Times are tough, but your next cheeseburger doesn’t have to be.
Hamburgers are the most popular food in the country, according to tasteatlas.com. As we head into the warmer weather seasons – when hamburgers and cheeseburgers taste their most delicious – it’s time to examine the way we’re making our favorite food.
No grill? No problem. Burger scholar George Motz says the grill is actually one of the hardest ways to get it right, and recommends a flattop or skillet for a perfect patty. If you need the cheeseburger right this minute (we understand) you can watch this well-done instructional video.
“Simplicity, in hamburgers, is paramount” says Motz, a well-traveled, Emmy award-winning freelance filmmaker and cheeseburger expert.
“Number one, you want to be able to taste the beef, we all know that. Whatever else is on that burger, whether it’s the vehicle that’s delivering the burger — the bread — or if it’s a cheese, or some other kind of condiment, you want to make sure it’s simple. And that it actually does enhance the beefy flavor.”
He thinks that onions unquestionably enhance the beefy flavor. And that salt works well to help the proteins in the beef pop with flavor. The right bun is crucial. And it needs to fit in your mouth.
Motz says the bread has to be very simple. “It shouldn’t be sweet. Brioche buns are the worst thing for burgers because they have too much sugar in them.”
As for preparation? The meat is cooked for a minute or two on each side, topped with cheese, and placed on a toasted bun.
Motz keeps it simple: “Just onion, maybe mustard and mayo, but beef grease is a condiment too.”
He says that while mustard sounds like it’s strong, “the French had it all figured out a long time ago when they put mustard on steak and realized that it enhanced the taste.” He says that the vinegar in the mustard breaks down the fat, helps you understand the flavors a little better and makes it more palatable.
Motz says ketchup is the worst thing you can put on a burger.
“Ketchup really does nothing more than just sweeten the burger, which doesn’t really work well,” he says. “I think it goes really well on fries, not on a burger.”
Mayo, however passes the test, he says: “It is really good on a burger. It has some complexity, and has its own animal fats that work well with beef fat.”
But it depends where he is.
“Wisconsin burger joints put butter on their burgers,” he says. “There are regional specialties abound. To me, if people are eating it, especially if I am in a restaurant that’s been there for 100 years, I am eating it that way as well. But when I am at home, I am keeping it simple. Just onions and mustard and some mayo.”
Again, Motz recommends keeping it simple, with “a good old white, yeasty bun.”
“Sometimes, you have this really big homemade bun with a hard top on it and a soft inside, and when you go to bite the burger and it shoots out the back of the of the bun because it’s just too hard. You can’t actually take a bite. Your teeth have to be able to go through the thing!”
“The best burgers are the ones that anybody can make.” Motz says.
“Keep it simple — chuck only.”
He recommends this cut of beef because chuck is a part of the animal that cooks well, and fast: “Chuck has the perfect marbling throughout. You could take an entire chuck, cut it up, throw it in a grinder, you have a perfect hamburger. So you can’t go wrong.”
In fact, he thinks there is a risk in trying too hard and getting a bad result: “Honestly, it really shouldn’t be about fancy blends, trying to figure out which blends work with each other, and what the actual grind number should be. It doesn’t really matter.”
“People think the easiest way to make a hamburger is in their backyard on a grill, which is actually the hardest way,” he says. “The most difficult way to make a burger is to put it on an open flame.”
Motz says this is because there are too many variables in play. From a fire that can range from 300 to 600 degrees, to the thickness of the patty, to the distance of the flame from the grill itself.
“You don’t know what’s going on there,” he says. “It’s really hard to actually make magic in the backyard.”
Motz says to stick with a flattop or cast-iron skillet. It’s easier to control temperature and the flavor is unique.
“You’re cooking it in its own fat, almost like burger confit,” he says. “When you grill a burger, a lot of the fat drips down to the fire and creates these carbonic compounds that give the burger a very different flavor.”
And the biggest reason to skip the grill?
“You’re probably having a good time drinking with your friends, and you’re not paying attention,” he says. “One of the hardest things to do is cook burgers in your backyard on grill. If you can, you’re already way ahead of the game.”
Motz says to avoid hand-forming patties, especially for larger cookouts, because you can never get the size right. “Measure. You want to make sure you actually portion the burger. You take some bulk meat, and make little balls, and weigh them.”
He also uses a biscuit cutter on parchment paper to control patty size: “You have this perfectly formed round burger and you can’t go wrong when cooking on the grill. Having very straight sides really helps the integrity of the burger.”
And don’t be afraid to try new things.
“Smoked burgers are fantastic,” he says. “It’s not a flavor that everybody is used to, but I did find a method where you cook for 50 minutes over indirect coals, with some wood chips for flavoring. It’s hard to beat that flavor.”
Americans seem to think that burgers are only as good as the toppings you add between the buns. In a recent survey by YouGov.com, only 2% of Americans don’t add toppings to their burgers.
