The controversy over the best or "greatest" hamburger is an American ritual. It is an elusive object because there are hardly two people anywhere who agree exactly on what it should look or taste like.
Who would disqualify Calvin Trillin's warped views on the subject merely because he cannot envision a hamburger without a slice of cheese on it, and therefore isn't talking about hamburgers at all? Who would be so cruel as to point out that Winstead's, Trillin's beloved Winstead's, in no longer the family *business of his youth? The hamburgers now bear the corporate imprint of the present owner, a firm called Leo's Petroleum.
So much for Winstead's. Yet, the ultimate solution - the tasteoff - is impractical because any hamburger worthy of national ranking must be eaten in its native setting with a delay after it leaves the grill of no more than a single refrain of Elvis's "Love Me Tender." Only the jet-set could attempt such a task and they, sadly, have no taste buds.
Why go out in the first place? You argue. Why not make the great hamburger at home? This alternative is a perilous one, as countless disappointed gourmonds will testify. In my experience at least - with only a few exceptions - hamburgers taste better eaten out. It may be a questions of environment (most "great" hamburgers are liberally coated with nostalgia), or the reason may be technical. The grill is imbued with the flavor (and grease) of countless burgers that have been prepared there. The restaurant stove's broiler is hotter than your's at home.
Not that every store-bought hamburger qualifies. This angry description by James Beard in his "American Cookery" has wide application. "The version one usually finds at stands and lunch counters is a mercilessly flattened patty of indefinable flavor, cooked to a state of petrification and placed on a cold bun, then to be doused with catsup."
What makes a great hamburger great is the meat. It must have flavor. That word is tossed about as carelessly as confetti, yet such flavor as is found in the overdecorated burgers most of us eat comes from the extras. The central problem has been lost in unending commercials about toppings, condiments and sesame-seed buns.
The truly flavorful piece of beef - ground or sliced or cut as a steak - has to be juicy. Hamburgers that have been shaped and frozen before cooking are never juicy. Hamburgers that are partially cooked and reheated (a favorite trick to speed service in restaurants or "pubs" where they are a popular item) are never juicy. A well-done hamburger is never juicy and the texture suffers. The longer it cooks, the more it will crumble.
So the fast-food chains offer watery lettuce, moist but tasteless tomato slices, runny catsup. Customers buy soft drinks to wash down, the dry patty inside the dry roll. Remember the credo of the sales-hungry food industry: The best flavor is no flavor at all. The object isn't to make people like your product, it is to give them as little reason as possible to dislike it.
To be a great hamburger need only be handcrafted, cooked fresh and not too long. Seldom are secret indregients involve. So why do cooks fail so miserably who can execute pate de foie gras en croute with the left hand while making a perfect sauce madeira with the right?
Among the most common mistakes are overkneading the meat, overcooking and an inability to trust simplicity. To the purist, overloading the burger with bits of this and that, with binders or extenders, is to create a short-order piece of meatloaf rather than a hamburger.
The meat should have fat in it (thus in an effort to create a better burger, begin with a piece of round steak or top sirloin rather than tenderloin), should be handleakes little as possible when formed into pattles and should be cooked quickly. Grated onion, butter or cream buried inside the burger will help keep it moist and some caring cooks build their burgers around chips of ice to keep the center chilled and rare.
While some of the great restaurant hamburgers I've eaten have been thin patties, the most satisfying ones at homes are at least 1 1/2-inches thick and have been cooked over charcoal on an outdoor grill. Inside the kitchen, those with gastronomic inclinations prefer to pan fry them, usually in a cast-iron pan on a bed of salt. Recently, however, this method of cooking has been challenged by scientists who consider it a possible health hazard.
Over-broiling is an option, though the hamburger's thickness should be reduced to about an inch and they will cook better if very lightly coated with oil.
Once a hamburger has been cooked, it's taste can be perked up considerably with the addition of a small pat of butter. Hot, thick and still juicy, this burger will delight purist served as a sandwich between slices of bread. Salt, fresh-ground pepper and a modest topping may be added with discretion.
"At it's best . . ." Beard writes, "it is an excellent dish, not to be regarded with condescension. Certainly it has stimulated a good deal of innovation, both good and bad, in American cookery."
Here is a quintet of innovative hamburger recipes, along with two toppings for semi-purists. The first, a recipe of M.F.K. Fisher from "An Alphabet for Gourmets," contains a delightful prologue. There's one from New York's Alganquin Hotel (vintage 1942), another from Brennan's in New Orleans and a third from Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. The fifth is described merely as "old." The tomato sauce is translated from the French edition of Jean and Pierre Troisgros' book and the butter tapping originated in my kitchen. M.F.K. FISHER'S OWN HAMBURGER
When I was much younger and proportionately hungrier and less finicky, a minor form of bliss was going to a drive-in near school and eating two or three wierd, adultrated combinations of fried beef, mayonnaise, tomato catsup, shreded lettuce, melted cheese, unidentifiable relish and sliced onion.
