Delicious Deconstruction: Building a Burger

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April 7, 2013 by Wayne.

Wrote this for Ceteris Paribus back in September. Half a year later, and it doesn’t look like the first edition will be released any time soon.

So here you go. Enjoy.

Note for the pro burger makers: this is a beginner’s guide, there’s no mix of cuts or basting or w/e

***

“Buy a piece of meat, go through the extra work and slice it,” chirps the disembodied hand of Hubert Keller. The camera pans up to a smiling French face then back down to a mound of raw beef. Keller, you see, is an award-winning burger lover (and also a chef). He regularly features on TV shows, not as a TV chef – that derogatory designation reserved for the lower echelon of cooks –  but as a TV personality, gracing Top Chef Masters and Chow with a curious mix of nonchalance and genuine joy.

Keller creates his burgers with a culinary equanimity. In contrast, amateurs mould their patties with a bumbling fluster that prematurely breaks down the fat. However, does technical superiority alone justify the astronomical prices of Keller’s burgers? Traditionalists insist that the cost is in the ingredients. After all, can you get premium Certified Angus grass-fed free-range beef that’s been aged for 100 days and massaged by hand while being kept at near-zero temperatures?

Modernist cuisine, on the other hand, employs a belligerent, almost pugnacious insistence on technical mastery. Chefs are artists. Their job is not to merely cook, but to create – to challenge perceptions and magnify the human condition via liquid nitrogen. Consequently, restaurants like wd50 now push the boundaries of molecular gastronomy with increasingly bizarre postmodern creations.

Having said that, the burger is oddly underrepresented by modernist chefs . Burger as haute cuisine? The furthest one goes is to substitute tomatoes with foie gras and lettuce with gold leaf. The utter lack of imagination is bewildering. Wylie Dufresne, you’ve aerated salmon and created noodles from lobster flesh. Why give the humble hamburger the cold shoulder?

With that in mind, I present the recipe for the thinking man’s burger – the Platonic ideal, if you will.

***

First, we strip the burger to its essence. After all, there’s something innately repulsive about hulking burgers that require a steel blade and pitchfork to be brought to size. We want to reflect only the core concepts of the burger:

1. There is a meat patty. Beef is usually used. (Feel free to substitute with the meat of your choice. You will, however, not be making a burger.)

2. Said patty is wedged between two protective buns.

3. The entire piece – and the ideal burger is always a single piece, the sauces and meat and vegetables and bread forming a culinary coalition – must be edible without culinary assistance.

The patty is, at its core, simply meat that’s ground up and reassembled into a compact (but not overtly so) disc. As our esteemed expert Hubert Keller asserts, one often gets the very best results by eschewing convenience and rolling up one’s sleeves. I can assure you that this is most definitely not a plebeian venture. Indeed, much of haute cuisine and couture involves the cyclical appropriation of what once were the hallmarks of the commonfolk.

Fetch some fairly marbled grass-fed beef cut from the loin or shoulders- a sirloin/flat iron with about 20% fat will do fine – and let it rest at room temperature for roughly 15 minutes. Then sprinkle some sea salt on and let it rest an additional 10 minutes.

Grab a sharp knife, wet your hands and slice the meat up coarsely and quickly. Try to minimize the time spent handling the meat. When that’s done, spoon in a few teaspoons of grape seed oil to compensate for the relatively low fat content. While the oil also helps slightly when it comes to handling, there’s still the chance that your hot-blooded human hands will adversely affect the meat during your attempt to assemble a respectable patty. To rectify this, one must first coat the meat in chilly existentialism. There are several methods to do so, but the easiest by far is simply to read aloud a couple of passages in a drawling, world-weary monotone. Here are some suggestions as to where to draw the material from:

* A Common Confusion by Franz Kafka (ultra-short story)

* The final chapter of The Outsider by Albert Camus (novella)

* The Past is a Grotesque Animal by Of Montreal (song)

Next, dip your fingers in water and get to work: employ brisk patting motions to gently form the patty. Then, place it inside a container and funnel some liquid nitrogen in until the meat is frozen. Flip and ensure the other size is equally solid. Then blast it with a blowtorch on each side until it develops into a deep brown.

