color, a pronounced black pepper bite and hints of curry flavor. Jon’s is long gone, and while I vividly remember the taste of their burger, have not been able to recreate a reasonable facsimile thus far.
Whenever we visit the Bay Area on our way too brief and infrequent vacations, we always stopped at the top of the Westfield San Francisco Centre to sample a burger at Lark Creek Steak. Alas, Lark Creek Steak shuttered its doors last January. But the Perigord Black Truffle Steakburger cooked over a wood fire with truffled Brie and frisee tossed in a truffle vinaigrette with caramelized onions was to die for! And their raw burger, aka Steak Tartare with steak frites and Béarnaise sauce, was nothing to sneeze at either.While Chef Bob McGee held court at The Whole Ox Deli, he created a 21-day dry-aged burger with the option of a slice of seared foie gras to gild the lily — the dry aging gave the burger an intense beefy flavor and along with the caramelized onions and seared foie gras, members of our informal wine group routinely ordered the burger as their dessert! Luckily, I have semi-recreated this burger adding truffle salt to the mixture and serving it on a toasted brioche bun.
The last burger represents my latest creation combining a hearty grilled burger and the smoky savory flavors of great barbecue. I start with my usual Hawai‘i raised beef with the 80/20 ratio and add a little sea salt, black pepper, onion and garlic powders to the mix and form the patties but instead of cooking them on the flat top or grill, I place them on my smoker sheet (like a cookie sheet with small holes to allow smoke penetration) and smoke the patties for about 90 minutes at 150-180 degrees flipping the patty about half way through the smoking process. The resulting burger isn’t just a hamburger with barbecue sauce but a true barbecue burger.
So before those last rays of summer disappear, light up that grill, smoker or even the flat top for your burger fix!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.