February 21, 2011

Old-Fashioned Burgers

Usually when I think of a burger, it’s char-grilled, medium or medium-rare, and topped with a slice of tomato, some red onion, and crisp iceberg lettuce. The bun is thrown on the grill for a minute to make it nice and toasty, then slathered with a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise. Yes, it’s essentially an upscale Whopper, minus the cheese.

This burger ain’t that burger. This is America’s Test Kitchen’s best old-fashioned burger. The kind, they say, that you’d find at a drive in. (Having never been to a drive in, I have to take their word for it.)

In a lot of ways, this burger reminded me (in a good way) of a Philly cheesesteak. The meat is really tender, it’s held together with just enough ooey, gooey cheese, and it’s topped with finely sliced onions that add just enough sharpness and tang to balance the richness of the burger and cheese.

And then there’s the sauce. To be honest, the sauce is what originally drew me to this recipe. It sounded for all the world like the special sauce on a Big Mac. Yes, another fast food reference. What can I say, I grew up at a time when the advertising geniuses at McDonald’s had every kid in America singing “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun!” Anyway, the sauce in this recipe was good, but not great. It was a bit sweet for my taste so I’d probably leave out the sugar next time.

The recipe looks involved, but it’s really not hard. Basically, you buy two kinds of meat (steak tips and short ribs) and cut them into cubes, which you freeze for 15 to 25 minutes. This makes them easier to chop up in the food processor.

Once the meat is cold, you grind it up. America’s Test Kitchen being, well, America’s Test Kitchen, they provide detailed pictures of what the meat should look like when it’s properly processed. This is one of the keys to these burgers. If you don’t process the meat enough, they fall apart. If you overprocess it, they become dense hockey pucks.

Once you’ve ground the meat, you gently form it into patties. Gently is the operative word here and it’s the second key to this recipe. You want to handle the meat as little as possible so that it doesn’t get tough when you cook it.

Once the burgers are formed into patties, you toast the buns in butter. Now really, how bad could  a recipe be that starts with buttery toasted buns? Then you cook the burgers on a screaming hot skillet. I found that the burgers fell apart a bit when I transferred them into the skillet. But I just used my fingers to gently reform the patties in the pan and they were just fine. The meat separated a little again when I turned them over and again, reforming the patties in the pan worked great.

Once you flip the burgers, you top them with American cheese. The cheese melts into every nook and cranny of the beef and really binds these babies together. (Sorry, I should have gotten a photo of this.) Top them with some onion and a saucy bun and you’re ready to eat.

I know that when summer rolls around I’ll go back to my grilled backyard burgers. But on this cold, February evening, these rich, tender burgers, oozing with cheese, sauce and onions, really hit the spot!

Old-Fashioned Burgers

Recipe by: America’s Test Kitchen
Yields: 4 burgers


10 ounces sirloin steak tips, cut into 1-inch chunks (look for meat that has a striated texture to be sure you have the right cut. Flank steak may be substituted)
6 ounces boneless beef short ribs, cut into 1-inch chunks
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 soft hamburger buns (potato rolls)
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 slices American cheese (don’t substitute! American cheese has the perfect texture for this recipe)
Thinly sliced onion

Classic Burger Sauce Ingredients:
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/2 teaspoon sweet pickle relish
1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper


1. Mix ingredients for burger sauce and refrigerate it until you’re ready for it.

2. Place chunks of meat onto baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart. Freeze until very firm, hard around the edges, but still pliable (15-25 minutes).

3. Grind meat in a food processor in two batches, using 10 to 15 one-second pulses and redistributing meat in the processor as necessary. Transfer the meat to a tray or baking sheet without touching it — just overturn the processor bowl onto the tray. You want to touch the meat as little as possible from here on out. Discard gristle or hunks of fat.

4. Gently separate ground meat into 4 equal mounds using a spatula. Shape each mound gently (without picking it up) into a patty about 4 inches in diameter and thin (about 1/4 inch thick), leaving edges ragged and crevices in the burger. Season top of each patty liberally with salt and pepper. Use a spatula to flip patties and season the other side. Stick them in the refrigerator while you toast the buns.

5. Melt 1/2 tablespoon butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until it foams. Toast 4 buns, tops and bottoms, in batches until golden brown. Set aside and wipe out the skillet.

6. Put skillet on high heat. Add oil and heat until just smoking. Using a spatula, put all 4 patties into the skillet and cook without moving for 3 minutes. Flip burgers over gently and cook for 1 minute. Top each with a slice of American cheese and cook for another minute.

7. Place patties onto bun bottoms and place sliced onions on top. Spread burger sauce on each bun top, cover burgers, and serve immediately.

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