Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Tips From Serious Eats: Harold McGee's Top 10 Thanksgiving Tips

Some interesting tips (not all of them i agree with) from one of my go-to foodie sites (Serious Eats): worth a look...

Harold McGee is the author of On Food And Cooking and the newly released Keys to Good Cooking. He is a renowned "food science" expert.


Harold McGee's Top 10 Thanksgiving Tips

"Ask yourself: am I a turkey man, or a stuffing man? Because you can't have it both ways."



20101111-harold-250.jpgWe were joined this morning at Serious Eats world headquarters by Harold McGee, author of On Food And Cooking and the newly released Keys to Good Cooking. He's a food science legend, and one of my idols.

In cased you missed this morning's live webcast, here are the top 10 pieces of useful, brilliant, or just plain duh-why-didn't-I-think-of-that? tips we learned today to help make your Thanksgiving just a little bit more delicious.

1. Get a Thermometer

Harold stresses the importance of relying on temperature when cooking a turkey. Do not rely on the little pop-up thermometer—by the time it comes up, your turkey will be well beyond dry. Instead, get a good instant read thermometer like the Thermapen from Thermoworks. Not only is it more accurate than the cheap ones (those guys can be off by as much as 20°F!), it's also faster. Sure, it costs 10 times more, but it'll last a lifetime, and unlike the $10 models, it actually works.

2. Check the Temperature Early and Often

When cooking your turkey, check the temperature, check early, and check often. The final moisture level in the turkey is directly related to the temperature you cook it to. For breast meat, aim for 150 to 155°F (despite what the government says, this temperature is perfectly safe so long as you let your turkey rest for at least 15 minutes or so). For dark meat, 165°F is the goal. Check the temperature well before the expected finishing time, as any number of factors can affect how fast the turkey cooks.

3. Separate the Light From the Dark

Since both parts of the turkey need to cook to different temperatures, it's best to separate them before cooking the take them out of the oven as they finish. It may not give you that perfect Norman Rockwell moment at the dinner table, but your family's stomachs will thank you in the end!

4. Brining Is a Trade-off

Brining a turkey by soaking it in a tub of salty water (our basic brine is a cup and a half of kosher salt per gallon of water) will definitely get you moister results—up to 20% moister, says Harold—but it comes at the expense of flavor. "You've got a nice turkey with lots of turkey flavor. When you brine it, you're basically diluting that flavor with salty tap water," says Harold. A better route may be salting the bird for a couple nights. It gets some of moisture retention qualities of brining, without diluting flavor.

5. Briners: Brine for at Least Two Days

If you do choose to brine, make sure you do it for at least two days. Turkeys are large. It takes a long time for the salt to work its magic all the way through the center of the bird. Give it time. If you don't have room in your fridge, the best way to do this is to use a large cooler to hold your turkey and brine. Use several large ice packs to keep the water below 40°F, changing out the ice packs a couple times a day.

6. Don't Bother Flavoring the Brine

"Salt molecules are tiny—it's just two ions, and they work their way into turkey meat relatively fast," explains Harold. "Aromatic molecules from things like herbs and vegetable, on the other hand, are very large"—relatively speaking, that is. This makes it difficult for them to penetrate into the turkey, so aromatics added to your brine won't have much more than a superficial effect.

7. Important Question: Are You a Turkey or Stuffing Person?

Ask yourself: am I a turkey man, or a stuffing man? Because you can't have it both ways. Stuffing a bird will get you supremely flavorful stuffing as it collects the juices from the bird, but you'll inevitably overcook the meat as you try to get the stuffing up to temperature. Bake your stuffing separately outside of the bird, and you'll get a perfectly roasted turkey, but less flavorful stuffing. Which do you prefer? Harold suggests a tradeoff: "I like to pour the drippings from the turkey over my stuffing to get some of the turkey flavor in there." Sounds just fine to me!

8. Use a Scale!

Measuring things like salt or flour by volume is remarkably inconsistent. A teaspoon of Morton's table salt, for instance, weighs about 20% more than a teaspoon of Morton's kosher salt. That means if you substitute table salt for a recipe that calls for kosher, your food will be 20% saltier! For salt, make sure you always use the type specified and taste carefully for seasoning. For flour, measure everything out on a scale, not in a measuring cup.

9. On Pie Crusts

Use a mister to make your pie crust. One of the big problems with pie crust is adding the liquid. Pour it in, and it all gets absorbed in one spot. Your crust bakes and rolls unevenly, coming out tough in some spots, tender in others. Harold prefers to use a spray bottle to mist his dough with water. It applies the water much more evenly. Just make sure you know in advance how many sprays it takes to get the right amount of liquid in there.

10. Choose Your Apples Wisely

When making a pie, different apples have different cooking quality—make sure you know which is which in order to get the desired finished results. Harold points out that "fluffy" varieties like McIntosh will break down readily in a pie. Firmer, crisper varieties like Granny Smith will stay solid. It all comes down to personal taste. To test your apples before baking, cut a couple thin slices and microwave them for 30 seconds. This'll give you a good idea of how well they'll break down in the pie.

Monday, September 6, 2010

From Serious Eats: How to Make The Best Chili For a Burger

Another great post from Kenji of serious eats. can't wait to try this one.

The Burger Lab: How to Make The Best Chili For a Burger (or Hot Dog!)


This chili ends up with a homogeneous, saucy texture perfect for topping burgers, hot dogs, or fries. Leftover chili can be stored in the fridge for up to 1 week.