"Now I prepare, from time to time, and austere and fine adaptation of this adolescent dream.
(Makes 4) 1 1/2 to 2 pound best sirloin, trimmed of fat and coarsely ground (or finely chopped) 1 cup ordinary red table wine 3 or 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup mixed chopped onion, parsley, green pepper, herbs according to taste 4 tablespoons oyster sauce or 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Shape meat into 4 round patties at least 1 1/2 inches thick. Have the skillet very hot.Sear the meat (very smoky procedure) on both sides and remove at once to a hot buttered platter where the meat will continue on heat through. (Extend the searing time if rare meat is not wanted.)
Remove the skillet from the fire. When slightly cooled, put the wine and butter in it and swirl, to collect what Brillat-Savarin would have called the "osmazone." Return to heat and toss in the chopped ingredients, and cover closely. Turn off heat as soon as these begin to hiss. Remove from stove, take off cover, add oyster sauce, swirl once more and pour over hot meat. Serve at once.
From "An Alphabet for Gourmets"
THE ALGONQUIN'S BROILED MEAT PATTIES
(Makes 2 or 4) 1 pound ground round steak 3 tablespoons cream 1 tablespoon onion juice, if desired Salt and pepper Butter
Mix the ground steak with the cream and onion juice. Salt and pepper and make into patties. Dent top of each and put in large piece of butter. Place these under the broiler.
The secret of light meat patties or meat balls is handling the meat as little as possible when preparing it, and not pressing it too tightly together.
From "Feeding the Lions"
THE SAN FRANCISCO FRENCH-BURGER
(Makes 2) 1 pound filet, ground twice 1/4 pound lean bacon, thin sliced 2 large sesame buns 2 slices cheddar cheese (processed melts better) 6 ounces French Roquefort dressing(FOOTNOTE)* ry bacon medium done and drain. Form meat into 2 patties. Broil approximately 2 minutes. Turn and cook until 3/4 done. Cover with cheese. (Put bacon under broiler to finish cooking separately.) Split sesame buns, cutting the top halves into quarters.Arrange quarters on plate around the bottom half. Remove patties, and put on bottoms of buns. Cross with bacon strips and crown with Roquefort dressing.
Roquefort Dressing 2 ounces fine Roquefort cheese 1/2 ounce tarragon vinegar (or lemon juice) 2 ounces white wine vinegar 2 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise 1 dash Worcestershire sauce Sauce and pepper to taste
Blend all of the liquid ingredients, and then crumble the Roquefort cheese into the dressing. Mix well, but gently, and let stand for 2 hours. Stir thoroughly just prior to serving.
From "Golden Gate Gourmet"
(Makes 8) 2 pounds ground beef 1/4 cup minced shollats (green onions) 1/4 cup minced white onion 1/2 cup toasted Holland rusk crumbs Dash nutmeg 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 tablespoons Worcestershire 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 2 eggs
Combine all ingredients together thoroughly and shape into 8 patties (oval in shape) and grill. Serve with Sauce Maison.
Sauce Maison 1/4 pound butter 1 tablespoon Worcestershire 3/4 cup meat jus (beef drippings or bouillon) Pinch chopped parsley
Melt butter till golden brown. Add Worcestershire and jus and cook 1 minute. Add parsley and serve with meat.
From "Brennan's New Orleans Cookbook"
AN OLD RECIPE FOR ALMOND STEAK
(4 servings) 2 pounds lean beef 1/4 pound blanched almonds 1 teaspoon salt Freshly ground pepper Butter
Grind the beef and the almonds and mix in the seasonings. Form into a large steak and place in a hot buttered skillet with an oven-proof handle. Dot with butter and place in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the steak is beautifully browned on top. Eat with a good Bearnaise sauce.
From "James Beard's American Cookery"
JEAN AND PIERRE TROISGROS' "CATSUP" 1 pound very fresh tomatoes, peeled and seeded 1 teaspoon tomato paste 1 1/2 tablespoons (scant) wine vinegar 1/4 cup olive oil 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper Fresh tarragon to taste, coarsely chopped Fresh parsely to taste, coarsely chopped
Crush the tomato pulp through a strainer and chill until just before serving. Use a whisk to mix the tomato and tomato paste. Continue stirring to incorporate the vinegar, then add the oil, drop by drop. Add the salt, pepper and herbs.
At their restaurant in Roanne, the Troisgros serve this with chopped beef patties and pork tenderloin medallions at a recent luncheon he prepared in New York City.
SPICY GREEN BUTTER 1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened and cut into pieces 2 tablespoons chopped scallions 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1 tablespoon green peppercorns* Generous pinch ground cinnamon Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place scallions, parsley, peppercorns in the bowl of a food processor. Work together briefly, then add the butter and process until an even consistency is obtained. Add cinnamon, salt and pepper and work in. Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and form into a roll. Chill or freeze. Cut off slices as needed.(END FOOT)(FOOTNOTE)
* Green peppercorns are sold in some specialty food stores, either canned or in dehyrated form. (END FOOT)