Introduction: Optimal Burger
The Ultimate Burger has the best of everything, a gourmet's delight; it has loving care and attention lavished on it and no time nor expense is spared in its production. This is not that burger. This is the Optimal Burger™. You can prepare it from scratch in 15 minutes, eat it without any fuss and it will make you channel Jules Winnfield (just the quiet-enjoyment-of-the-burger part, not the kill-the-person-who-"gave"-you-the-burger part):
The Optimal Burger™ has to be easy to shop for. The Optimal Burger™ should not require visits to multiple vendors or have seasonal requirements because (a) no one has time for that and (b) who knows what time of year the urge for a good burger will strike? It requires no cooking devices beyond a standard gas grill and should not be expensive.
The Optimal Burger™ takes into account multiple factors, in the approximate order of importance:
- time of preparation
- ease of preparation
- structural integrity
You may have other factors to take into account. Healthiness. Sustainability. Calories. You will have a different Optimal Burger™ (you perhaps should focus instead on developing the Optimal Salad). I endeavor only to give you ideas while making my own case.
The recipe that follows includes crowd-sourced improvements based on recommendations from 18 burger aficionados at Pier 9.
Step 1: Buns and Sauce
The buns are crucial to a good burger. They form the carapace; they need to be large enough to accommodate all your ingredients and to not disintegrate under a little pressure. The buns define the maximum achievable size your burger can attain, for a good burger is shorter than it is wide. Don't skimp here.
If you prefer, toast the buns before serving. They're easy to blacken on a hot grill though so be careful. Turn down the gas and warm with the lid down. Or just pop in the toaster.
Sliced tomatoes are a time-honored burger component but I think they're overrated. They tend to be heavy and watery and slippery, and you want none of those properties. Ketchup on the other hand is liquefied tomato, sugar, onion and salt, and it makes up layer 1 of my Optimal Burger™. You always have it on hand, it's cheap, it's a good glue, and whatever sort you like is bound to go well with the burger. I like a mix of Heinz and Sriracha. Other good options, depending on taste, are mustard or BBQ sauce.
Step 2: Patty
I spent YEARS trying to perfect the hamburger patty, and it turns out I was wasting my time. All those recipes out there for patties are too much work and tend to be dry. The best patties are just ground beef and salt. But you don't need to even buy ground beef and shape them yourself. Why? Well, one day I was in the supermarket and noticed that frozen Angus beef patties were actually cheaper than the ground beef I was going to buy. Frozen patties can be cooked straight from the freezer, which is great because you can ALWAYS have a ready supply. But what amazed me was that they were actually better. It's much easier to avoid overcooking a frozen patty, they are easy to flip and all the shaping has been done for you. Get decent ones; the cheapest hamburger patties are pink slime but spend a bit more and you will have a premium easily barbecued product ready to go, and it will be a similar price-per-pound to regular ground beef anyway. Frozen patties take about 4 minutes per side for medium (3 for rare, 5 for well-done), assuming your grill is nicely preheated to about 400 °F. Time it, don't guess. Science. I suspect that a lot of the hate for frozen patties comes from people overcooking them until they're dry and tasteless.
Feel free to argue the case for your favorite patty recipe; you will still be molding your patties while I am chowing down on the finished product. Your apparent increased enjoyment is illusory, based on you being 30 minutes hungrier than I was when I starting eating mine.
Some notes: the frozen patties will be nice and juicy if you cook them right, and one nice thing about them all being formed to an identical shape and size is that you can easily judge their degree of done-ness. One that has shrunk a lot is well done; one that is almost the same size as you started with is rare. This property is a useful indicator when the grill you're cooking on is new to you, it's blowing a gale, and hasn't been cleaned recently and the grease catches fire...
One useful piece of feedback was that the patties were "juicy, but not tasty". This is almost certainly because I didn't salt them. Salt your patty to taste. If you've been comparing an unsalted, overcooked frozen patty to a salted, perfectly done homemade one, that's an unfair comparison.