The chile is best with the whole dried chiles indicated in the recipe, but you can substitute 3 tablespoons of your favorite chili powder if desired. Add it to the pot along with the other ground spices in step 2.


serves about 8, active time 20 minutes, total time 95 minutes

  • 2 whole Ancho or Pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeded, and torn into strips
  • 1 whole New Mexico red, California, Costeño, or Choricero chile, stemmed, seeded, and torn into strips
  • 1 whole Cascabel, Arbol, or Pequin chile, stemmed, seeded, and torn in half
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced fine (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seed, toasted and ground
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seed, toasted and ground
  • 1 whole clove, toasted and ground
  • 1 whole star anise, toasted and ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 anchovy filet, minced (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Marmite (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 pounds 80/20 ground chuck or short rib
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons masa harina
  • 1 tablespoon Frank's Red Hot
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
  • Kosher salt


    1) Combine all chiles in a medium microwave-safe bowl and cover with water. Microwave on full power for 2 minutes. Remove bowl from microwave and allow chiles to soak for 10 minutes. Using immersion blender or upright blender, blend soaked chiles until smooth, adding soaking water as needed to keep texture loose.

    2) Melt butter over medium-high heat in Dutch oven. When foaming subsides, add onions and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are softened but no browned, about 6 minutes. Add ground spices and oregano and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until aromatic, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add tomato paste, soy sauce, anchovy, Marmite (if using), and sugar, and cook, stirring frequently until paste begins to stick to bottom of pan, about 1 1/2 minutes.

    3) Remove pan from heat and add 2 cups of chicken broth. Scrape up any browned bits from bottom of pan with wooden spoon. Add ground beef and break up using whisk until mixture is completely homogeneous (no large chunks of beef should remain). Add remaining chicken stock and return to stovetop and set over medium high heat. Cook, whisking frequently, until mixture comes to a simmer. Cover with lid slightly ajar, reduce heat to low, and cook for 75 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick and intense.

    4) Combine masa harina and 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl and mix until homogeneous. Add masa mixture, hot sauce, and burbon to chili and stir to combine. Bring to a boil and summer until thickened, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and serve immediately on top of burgers, hot dogs or fries.

My desert island burger: Grind beef (sirloin, brisket, and oxtail) and form into loose 1/4 pound patty. Season well and griddle in beef fat until crisp and deep brown. Apply cheese and melt until gooey. Place on toasted potato roll with onions, pickles, burger sauce. Eat with napkins.

As glorious as that may sound to me, it'd be a sad state of affairs if that's the only burger I ever ate in my life. I mean, Rubber Soul may be better than Revolver, but that doesn't mean that I don't occasionally look at that pencil-drawn album cover and think to myself: I've just got to get you into my life.

So it is with chili burgers, the Sgt. Pepper of the burger world: a tad overwrought, a little bit messy, just a few too many ideas going on at once, a little more popular than it should be, but really, really delicious nonetheless. And as AHT'r cedarglen has rightfully pointed out, we've not given chili burgers their due here at the Burger Lab.

The problem is that a great chili is a meal in itself, not a condiment.

You'd think that making a really great chili burger is as simple as making really great chili and a really great burger and sticking them together. But it ain't that simple. The problem is that a great chili is a meal in itself, not a condiment. It should have a wide variance of texture: rich, thick sauce, small bits of beef that act as flavoring, and larger chunks of tender braised beef to offer some bite. Throw all that on top of a burger, and it doesn't just overwhelm the burger—it tears it to shreds and stomps on the remains.

What I was after is not just the perfect chili, but the perfect chili-as-condiment. For topping burgers, fries, or hot dogs, chili should have slightly less kick than a full-fledged, punch-you-in-the-mouth-with-flavor chili, with a much finer, sauce-like texture that doesn't distract from the crispness of the burger or overwhelm the bun.

Building Flavor

In my previous studies in chili, I'd already figured out a few of the keys to great chili flavor. Here's a brief summary:

  • Use dried chiles instead of powder. This is the number one way to improve your chili! Three reasons: First, because volatile flavor molecules begin to dissipate as soon as chiles are ground, whole chiles will have much more flavor. Second, grinding your own chiles gives you more control over flavor. Third, chili powder can come out gritty even after cooking. By using fresh chiles, you can soak and puree them, which gives you a smoother finished texture.


  • Use a mix of dried chiles. I like to use a three way mix of sweet and fresh New Mexico or Costeños, hot Cascabel or Arbol, and rich and fruity Ancho or Pasillas. Using a mix will cover the entire flavor spectrum, adding complexity and fullness.
  • Toast whole spices before grinding and adding them to the chili. Toasting helps develop new, more complex flavors in the spices. Toasting post-grinding simply causes the flavors to dissipate. Cumin and coriander are classic chili spices. Star anise and clove are not necessary, but add an underlying complexity without making their presence too known.


  • Add some "umami bombs" like anchovies, soy sauce, and Marmite. Again, this is optional, but it really improves the savoriness of the chili.
  • Finish off the chili with a splash of something volatile, like booze or vinegar. The more volatile the liquid, the more easily aromatic compounds will jump off the surface and into your nose.

Those of you who've read the original chili story may note that I haven't mentioned the chocolate, the use of whole short ribs, the coffee, the fresh chiles, etc. For the sake of burger chili, I've found that it's not only easier to skip a lot of the more difficult steps, but it's actually better: as I've said, the flavor of this chili is a little less complex so that it doesn't overwhelm the burger. In fact, after testing both chili made with dried chiles and chili powder, even the version made with chili powder fared just fine on top of a burger. It's not ideal, but it'd do in a pinch.

Buttered Up

The first step of chili is to cook down onions and garlic in order to get rid of some of their raw edge, and to bloom the ground spices to pull out their flavor and distribute it through the fat which will form the flavor base of the stew.

While a really great chili can take upwards of three hours to simmer to rich, complex perfection, I was after something a little faster here—my burgers just can't wait that long. In order to give the onion, garlic, and spice base of my chili a quick flavor boost, I used a trick that I first learned from Marcella Hazan, in her incomparably simple and tasty recipe for tomato sauce: Use butter instead of olive oil.


