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Hamburgers revisited

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Topic of ways to cook hamburgers never gets old here's a recent article that should "fire up" some discussion




Simple truths on making the perfect burger


Cooks dish up their secrets in time for July Fourth holiday.



GetImage.ashx?kind=block&href=AJC%2F2014%2F06%2F30&id=Pc0270500&ext=.jpgA diner-style burger is smashed thin and cooked crisp on its edges. ANDREW SCRIVANI / THE NEW YORK TIMES




At MyAJC.com/living, get more tips on crafting great burgers at home, along with some Atlanta spots where you can chow down on a juicy burger with minimal effort.


GetImage.ashx?kind=block&href=AJC%2F2014%2F06%2F30&id=Pc0300700&ext=.jpgGeorge Motz, a documentary filmmaker and hamburger authority, says the secret to cooking a great burger is simple: Use an 80:20 ratio of meat to fat, use a soft bun and don't overdress. BENJAMIN NORMAN PHOTOS / THE NEW YORK TIMES


GetImage.ashx?kind=block&href=AJC%2F2014%2F06%2F30&id=Pc0300800&ext=.jpgGetImage.ashx?kind=block&href=AJC%2F2014%2F06%2F30&id=Pc0300900&ext=.jpgMichael Symon, chef and proprietor of Midwest hamburger restaurants called B Spot, says a skillet is essential to cooking good burgers.


How to make a great hamburger is a question that has bedeviled the nation for generations, for as long as Americans have had griddles and broilers, for as long as summertime shorts-wearing cooks have gone into the yard to grill.


But the answer is simple, according to many of those who make and sell the nation's best hamburgers: Cook on heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles. Cook outside if you like, heating the pan over the fire of a grill, but never on the grill itself. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.


"That is the best way to do it," said George Motz, the documentary filmmaker who released "Hamburger America" in 2005 and has since become a leading authority on hamburgers. The beef fat collected in a hot skillet, Motz said, acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent. "Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself," he said. "A great burger should be like a baked potato, or sashimi. It should taste completely of itself."


Michael Symon, the ebullient television Iron Chef, a host of ABC's "The Chew" and a proprietor of a small chain of Midwestern hamburger restaurants called B Spot, agreed. Symon's restaurants each serve more than 1,000 hamburgers a night, he said, all of them finished on a flat-top griddle coated in beef fat.


"Use a skillet," he said on a speakerphone, on the way to a flight to Detroit, where he is opening a B Spot. He was emphatic about the subject. "A grill is too difficult," he said. "A hot skillet is what you want."


Some of these things are matters of personal taste, but for people who know burgers well, there is little disagreement about the best practices for making an exceptional one.


Meat to fat ratio


It is best to start at the beginning. Great hamburgers fall into two distinct categories. There is the traditional griddled hamburger of diners and takeaway spots, smashed thin and cooked crisp on its edges. And there is the pub- or tavern-style hamburger, plump and juicy, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat within.


Whichever style you cook, pay close attention to the cuts of beef used in the grind. The traditional hamburger is made of ground chuck steak, rich in both fat and flavor, in a ratio that ideally runs about 80 percent meat, 20 percent fat. Less fat leads to a drier hamburger. Avoid, the experts say, supermarket blends advertised with words like "lean."


Too much fat, on the other hand, can lead to equally troubling issues, and a mess in both fact and flavor. "You get up around 30 percent fat," Symon said, and there are risks. "Things happen," he said. "Bad things. Shrinkage." Home cooks should experiment, he said, with blends that contain from 20 to 25 percent fat.


Home cooks and those who speak for them most often advocate the use of chuck steak for hamburgers. Michael Ruhlman, the erudite Cleveland writer and cook, gives short shrift to fancy blends of meat. "I believe the only critical ratio is the meat to fat," he said, adding that he generally buys a fatty cut of chuck steak and grinds it at home. "That gives me a great burger every time."


There are pitfalls to buying preground supermarket chuck steak, experts say. In addition to concerns about the health risks associated with pre-ground hamburger meat, there are culinary considerations as well. The grind most markets use is "fine," which means the fat globules in it are small. That can lead to the dreaded mushy mouth feel of a substandard hamburger. Better (and safer) to have a butcher grind your meat, asking for a coarse grind so that the ratio of meat to fat is clear to the eye.


Diner-style burger


Whatever the blend, it is wise to keep the meat in the refrigerator, untouched, until you are ready to cook. "Hamburgers are one of the few meats you want to cook cold," Symon said. "You want the fat solid when the patty goes onto the skillet. You don't want any smearing."


Forming the patties is a delicate art. For the thin, diner-style hamburger, Motz said, simply use a spoon or an ice-cream scoop to extract a loose golf ball of meat from the pile, and get it onto the skillet in one swift movement. "You don't need to set the heat below it to stun," he said. "A medium-hot pan will do it, accompanied for the first burger with a pat of melted butter to get the process started."


Then, a heresy to many home cooks: the smash. Use a heavy spatula to press down on the meat, producing a thin patty about the size of a hamburger bun. "Everyone freaks out about that," Motz said. "But it's the only time you're touching the meat, and you're creating this great crust in doing it." Roughly 90 seconds later, after seasoning the meat, you can slide your spatula under the patty, flip it over, add cheese if you're using it, and cook the hamburger through.


Pub-style burger


The pub-style burger is in some ways even easier to make. The key, Symon said, is not to handle the meat too much. "A lot of people make the mistake of packing the burger really tightly," he said. "But what you want is for it just to hold together, no more." Simply grab a handful of beef and form it into a burger shape, then get it into the pan, season it and cook for about three minutes. Then turn it over and, if using, add cheese. The burger is done three to four minutes later for medium-rare.


Which cheese you use is a matter of preference, but Motz does not sneeze at the highly processed slice that has covered the nation's hamburgers since the early days of White Castle restaurants. "American cheese is designed to melt," he said, "and it has 50 percent more sodium than Cheddar or Swiss, so it adds a lot of flavor while also helping to hold the smashed patty together."


In choosing buns, restaurateurs may offer hamburgers on special brioche from Balthazar, or fancy English muffins from Bays. But home cooks can do very well indeed with more commercial options, in particular potato buns, which offer a soft and sturdy platform for the meat. Finally, there are condiments. You pull your burgers off the skillet, place them on the buns and then offer them to guests to dress. Ripe tomatoes and cold bibb lettuce should be offered along with ketchup, mustard and, for a hardy few, mayonnaise or mayonnaise mixtures. Onions excite some. Pickles, others. But do not overdress.


People really overcomplicate hamburgers," said Manhattan restaurant chef and owner Geoffrey Zakarian. "They substitute complication for proper cooking technique."

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