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Monday, January 09, 2012

Building Better Burgers

Here's a piece I wrote in 2002 for Metroland, but which never saw print. I can't recall why; I may have written it to have an emergency article in my pocket, so to speak, and then forgot it was there. I'll be judging a sliders contest Friday at the Albany Wine and Dine for the Arts Festival, so this will serve me as a good refresher.


Five Guys, Schenectady, NY  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson
BIG MACS ARRIVED on the culinary scene in 1968. Within four years, my high school friends and I were so addicted that we’d risk detention by skipping an afternoon class, piling into somebody’s car and gorging on the tasty, greasy burgers. And it wasn’t even the meat itself that tasted good – the negligible portion of cheap chopped beef was tricked up with cheese and pickle slices, Russian dressing and a dab of pale mustard. Lots of bread, too, in that double-decker package, and the things were cheap. Cheap enough for a high school-kid budget.

As teen-aged rebels, we were aligning ourselves with the Tartars of old, who wrenched their dinner meat from tough Asian cattle, shredded it and cooked it over their shields. By the 14th century, this practice had been introduced into Germany, where the meat was eaten raw or cooked by the poor folk. It picked up its moniker in Hamburg, but it was known, with a touch of irony, as a Hamburg steak.

From there it made 19th-century trips to England and America. In England it became the pet of wacky food doc J.H. Salisbury (yup, the Salisbury steak guy), who insisted that all food be shredded and who wanted you to eat beef three times a day. In America, it arrived with German immigrants, and its name shortened and casualized from Hamburger steak to hamburger. Its companion bread bun also appeared around this time, and the two were firmly connected by the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the sandwich was called, simply, “hamburg.”

According to Jeffrey Tennyson’s Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger, the average American consumes upwards of 30 pounds of hamburger per year: “three burgers per person per week, totaling 38 billion annually, which, placed end to end, would form a heavenly chain of hamburgers 1.8 million miles long.”

Long before McDonald’s roamed the earth, the White Castle chain begged you to buy its nickel burger “by the sack.” Wimpy Grills, named for a hungry Popeye character, appeared in 1934, with an upscale, ten-cent hamburger, but the chain died with its creator, at his request, in 1978.

By then, the post-World War II landscape was dotted with drive-in joints like the A & W Root Beer chain, where you ordered from your car in a set-up like that of a drive-in movie, or the Steak ’n’ Shake, where you were served by a carhop.

Bob’s Big Boy introduced the two-patty burger, which I recall from a midwestern childhood, and that’s about the time Ray Kroc turned McDonald’s from a cheerful little hot dog joint into the beef-altering behemoth you know today.
But that’s not the way a good burger looks or tastes. Hundreds of pubs throughout the region offer burgers, most of them originating from frozen patties. When you find a place that features fresh beef, treasure it. In the Capital Region, tasty made-from-scratch burgers are featured at Oliver’s CafĂ©, a breakfast-lunch nook in Glenville.

If flavor isn’t a worry, forget McDonald’s and enjoy a meal at Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In, just over the bridge from Schenectady in Scotia. It thrives each summer despite the nearby golden arches, and while the burgers aren’t great, they’re grilled as you wait, they’re wonderfully greasy, the fries and rings are great and the place employs a language all its own. [2012 note: Despite last year’s horrific flood, which shortened the season, owner Mark Lansing has promised to open, as usual, on the last Thursday in March.]

The key is good beef, of course, but burgers and grills are a vital combo. As Weber’s Big Book of Grilling puts it, “a burger must meet three criteria to be considered worthy of eating. It must taste of the flame. It must be juicy. And it must be served hot.”

If you’re using a gas grill, you’re halfway there. You’ve got the right idea, but you’ve essentially pushed your kitchen stove outside. Nevertheless, make sure you pre-heat the grate to 500 degrees before applying the meat, then lower it to a more medium setting once you get cooking.

Cooking over charcoal gives your burgers the real fresh-from-the-kill flavor, which also requires no lighter fluid (and please no match-light charcoal). Use a paraffin starter or a chimney to get the coals going, and natural lump charcoal imparts the least taste of chemicals.

Traditionalists season the meat with but salt and pepper, which is boringly unimaginative. I add eggs, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and a little sour cream to the meat, with appropriate seasonings. With a covered kettle, apply any desired cheese shortly before the meat is cooked to your liking; grill onion and portobello mushroom slices to fill out the flavor.

Got a smoker? Another approach, suggested in Cheryl and Bill Jamison’s Smoke and Spice, is a dry rub of paprika, pepper, salt, sugar, chili powder, garlic granules, onion powder and cayenne, with some chopped onion and chopped chili peppers worked into the meat. These you smoke for an hour at 220 degrees, mopping every 20 minutes with a mixture of beer and cider vinegar seasoned with garlic and Worcestershire sauce. This produces a work of art best served on a flavorful bread like sourdough. [2012 note: Look for smoked urgers at Saratoga Awesome Dogs when it reopens for the season.]

And don’t overlook the beef alternatives: bison has far less fat, ostrich has more flavor, and you can do amazing things with beans for a healthy vegetarian alternative. But if you’re set on beef, and why shouldn’t you be, you’re best off avoiding the packaged pre-ground stuff. There’s a reason it gets so many re-calls: it’s made under terrible conditions, always teetering on the brink of a bad bacteriological invasion. I look for beef round when it’s on sale and grind my own, sending it twice through the grinder.

Better yet, try some of the grass-fed meat you can find at progressive places like Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op. It brings what I find to be a cleaner flavor to the meal, closer to the flavor that inspired this dish in the first place.

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