It seems a simple substitution, but it makes a world of difference. While in her recipe she simply throws everything into the pot to simmer together, I found that sautéeing my chopped onions and garlic in the butter until soft was the way to go. The sweetness and richness of butter brings out the sweetness of the onions. It more easily forms an emulsion in the sauce so that you don't end up with the "oil slick" that olive oil can sometimes give. When tasted side by side, the difference in texture and flavor was undeniable.*

After cooking down my onions and garlic, I added my toasted ground cumin, coriander, star anise, and clove and allowed them to bloom before tossing in my ground beef to brown (I figured true ground beef would form a smoother, saucier chili than the beef chunks I generally prefer). I then added some chopped anchovies, can of tomato paste followed by my rehydrated, puréed peppers before topping the whole thin up with chicken stock and simmering it for a little over an hour until the flavor had developed. To finish it, I spiked it with bourbon and a tablespoon of vinegary Frank's Red Hot.**

The results were not bad. Really good, even. Flavor-wise, it was spot on. Complex and spicy without being overwhelming. Texture-wise, however, it was a bomb. The beef still stayed in fairly large chunks, while the sauce was thin enough that it turned the whole burger into an inedibly messy affair.


After ever so briefly contemplating throwing the whole thing in the blender to smooth it out, I realized that "beef milkshake" is a place that I wasn't willing to go, even in the name of good food. There had to be a better way to get the texture right.

I knew that the browning phase can cause meat to seize up into chunks that don't break down as they simmer, so I decided to try skipping that step all together. Rather than adding the beef before the liquid, I reversed the order, adding the beef to the pot of simmering chili-liquid. It may sound gross, but there's actually precedence for this technique in Cincinnati Chili, a regional chili variant in which the ground beef is boiled in chili sauce and served atop spaghetti.

Ed Levine likes to refer to "cosmic oneness"

Despite my optimism, this attempt came out even worse than the first batch. Ed Levine likes to refer to "cosmic oneness"—the state that great fried chicken achieves when the crust and chicken meld together into a whole. I think the term is equally applicable to a good chili: The meat and the sauce should be inseparable from each other, forming a symbiotic relationship that elevates both elements to new heights.

This batch was the opposite: discrete bits of boiled beef with an almost wormy appearance surrounded by a wet sauce. But I wasn't prepared to abandon the no-brown method quite yet.

Taking Whisks

Here's a thought: When cooking scrambled eggs, two very different outcomes are possible. If you cook the eggs fast, stirring and folding with a spatula, you end up with fluffy eggs with large, tender curds. If, on the other hand, you cook the eggs slowly, stirring them with a whisk, you end up with super creamy eggs with a smooth, almost custard-like texture. Same ingredients, slightly different process, vastly different end results.

Would the same thing happen with my beef? I mean, when you get down to it, a pot full of liquidy ground beef is not all that difference from a pan full of eggs. Both are mostly water with a smattering of raw proteins mixed into it. It's the way that these proteins set that makes the difference in the finished product. Let the proteins coagulate and link up very fast with minimal disturbance, and you end up with large chunks. Cook them slowly while agitating, and you should end up with smaller pieces.

It was worth a shot.


This time, I started my chili the same way by sautéeing the onions and garlic, then adding the spices, tomato paste, chiles, and other flavorings. But instead of adding the beef directly, I first added half of the chicken stock, which rapidly cooled the contents of the pot. Off heat, I added the beef and used a whisk to mix it into the liquid until it was completely homogeneous slurry. It sure wasn't pretty, but I hoped my risk would pan out.

After adding the remainder of the chicken stock (adding all of it while mixing the beef proved too difficult to get the beef to break down smoothly), I set the pot on the heat and slowly brought it to a simmer while whisking it constantly. Things were looking good: The beef was broken down into tiny particles and the chili showed an unprecedented level of homogeneity.

75 minutes of slow simmering brought the flavors into sharp focus, but the texture was still not quite there. Despite the beef being nice and smooth, the sauce itself was still a little too thin.

I turned to my favorite chili thickener for some support:


Maseca is dehydrated corn meal treated with lime and is intended for making tortillas, tamales, and other corn meal-based products. As a thickener, it's outstanding. It provides richness and texture while adding a subtle nutty flavor of its own. Unlike a flour roux, it need not be cooked down before adding it to liquid. All you've got to do is form a slurry with equal parts cold water, then stir it directly into your stew.

A minute or two later, and my chili was literally thick enough to stand a spoon in: the ideal texture for topping a burger or hot dog without overly squishing out when you bite into it or soaking into the bun.


The real-deal-meal-in-a-bowl stuff may be the pope of chili town, but we've just elected it's official constable.

So there you go, AHT readers: No more complaints that we're not an equal-opportunity burger-topping website!

Next up: melty, gooey cheese sauce, because if I don't tackle this soon, my wife*** will kill me.

And if you'll excuse me, I've now got some chili to attend to.


Continue here for Condiment Chili for Chili Dogs, Chili Burgers, or Chili Fries

*Don't get me wrong —there are many sauces for which the flavor of great olive oil is essential—just not for chili.
**Surely this should take ketchup's place as America's greatest condiment!
***who spent the happiest birthday of her life eating cheese sauce at a Fuddruckers,

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pasta with Bacon and Corn 'Pesto' from "Paupered Chef"

Now how freakin' good does this look? And perfect for this time of year with corn in the midst of its harvest. A lot of local farmers markets have corn fresh and in season right now...

Cook seasonal, folks. Forget that it is good for the environment and local small farms and all that. Your food simply TASTES BETTER when you cook with seasonal and local ingredients. Trust me, it's true.

Got this recipe from Serious Eats via one of my new favorite food sites, The Paupered Chef, run by 2 Chicagoans, Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer. Great stuff. Enjoy.
Dinner Tonight: Pasta with Bacon and Corn 'Pesto'

When it comes down to it, my favorite food is pasta. And if you held a gun to my head, I'd probably say that carbonara is my favorite pasta. I love its creaminess-with-no-cream, the chewy, salty bits of bacon, the roundness of Parmesan, the bite of black pepper. So it's not with any flippancy that I say that this recipe reminds me of carbonara, and in the best of possible ways. It's creamy, bacony, and satisfying—yet it's also a lot lighter and more fitting for summer.