Transfer the patty into a ziplock bag. You could infuse some flavour by adding in chopped up chives and some finely chopped button mushrooms sauteed in goose fat to the bag. You’ll want to remove the air before cooking it sous vide and this can be done via vacuums or using a particularly clever trick by Dave Arnold (from the French Culinary Institute): close the bag nearly all the way up to the edge of the seal, then slowly dip it into water, pressing the air out as you go. Once the patty is fully underwater, fully zip up the bag. Set the temperature to about 58C (or up to 63C if you want a patty that’s more medium-well than medium-rare) and cook the patty for at least 2 hours. In the meantime, move on to the other components.

Burger buns are meant to form a protective embrace – soaking up the mess of blood and ketchup while providing a starchy foundation for the flavour profile to play off. Sadly, a key feature of a lot of burgers (especially roadside ones) is the inevitable flood of sauces, resulting in soggy, limp buns that mushes at the slightest of sauces. The ideal burger is the antithesis of such a Malthusian hemorrhage. Opt for something sturdy like ciabatta (or sourdough?), crisp it with butter and go easy on the sauces.

First, we want some acidity to cut through the fat of the meat. A moderate dash of ketchup and relish would be fine, really, but you could always jazz those up a bit. For instance, try chopping up some sundried tomatoes and gherkins and blending it together with lemon zest, a dash of tabasco and crushed black pepper for a simultaneously tangy and deep kick. As for the cheese, a traditionalist would typically die by cheddar but I’m somewhat partial to gruyere. It melts fantastically and has a smoky aroma to match the strong, heady taste. And what about the vegetables? Where is the nutritious counterpart to this meaty behemoth? Let’s stick to the classics here – lettuce and tomatoes taste pretty great together, after all. Also, adding cucumbers is subject to taste. Poor taste, that is.

The burger is best paired with a similarly complex musical accompaniment. While the Mars Volta or any free-jazz band ever will both be fine, the ultimate experience would have to be white noise (interspersed with a numbers station broadcast) on the right channel and raindrops on the left.

So that’s the burger done then. You slogged through a bunch of ridiculously long steps to create a burger which differs only marginally from a standard ‘gourmet’ burger. But why go through all that effort? Why not forgo an ingredient here, skip a step there – after all, you’re not altering the flavour by much. Of course you’re not going to exert this much effort each time you make a burger. You’re a busy person. You don’t have the bloody time. Eventually, you’ll cut it down to a basic burger albeit with ciabatta and a sous vide patty. And further down the road, you start to tighten down on excess spending as you feel the cost of a new house burning away at your wallet – and so the ciabatta gets written off as an unnecessary luxury and the standard burger bun resumes service. Then comes a newer car, kids, and then, finally, the pan-seared patty too makes its return.

The wind has picked up again, slapping the window gently back against its own windowsill. On the third knock, you wake up. You blink your weathered eyes and reach across to latch the window close – and you catch your reflection splashed across the grimy glass, morphing and contorting as the window sways slowly in the breeze. You admire the shining eyes, blazing and darting in the sunlight, defiant and brash! Oh, those are fiery eyes indeed, burning righteously with the knowledge that a life has been well lived, well worked, well worn, well – well, you’ve worked hard to get all this time and money.

You blink and now you think about tossing a patty for the grandkids and of course your son would love it too, yes, you still have some of your old tricks left, oh yes, they’ve never left your aching hands, if they’d just come around when their father finally gets a chance to take an hour’s break from that endless work of his, you’d flip the best damn burger they’d ever eat, then the nurse quietly steps in and closes the window and leaves without saying a word and you wait for the day that your son will visit and you can once again cook a burger with him.

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