Of course, cheese is the most popular item (74%) to add to burgers, followed by ketchup at 65%, and the usual toppings of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and mustard. At least 1 in 5 people say they also add bacon.
Here’s a look at a the most common toppings added to a burger — a sight that might cause Mr. Motz some concern.
When Motz set out to tell the world about cheeseburgers, he didn’t want people to think that they were a monolithic concept. There are cookbooks full of cheeseburgers with crazy toppings, but the traditions run deeper than that. Take a “Hawaiian burger,” for example.
“Let’s put a pineapple on and call it a Hawaiian burger,” he says. “I mean, these things don’t exist in reality, and what I try to do is make sure people understand that there are regional specialties that actually mean something, and have deep history.”
Motz says that the Hawaiian burger was actually invented in Ontario, Canada, and that you are likely find it only in a hotel restaurant in its namesake state. He says he’s onto something better.
“The actual Hawaiian burger is something called a loco-moco, which is a really great drunk late night food that was invented in 1949 in Hilo, Hawaii, a long, long time ago, before it was even a state,” he says. This plated burger consists of a bed of rice with a patty on top, covered in beef gravy, and finished with a fried egg.
Hawaii is also home to the teri-burger, named for the sauce it contains. There are hundreds of known regional specialties and countless obscure burgers waiting to be uncovered across the country.
The green chile cheeseburger hails from New Mexico, and is hard to find outside the state, parts of Colorado or West Texas. This is because it hinges on on fresh green chilies grown in the region. Practitioners will roast the chilies after stewing them with a little chicken stock, chop them up, and put them on top of the burger.
The slugburger, from northern Mississippi, has a history rooted in hard times leading up to the Great Depression. Motz considers it an important burger.
“They would put day-old breadcrumbs in the beef to extend the supply so they wouldn’t run out of beef for the day,” he says. “And people liked the flavor! There was some weird science going on there, too. They realized that the little bits of bread would actually soak up the beef grease and fry, like this weird, deep-fried burger without being deep-fried.”
Deep-frying burgers has historical significance of its own. Motz thinks that this is one of the original hamburgers, and they can still be found throughout the Midwest.
The practice predates the flattop grill, a technological revolution in the burger world. The cooking surface was safer for burger vendors, who were often frying meat in bubbling vats of grease under flammable canvas tents.
Some historians date it to the mid-1920s, when Lionel Sternberger was a 16-year-old short-order cook experimenting at his father’s diner in Pasadena, California. He came up with the idea of putting a slice of cheese on a sizzling patty, and the cheeseburger was born. But burger lore runs much deeper.
What about the hamburger? Motz says that nobody knows.
“We do know that it came from Hamburg, Germany,” he says. “As people were looking for passage to America from Germany, they had to leave out of the port of Hamburg. In order to eat cheaply, they would have to eat something called steak in the style of Hamburg, which was chopped up steak cooked and served with potatoes and gravy.”
This let the travelers eat well while being able to afford the long wait in port for passage to America. Motz says that upon arrival in the States, many Germans may have found themselves at the tip of Manhattan, where stands and small restaurants made steak in the style of Hamburg. It became known as Hamburg steak.
He says the burger became portable whenever Hamburg steak made its way to the Midwest and state fairs. The hot dog was also present at the fairs, preceding the burger by at least a decade, and was a food that you could eat on the go.
Motz imagines the scene: “You’re selling Hamburg steak on a plate, and you saw a hot dog walk by, you probably thought to yourself, why can’t I put my steak on a bun as well? And we believe that’s how it was born, and it could have happened in five or six different places at the same time in America, mostly in the Midwest: Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri. There’s a bunch of claims all over the Midwest, South, and North.”
He also attributes the nation’s affection for the burger to it’s ability to satisfy different cravings: “It’s hot, it’s cold in parts. It’s crunchy, it’s soft, it’s sweet, and savory. It’s vinegary. It can be just about anything it wants to be — crunchy and tasty as hell. And it all happens in one bite. And it’s pretty hard, to find a food that does that.”
He also believes that it’s because most Americans, whether they know it or not, are intensely proud of their hamburger culture, and personal hamburger history. Because it’s one of our only real food inventions.
“A lot of food in America is borrowed from somewhere else,” he says. “And we all know that. We all know it’s been borrowed, and we are proud of the fact. But the hamburger seems to be both attainable, affordable, and and intrinsically American. It’s also very easy to eat. It’s one of those foods that you you pick up and you put in your mouth. You can merge onto the 405 with one hand and eat a burger with the other. That’s being an American.”
Editor’s note: While the author is a believer in the simple flattop burger, he has a sweet spot for diced onions in ketchup because they bring him back to childhood memories of going to McDonald’s with his grandmother in New York. Sorry, George. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Janie Haseman contributed to this report.