The creaminess comes from the starch in the corn, which is blended up with Parmesan and pine nuts to make a "pesto" of sorts that glossily coats the noodles. I found the recipe in Bon Appetit in a feature about ways to use up those staples of summer produce: corn, tomato, and zucchini. The corn is softened in the rendered fat from the bacon, then some of the corn is left unblended to give the pasta more texture. Slivered basil gives the whole dish that unmistakable fragrance of summer, and black pepper lends a hint of spiciness.


serves 4,

  • 4 slices thick bacon, cut into lardons
  • 4 cups fresh corn kernels from about 6 ears
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 pound taglietelle, fettucini, or other pasta
  • 3/4 cup slivered basil leaves


  1. In a large skillet, cook the bacon pieces over medium-low heat until chewy and beginning to crisp and the fat has rendered into the pan, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

  2. Add the corn and garlic to the skillet and toss to coat in the fat. Add a couple pinches of salt and pepper and cook until the corn is just tender, about 5 minutes. Reserve 3/4 cup of corn, then scrape the rest into a food processor. Add the pine nuts and Parmesan and pulse to combine. Add the olive oil with the machine running and blend until almost smooth. Add some water if necessary to smooth it.

  3. In the meantime, bring a pot of salty water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 1 1/2 cups of the pasta cooking water before draining.

  4. In the pasta cooking pot, combine the cooked pasta, corn pesto, reserved corn, most of the basil, and 3/4 of the bacon. Over low heat, toss to combine, adding some of the reserved pasta cooking water until the sauce comes together and coats all the noodles. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

  5. Divide the pasta among bowls and top with remaining basil, bacon, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese, if desired. Serve immediately.

Printed from

© Serious Eats

Friday, August 20, 2010

From A Hamburger Today: George Motz Makes a Smashed Burger

A short but sweet primer on makes a fresh, easy burger at home I got (aggregated) from one of m favorite sites, A Hamburger Today. George Motz is the author of the classic hamburger tome, Hamburger America. A book that chronicles the best of this American classic from coast to coast.

I'm a big believer in the hot cast iron skillet method, and I use the very same meat grinder attachment to my stand mixer that is used in this clip. I do deviate a bit from the method on the video, though, as I tend to like to form my patties (gently and lightly packed) so i can more control the size and thickness of my patty.

The key, though, is to use fresh, high quality, well-sourced beef (or lamb) and grind it yourself. It really, really does make a difference folks. Believe me. Really.


Hamburger expert George Motz appears in this short film about burgers by director Mac Premo for Made Possible. "The most difficult way to make a hamburger is the way that everyone thinks is the easiest way to make a hamburger, which is to put it on a flame grill," Motz says. "I prefer to cook mine on a flat top or in a skillet." Them he proceeds to make a smashed burger topped with super thin slices of onions. Cue drooling. Watch the video after the jump.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Hamburger Today: A Road Trip Burger at The Harris Ranch Restaurant

From A Hamburger Today is a review of Harris Ranch's burger from their dining operation. Seems like worth a stop for anyone taking a trip to or from Northern California and Southern California.

A Road Trip Burger at The Harris Ranch Restaurant in Coalinga, CA

Posted: 28 Jul 2010 12:37 PM PDT

From A Hamburger Today


[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

The Harris Ranch Restaurant

24505 West Dorris Avenue, Coalinga CA 93210 (map); 800-942-2333;
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A quality ranch turns the roadside inn into a vacation and burger destination
Want Fries with That? Yes— the skinny fries have great flavor, but send them back if they come out cold
Prices: Ranch Burger w/fries, $11.95
Notes: If you've got a cooler with you, load up on some excellent and inexpensive beef

So one of my closest friends was celebrating a birthday this past weekend and that meant a trip to San Francisco. San Francisco is only an hour plane ride north, but being that I'm both a fan of road trips and an inveterate cheapskate, I filled up the Saab and Google Mapped my route.

There are basically two options when heading to San Francisco from Los Angeles. The 101 (and its sister roadway, US 1) is the proverbial scenic route. It's an attractive roadway that takes you along the coast and then winds its way through wine country. The 5 freeway is a trucking route that plows through the Central California agricultural landscape that has all of the charms you'd imagine our contemporary industrial farming landscape proffers; that is to say, few. That said, it is the fast way, and, being that the trip was really about seeing my great friends, I opted for speed.

I actually had imagined I'd wind up testing some new fast food burger somewhere along the way, but as my eyes began crossing with fatigue I saw a vision in the distance that made me think that my frugality was part of a larger plan. Towering overhead I saw the "Harris Ranch" sign inviting me for a few moments of rest, and, more importantly, a proper burger lunch. I've been eating Harris Ranch beef for years as one Los Angeles's most revered purveyors, Huntington Meats, sources much of their beef from the decades-old ranch, but this roadtrip lunch would be my first burger from the source.


The Harris family began farming the San Joaquin Valley in 1937 and has managed to maintain its family ownership through all these years. John Harris currently oversees what is now described as a "vertically integrated" agribusiness, which, from what I can glean, means they not only raise their cattle, but also grow all of their own feed. Their beef, which is distributed all over the country and sold online, has developed a reputation for quality.


I put that reputation to the test in the form of their 1/3-pound Black Angus burger in their restaurant. For about thirty years, they've run an inn and restaurant in Coalinga that is a surprisingly upscale vacation destination that, to an Angeleno, seems right between nowhere and who-knows-where, but when I walked in on a late Saturday afternoon, the Western-themed dining room and gift shop were buzzing with activity.


There are a number of burger creations on the menu, but the Ranch Burger, with a choice of cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and special sauce seemed the option most suited to a high quality patty.

