A burger is a burger is not just a burger
A burger is a burger is not just a burger
Last week I had the opportunity to give two lectures on the science of the perfect hamburger for an all-adult, after-hours “Burgers and Brew” event at Oregon’s Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, the city I call home. To prep for the lectures I studied and compared and tested the “granulation” burger method of Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in London and the theory of pre-salting that Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Café so brilliantly meditates on in her cookbook. Both Blumenthal and Rodgers have us salting our meat for at least 24 hours before grinding. I won’t go into the science that backs that method up here, but let’s just say I highly recommend reading up on it yourself. Rodgers then simply grinds the meat and has us shape the meat into patties with our hands. Blumenthal has us grinding the meat and then placing the lengths of ground meat that come out of the grinder onto a piece of Saran Wrap so that all the lengths or strands are facing the same direction, laying on top of each other, to eventually create a “meat tube.” The meat tube is then gently pressed together and wrapped in Saran Wrap. When it’s time to make a burger Blumenthal instructs us to slice a one-inch-thick patty off of the meat tube with a knife. The theory here is that by keeping all of those ground meat strands running in the same direction, and not overhandling the meat, we can create a burger whose inside texture is delicate and easy to bite into. Blumenthal has us frying the patty in rendered beef fat, and flipping it every 15 seconds until done. Rodgers has us frying the patty in olive oil and only flipping it when it’s fully browned on one side. I’ll let you decide which methods make the most sense to you. Let’s just say I mostly agree with Blumenthal but Rodgers is a little more sensible and down-to-earth about it all.
But that’s not what’s really important here. I’ve always been of the mind-set that a burger is a burger is a burger at the end of the day—in other words I’m not a fan of the $100 burger trend. But through the process of preparing these lectures, I discovered that a burger never has to just be a burger. That inside any given burger lies an entire history and culture that’s worth exploring.
In addition to testing out and studying various cooking methods, I also did a lot of other comparisons—grass fed versus grain fed, meat that came from animals slaughtered on the farm versus those that traveled 500 miles to be slaughtered, different breeds, different ages of animals, different amounts of time that the meat was aged. I compared “artisanal” meat to “natural” meat to patties that are frozen, preformed in America but which come from animals in Australia. Each burger tasted different and had a different texture depending on all sorts of facts about the meat used to make the burger.
The more I dug into the background of any given burger or burger method, the more I came to understand that EVERYTHING matters. If we turn our taste buds off, and we don’t think about where a burger came from, sure, the burger’s going to taste like a burger, more or less. But when we start thinking about that burger — when we ask where it came from, how the animal that provided the meat was raised, what it ate, why this patty is fatty and this one isn’t fatty enough, what “pink slime,” if anything, has to contribute to your burger’s flavor or texture, why it’s brown on the outside or why it didn’t brown on the outside, why it’s chewy and tough or why it melts in your mouth the burger turns into something very different. It becomes a difficult thing to take for granted. It holds within its juices the secret to an entire production system, or it holds within its juices the secret to an entirely alternative production system. And, much to my surprise, it’s kind of fun to think about such a ho-hum, generic thing as a burger in that way.
This is why I decided to study butchery: not just so I could make bacon, but so I could dig into the Why of it. So I could reveal within the sinew and bone of a pig all the elements that made that bacon possible and decide for myself whether or not it was all worth it, whether it even made sense. Truth is, a lot of it doesn’t.
So the next time you order and cook or grind or form a burger, I urge you to ask questions. Just start with questions and see what comes to you. Then, eventually, you’ll get really curious, and you’ll find yourself in the food science section of the library or wandering the halls of some agricultural department at some community college asking random professors, “What does it all mean?” And then, you’ll likely change the way you make a burger, how you source your meat or at the very least, the burger you order at the drive-through will start to taste different. You’ll start to actually TASTE it. And then you’ll wonder if that’s all there is.
Through my journey into the world of meat I’ve, thankfully, found out that the answer to that question, my friend, is an emphatic “No.”