Step 3: Bacon, Onions and Cheese
Bacon is the fatty heart of a good burger. Get a 2-3' long piece of aluminum foil and arrange as many rashers (cut in half) as you have burgers planned on one end of the foil. Cut peeled onions (1/4 onion per burger is about right) into rings and place on top of the rashers. Make the foil into a rectangular boat and use the leftover half for a lid.
The bacon provides the fat for the onions to fry in and the foil stops your bbq becoming a mess. Take the bacon out as it achieves the right level of crispy for your tastes. Take the onion out as it becomes cooked: it will take longer than the bacon. This is the fiddliest part of these burgers but it is totally worth it.* Should take you ~10 minutes, concurrent with the cooking of the patties, assuming your grill is big enough.
* even better is the baconion ring, but they fail the ease/time of preparation criteria. Worth it when you want to impress visitors.
Processed individually-wrapped slices of cheese are easy and cheap but (and?) will give your burger that fast-food vibe (I hesitate to say flavor). They are great for structural integrity because they glue the whole burger together. But any sliced cheese works well to hold the burger together and you should just pick your favorite. Not for nothing does a hamburger with cheese in it get called a cheeseburger; it elevates the humble burger to a higher plane. Indeed, it occurs to me that this Optimal Burger™ is really an Optimal Bacon and Cheese Burger™. That's a real mouthful though. Perhaps appropriately.
Note that the cheese needs to go on something hot if it is to melt, so pop a slice on each patty before removing from the grill. Drop the lid for a minute maximum (you don't want the cheese dripping or burning) and remove. It also goes well on top of the bacon and onions IF they're still hot.
Step 4: Option #1
Haha, I say "Option #1" like you will get multiple options but sorry, you don't. This is your one and only chance to be original but still claim the mantle of Optimal Burger™ for your creation. I prefer pickled dill: that crispy crunchy tang, the echoes of the Big Mac, the strength of the longitudinally sliced dill, the ease of extracting a jar from your fridge, all great. But if you want pickled beets*, or mushrooms**, or a fried egg***, or avocado****, or really must have tomatoes*****, here's the place to put them instead of the dill. But don't get greedy; overloading here is the most common cause of burger blowout.
* purple staining juices
** fussy to prepare (but easy to cook if you throw them in with the bacon and onions)
*** if cooked correctly, messy yolk runneth everywhere. But undeniably delicious
**** ooh, fancy
***** too watery/bulky/slippery
Step 5: Lettuce and Dressing
A leaf or two of romaine or iceberg works for me. Some greenery is good because you can kid yourself that you're having a complete meal.
We always have a giant jar of chipotle mayo handy, which we make by stick blending a can of chipotle peppers with mayonnaise. This gets spread on the top bun. But I'm not dogmatic about this. Use whatever dressing you like.
Step 6: Assembly and Consumption
Same order as I have listed here. Bun > Ketchup > Patty > Cheese > Bacon & Onions > Option #1 > Lettuce > Dressing > Bun.
I recommend eating burgers upside down; slide your fingers under the burger with your thumbs on top, and smoothly invert into your mouth. The top bun is stronger than the bottom one because it is crustier. Enjoy!
Step 7: Feedback
I test-drove the recipe on 18 burger fans from Pier 9. Ten of them filled out an anonymous form afterwards, and many gave direct feedback as well. All of this has been used to hone the burger. In particular, there was a strong consensus that the cheese needed to be melted over the patty (or better, bacon and onions) and that the buns needed toasting. Both are good ideas and I have incorporated them here. Detailed critiques from Mike and Jonathan were especially helpful.
The overall rating was 4.5/5 for structural integrity, 5/5 for ease of preparation, and 8.2/10 for taste, for an overall burger rating of 88.5%. Not bad. However, I'm not pretending the audience was completely random and unbiased: they were all in a pretty good mood as they were getting a free burger and beer. Even if that did mean getting lectured to by the Burger Nazi.
Big thanks to my collaborators Jeff & Alex, and to Paige Russell who took all the best photographs in this instructable - it was a real education watching her make the food look as delicious as it actually tasted. OK, even better. She's a magician. Thanks also for everyone who turned up to try the burgers and offer an opinion, even if that was just "Yum! Free food!".
Descriptions of and justifications for your Optimal Burger™ welcome.