Mine came out looking beautiful save the pre-cutting the burger receives before it comes out of the kitchen (I recommend asking them to leave it whole.) The potato bun was spongy and delicate and measured perfectly against the 1/3-pound beef patty. The local veggies were vibrant and fresh. They seem to embrace this the height of the tomato season. My tomato was the best I've been served on a burger in a very long time. The special sauce was, as you'd guess, a Thousand Island spread that fits the California aesthetic. The grilled beef was just as I'd hoped—fantastic. Rich with fat and salt, it offered a clean beef taste that was deeply satisfying.


The quality ingredients made me happy to spend the extra money ($11.95 in this case) for a higher quality burger, but there were a few missteps that seemed out of sync with the attentive service. My burger came out a bit overcooked and, more than that, my meal seemed a bit sloppily handled generally. The cheddar cheese, which was portioned properly, didn't get any heat other than the patty so it was just sweaty, rather than nicely melted. My skinny fries had a great flavor, but were clearly not fried to order. I'd hoped that these problems were a the result of say a cook who was a bit tired, but when I stopped in again on my way back to Los Angeles, I found similar problems with my burger.

In the end, these mistakes weren't enough to make the burger anything less than very good, but considering the quality beef and other delicious high quality ingredients it seemed like a missed opportunity. A little more attention in the kitchen and I might have said it's worth a special trip to the home of one of California's historic ranches. As it stands, I'd say make it a point to stop if, like me, you happen to be driving by.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kenji Alt's In-N-Out Double-Double Animal Style at Home

Hello all... i know i haven't posted in some time, but sometimes life takes you in other directions and one must prioritize, prioritize, prioritize... but enough of my rationalizations...

I think the posting below from "The Burger Lab" guru from Serious Eats' A Hamburger Today page, Kenji Alt is a very fitting posting to represent my prodigal return. If you enjoy what you read you might want to check out Kenji's own site. In addition to being a regular contributor to Serious Eats, he has his own page, Good Eater Collaborative, as well. It is well worth checking out.

Though i live in Southern California and can hop in my ride and go to the iconic In-n-Out anytime i please, i do fear a day when career and circumstance might take me from the sunny shores of California. In that eventuality, I know I will now have a go-to guide if i want to try to replicate what i think is, without a shadow of a doubt, the very best "fast food" style cheeseburger you can get for under $3.25.



The Burger Lab: The Ins-n-Outs of an In-N-Out Double-Double, Animal-Style

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.


Gone animal. [Photographs: Kenji Alt]

In-N-Out's Double-Double, Animal Style at Home


[Photograph: Kenji Alt]

Want more details? Here are the ins-n-outs.

- makes two 1/4 pound burgers -

Note: store-bought ground chuck can be used in place of the fresh ground, but I highly recommend grinding your own!


1/2 pound fresh beef chuck with plenty of fat, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
1 large onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon ketchup
2 teaspoons sweet pickle relish
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
2 soft Hamburger buns, preferably Arnold brand
Freshly ground black pepper
8 dill pickles chips
2 quarter-inch-thick slices ripe tomato
2 leaves fresh iceberg lettuce, white core section removed, torn to bun-sized pieces
1/4 cup yellow mustard
4 slices deli-cut American Cheese

Procedure (Meat Grinder)

1. Place feed shaft, blade, and 1/4-inch die of meat grinder in freezer until well-chilled. Meanwhile, place meat chunks on rimmed baking sheet, leaving space between each piece and place in freezer for 10 minutes until meat is firm, but not frozen.

2. Combine meat in large bowl and toss to combine. Grind meat and refrigerate immediately until ready for use. Handle as gently as possible. Proceed with step three below.

Procedure (Food Processor)

1. Place bowl and blade of food processor in freezer until well-chilled. Meanwhile, place meat chunks on rimmed baking sheet, leaving space between each piece, and place in freezer for 10 minutes until meat is firm, but not frozen.

2. Combine meat in large bowl and toss to combine. Working in two batches, place meat cubes in food processor and pulse until medium-fine grind is achieved, about 8 to 10 one-second pulses, scraping down processor bowl as necessary. Refrigerate ground meat immediately until ready for use. Handle as gently as possible.

3. Preheat the oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees while you cook the onions: Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a 10-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt to skillet. Reduce heat to medium low, and cook, tossing and stirring occasionally until onions are well browned, about 15 minutes. Once onions begin to sizzle heavily and appear dry, add 1 tablespoon water to skillet and stir. Continue cooking until water evaporates and onions start sizzling again. Repeat process, adding 1 tablespoon of water with each iteration until onions are meltingly soft and dark brown, about 3 times total. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

4. Make the sauce: Combine mayonnaise, ketchup, relish, sugar, and vinegar in small bowl. Stir to combine.

5. Place closed buns in preheated oven for 2 minutes until slightly darkened and crisped. Heat 1/2 teaspoon oil in 12-inch non-stick skillet or griddle over medium-high heat until shimmering. Open buns and add face-down to skillet. Toast until dark brown around the edges, about 1 minute total.

6. Form ground beef into four 2-ounce patties, using damp hands to press each into a patty about 3/16ths of an inch thick and 4 inches wide. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon oil to pan, swirl to coat, and heat over medium-high heat until lightly smoking. Add burger patties and cook without moving until well browned and crusty on first side, about 2 1/2 minutes. While they are cooking, spread 1 tablespoon mustard on raw side of each patty with a spoon. Meanwhile, top each bottom bun with up half of spread, 4 slices pickles, 1 slice tomato, and lettuce. Flip patties with a thin spatula so mustard side is down and continue to cook for 1 minute. Top each patty with a slice of cheese. Divide onion mixture evenly between two patties. Place the other two patties directly on top of the onions , sandwiching them between the beef. Transfer patty stacks to bottom bun. Top with top bun, and serve immediately.


You West Coasters have it easy. Your dogs have yards to run in. Your grapes have vines to grow on. You get to watch the sun setting and the ocean at the same time. You're never faced with the tough decision of Motorino Brooklyn or Motorino Manhattan. Even the darn earth's rotation goes in your favor, letting you sleep three hours later than me every single morning!

And all that before we even mention In-N-Out, perhaps the second most compelling reason to move out west like my wife would like me to*.

I've been a rabid, if underexposed fan of the cult-ish fast food burger joint since I tried my first Double-Double (that's two patties, two slices of cheese) a couple years back. As burgers go, it's an oddity in my book, in that it's not about the beef.

It's a bomb that's rigged to hit every pleasure center on my brain's taste analyzation terminal

Sure, the fresh-never-frozen patties are tasty enough, but the sandwich is more than that. It's the interplay between the ooey-gooey American cheese, the sweet, darkly-toasted bun, the juicier-than-average tomatoes, the crisp iceberg, the full, un-separated-into-rings slice of onion, and the all-important sweet, tangy, pickle-laden Spread. It's a bomb that's rigged to hit every pleasure center on my brain's taste analyzation terminal (by which I mean my tongue). Salty, sweet, savory, soft, crisp, and fresh. "Overrated", people say? I think not. Let me quote the much more eloquent Nick Solares in saying "In-N-Out at the very least represents the platonic ideal of what a fast food hamburger should be."

Order the burger "Animal Style" off of their not-so-secret menu, and you bring the party to a whole new level. The onion slice gets replaced with a dollop of a sweet, darkly caramelized chopped onions, an extra stack of pickle chips goes underneath the tomato, and the patties get fried with mustard directly on the griddle.

But here's the thing: I've had my share of regular In-N-Out burgers, but never an Animal Style. That's something that needed to change, and stat.

Of course, the biggest problem with In-N-Out is that due to their commitment to freshness, they have a policy of never opening up a location that's not within a day's drive of their meat processing plant in Baldwin Park, California. For us East Coasters, that leaves two options: We lobby to put money into revolutionizing our ground transportation system and wait, or we get off our a*ses and try and make the darn things ourselves.

Option 2 sounds much more fun to me.

Fresh Frozen

Before I could begin, I'd need to get a good model to work off of.

The Mission: Get a West-Coast-only In-N-Out Animal Style Double-Double to my New York front door with less than 24 hours notice. There was only one man up to this job: I put in a call to my former MIT colleague Marios Assiotis. There are certain things that slightly nerdy Cypriot expats living in San Francisco and working for Microsoft are particularly cut out for.
Needless to say, he jumped at the excuse to hit In-N-Out. $120 in overnight delivery fees later, the UPS man showed up at my door at 9:30 the next morning, golden package in hand.** Inside were two regular Double-Doubles, two Animal Style Double-Doubles, two plain cooked beef patties, two packets of Spread, and one large chunk of dry ice to freak out Dumpling with.

I knew that the flavor of a frozen-then-thawed burger could never compare to the freshness of the original, but nevertheless I felt compelled to resurrect them—not a minor feat in and of itself!

After a totally failed attempt at reheating one whole, I realized that the best way is to separate it into individual components, and reheat each individually, tossing the veg and replacing them with fresh ones. Within the hour, I had my lunch of Zombie In-N-Out burgers:


Why did you disturb my peaceful slumber? [Photograph: Kenji Alt]

Delicious? Certainly. As good as real? Absolutely not. But still, as a research tool to base the rest of my fresh sandwich construction on, it was invaluable.

Spread 'em

I never understood why In-N-Out refers to their sauce as "Spread". Maybe they're just a little too cool for school. In any case, all it is is a basic Thousand Island-style dressing: a mixture of ketchup, mayonnaise, and sweet pickle relish. But as anyone from the Thousand Islands will tell you, not all dressings are created equal. What's the exact ratio of ketchup to mayo? Are there other seasonings involved?

Now, gifted as I am with an extraordinarily delicate and precise palate, I could do this the artistic way, tasting the path to victory, adding a little of this and a bit of that until I'd achieved a good enough balance. But the inner nerd in me is always seeking ways to express itself, so I decided to take the mathematical approach.


According to the In-N-Out nutrition guideline, replacing the Spread with ketchup results in a decrease of 80 calories per sandwich. I know that ketchup has about 15 calories per tablespoon, so If we estimate that an average sandwich has about 2 tablespoons of sauce on it (that's the amount that's inside a single packet), then we can calculate that the Spread has got about 55 calories per tablespoon (110 calories in two tablespoons of Spread minus 30 calories in 2 tablespoons of ketchup = 80 calories difference in the sandwich). With me so far?

It just so happens that relish has about the same caloric density as ketchup (15 calories per tablespoon), and that mayonnaise has a caloric density of 80 calories per tablespoon. Using all of this information and a bit of 7th grade algebra, I was able to quickly*** calculate that the composition of the Spread is roughly 62 percent mayo, and 38 percent ketchup/relish blend:


To calculate the ratio of relish to ketchup, I washed two tablespoons of Spread through a fine mesh strainer, which got rid of the mayo and ketchup, but kept the pickle particles. Two tablespoons of rinsed Spread resulted in 1 teaspoon of strained pickle relish.

So the final Spread formula (rounded to the nearest convenient measure) was: 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons mayonnaise (62 percent), 1 tablespoon ketchup (23 percent), and 2 teaspoons pickle relish (15 percent). Damning the math, I also decided to add a tiny splash of vinegar and pinch of sugar to round out the flavors before moving on to the next phase of the operation.

Sweet Success


A regular Double-Double gets a full slice of onion in between the two patties. Upgrade to an Animal style, and those onions come intensely caramelized, their sweet complexity playing perfectly off the beefy patties. We're talking onions slow-cooked to oblivion, French-onion soup style. They're melted into a near fondue-like consistency.

I've had some experience cooking onions, but my first try at these, done by simply slow cooking a fine dice of onions in a little oil fell miserably short. They were brown alright, but they still had a distinct, crunchy, oniony texture. I was cooking them over the lowest heat possible, but they simply weren't melting—they were threatening to burn before they were sufficiently broken down.

if onion soup-like texture is what I'm after, why don't I use the onion soup method?

Then I thought—if onion soup-like texture is what I'm after, why don't I use the onion soup method? I slowly caramelized onions in a little oil, then deglazed the pan with a little water and repeated this process several times, allowing the liquid to evaporate and the onions to brown further with each iteration. By doing this, the onions cool as they cook, allowing for slower caramelization, as well as distributing the browned sugars more evenly throughout the mix, improving texture and flavor.


That's 6 whole onions there, cooked down to a single cup of meltingly sweet, spreadable jam.

The Smoking Bun

In-N-Out has their buns custom made for the restaurant, and I briefly considered baking my own buns for this process, but decided against it. I can bake a good loaf of bread, but I've never come across a recipe for a soft, squishy burger bun that's an improvement on the supermarket offerings. To my mind, a Martin's potato roll or an Arnold burger bun is the apex of its form. Just like toilets or my mom's dumplings, the best you can hope for by making them yourself is an interesting variation, not an improvement.


I scanned the supermarket shelves with my frozen Double-Double in hand until I found a bun that matched it perfectly in size: Arnold it is.

The only issue is that the In-N-Out buns are a little darker. A two-minute stay in a 400 degree oven (I used my toaster oven) solved that dilemma handily. And like all good buns, these ones get toasted—nearly burnt in fact. It adds a key component to the flavor, and helps solidify its structure, crucial to keeping the torrent of gooey juices at bay.

How Fatty's the Patty?

Next up: the beef. This was going to be a little bit tougher. All I knew so far from the In-N-Out Food Quality page was that the beef is 100 percent ground chuck and that it's never frozen. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation. How big are the patties? What's the fat ratio?


Well, sizing the suckers was no problem. I simply had my good man Marios ship a couple of cooked plain patties. They both weighed in at precisely 37 grams (1.3 ounces). Accounting for the standard 35 percent loss**** in weight for a well done thin patty, that kicks us up to 57 grams or exactly 2 ounces pre-cooking—that's 1/4 pound for a Double-Double.***** A nice, round number.

As for fat content, it was time to break out the math guns again. My goal was to figure out the amount of fat vs. protein in a single In-N-Out patty. The information I have from their Nutrition Guide:

  • A single burger: 16 grams of protein and 19 grams of fat
  • A single cheeseburger: 22 grams of protein and 27 grams of fat
  • A Double-Double: 37 grams of protein and 41 grams of fat

By subtracting the value of a hamburger from that of a cheeseburger, we can calculate that a single slice of cheese contains 6 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat. Then, subtract the value of a cheeseburger plus the value of a slice of cheese from the value of a Double-Double, and you've got the fat and protein makeup of a single burger patty. It breaks down to 9 grams of protein and 6 grams of fat. Not accounting for both moisture loss and fat rendering during cooking (which in my experience is about equal), that leaves you with a 60 percent lean, 40 percent fat beef blend—a far higher fat percentage than any store-bought ground chuck. No wonder the things are so-darned delicious!

This could mean only one thing: I'd have to grind the beef myself.


I went to the butcher and got the fattiest chuck steaks I could find and ground them without trimming away any of the excess fat.

And by the way, if any of you are still buying pre-ground beef, you should stop this instant! Grinding your own meat is super easy, and is the single best way to give any burger an instant and gigantic upgrade in quality. Do it.

The Full Cast


  1. The patties: 2 ounces each, pressed flat to 4-inches in diameter
  2. The bun: Arnold, toasted whole in a 400 degree oven for 2 minutes, cut sides toasted on a lightly greased hot skillet until dark brown
  3. Pickles: Standard on the Animal-style burger. Four dill chips
  4. Real American cheese: Thick-sliced, from the deli
  5. Black pepper: Fresh ground
  6. Kosher salt: Lots.
  7. Iceberg lettuce: Fresh, leaves picked, core removed, torn to bun-size
  8. Tomato: The best hothouse tomatoes I could find, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  9. Spread: Tangy, sweet, creamy, delicious
  10. Caramelized onions: The stuff dreams are made of
  11. Yellow mustard: Signature Animal-Style trick (more on this later)


After carefully studying photographs and performing several meticulous autopsies on my frozen burger cadavers, I derived that the sandwich is built by first laying a mortar foundation of 2 tablespoons sauce on the toasted bottom bun, along with a layer of pickles slices for the Animal Style version. Next comes the tomato, followed by the lettuce.

As for the patties, Animal Style is described only as "mustard grilled," which in my book, is not all that well defined. For the complete rundown, I turned again to my spy network (a.k.a. my Facebook fan base) for support. I was almost immediately aided with photos (thanks Joe Sparks!) and detailed descriptions from past (thanks Dave Tytell!) and current employees.


The process is simple: Sear the patty on one side, and squirt some mustard on it as it sizzles. Flip the patty over so that the mustard cooks into the second side.

The patties are covered with the cheese, then the caramelized onions are applied liberally to a single patty before topping it with the second, fusing all the elements together into a single cheesy, beefy, sweet, oniony, gooey, salty, oozy, crispy, meaty, savory, melty, delicious mess. American food don't get much better than this!


So there I had it: my first taste of an honest-to-goodness, scientifically re-constructed Animal Style Double-Double clone. Would it compare with the real thing? Honestly, I didn't care—it was that good******.

Indeed, the only thing I can think of that would improve this burger is if it were available across the entire nation or—dare I say it?—the world. Don't you just love the internet?

Now about those Animal Style fries...

* Reason #1 is the burger at Pie 'n Burger in Pasadena

** If anyone has ever wondered what's in the Pulp Fiction Briecase, it's frozen In-N-Outs.

*** Full Disclosure: I completely forgot 7th grade algebra, spent 30 minutes trying to figure this out, then gave up and emailed my really smart wife.

**** Which I've calculated through ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the burger

***** The same size as a Shack Burger, by the way. And a Quarter Pounder, for that matter.
****** Still, if anyone in CA feels like going on joining me for an In-N-Out run to do an actual side-by-side tasting next time I'm there, I'm game!

Continue here for a Homemade In-n-Out Animal Style Double-Double »

Follow Kenji on Facebook or Twitter. About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and runs the collaborative blog about sustainable food enjoyment.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Top Ten Tips for Making a Better Burger

Great burger making primer from the Serious Eats ancillary website: A Hamburger Today (AHT). A good thing to review if you want to improve the quality of your made-at-home burgers.


The Burger Lab's Top Ten Tips for Making Better Burgers

From A Hamburger Today

It's time for another round of The Burger Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.


We're taking a break from hardcore testing at the Burger Lab and Food Lab for the next two weeks* but I thought I'd use the time to write something that a lot of folks have been asking me about: a basic handbook for taking your burgers to the next level.

*Full disclosure: my wife and I are in Spain backpacking, eating, drinking, and generally having a much better time than you are as you read this. Sorry.

The tips I'm setting out here are ones that, with very few exceptions, apply universally to all hamburgers, regardless of style. Thus, one thing you will not find in this list is specific cooking instructions in terms of heat source, strength, and timing. As far as taking a formed patty from raw to cooked, there are no hard and fast rules that apply in every situation.

And without further ado, here are The Burger Lab's Top Ten Burger-Making Tips:

1. Grind Your Own Beef


My nightly bit of action.

Buying store-bought ground beef is a crap shoot. You're never quite sure when it was ground, what part of the cow it came from, or even how many different cows are in the package. Not to mention baddies like e.coli, freshness issues, rough handling, and tight shrink-wrap packaging that can lead to leaden patties.

If you've never ground beef yourself, the task may seem daunting at first, but take it from me: once you grind, you never rewind.

A heavy-duty dedicated electric meat grinder is fantastic, but impractical unless you own a restaurant or hunt. I use the KitchenAid attachment—with good results—although even a decent hand-cranked model will deliver beef worlds better than store-bought.

Don't have either? You can use food processor. Just dice your meat into 1-inch chunks, spread them on a rimmed baking sheet, put them in the freezer for about 15 minutes until they're firm but not frozen, then working in 1/2-pound batches, pulse the meat to the desired grind size (about 10 to 12 one-second pulses).

Grind your own beef, and not only do you control everything from the meat blend, to the grind size, to the fat content, but even better, you get to tell people that you grind your own beef.

Instant street cred.

2. Keep Everything Really Cold

Until your burgers are fully formed, heat is their mortal enemy. Warm fat is soft and pliable, and tends to stick to your hands and work surfaces. And if that fat's on your hands, then it ain't in the burger.

When grinding your own meat (and I certainly hope you are), make sure that everything—the feed shaft, the grinding blades, the plate, and the meat—is well chilled to avoid fat smearage. I keep my meat grinder stored in the freezer so I'm ready to grind at moment's notice. Pat La Frieda has yet to make an accidental delivery to my door, but when he does, I'll be ready for him.

3. Weigh and Size Your Patties

20100312-weigh.jpgWeighing your meat as you divide it and measuring your patties as you form them will ensure that all your burgers will be uniform in shape and size, which in turn will guarantee that they all cook at the same rate. A scale and a good eye are all you need (though the truly OCD like myself will want a ruler as well).

Bonus tip: if you're into big, fat patties (we're talking 6 ounces or more), you must have experienced the dreaded "meatball syndrome" at some point. You know—when your patty bulges as it cooks, turning it into an impossible to eat football-shaped blob? Form your patties with a slight dimple in the center, and they'll maintain their shapely disk-form as they cook.

4. Use a Thermometer


A burger starting to edge up on medium-rare.

Sure, you can be all macho and try and gauge a burger's doneness by poking at it with your finger (if you can do that with 100% accuracy, you are a far better cook than I), or you can suck it up and buy yourself a good instant read thermometer.

The Splash-Proof Super-Fast Thermapen by Thermoworks ($96) is the cadillac of thermometers and will tell you in three seconds or less whether your créme Anglaise is going to thicken or if your oil is hot enough for your fries. But even an inexpensive one ($16.95) will do the job in a pinch, albeit slightly slower.

With really large burgers (8 ounces or more), some carryover cooking may occur, so pull them off a few degrees before optimum, and give them some time to rest. I aim for a medium-rare 130°F, but I understand that inexplicably, not everybody prefers optimizing juiciness and beefiness in their burgers.

Here's a rough temperature guide:

  • 120°F and below for rare (red/raw in the center)
  • 130°F for medium-rare (pink and warm)
  • 140°F for medium (totally pink, starting to dry out)
  • 150°F for medium-well (grayish pink, significantly drier)
  • 160°F and above for well done (completely gray, very little moisture)

5. Season Liberally


This is what a well-seasoned patty looks like.

No matter how carefully you select your meat blend, without salt and pepper, you're better off dining with the King or the Clown, who, despite their significant shortcomings, at least understand the benefit of a little sodium chloride.Freshly ground black pepper from whole peppercorns is a must—it's far more flavorful than the insipid pre-ground powder.

Whatever people say, kosher salt is not more or less salty by volume than table salt. I like to use it because its large crystals are easy to pick up with your fingers. Take a large pinch of kosher salt and hold it at least eight inches above the patties as you sprinkle to ensure even coverage.

And to all you New Yorkers: don't let the damn city tell you how your food should taste. Season your burgers as liberally as you'd like. You can eat a salad tomorrow.

6. Do Not Salt Beef Until Patties Are Formed

20100312-salting beef.jpg

A salted vs. unsalted patty.

I repeat: do not salt your beef until the patties are formed. Salt will dissolve muscle proteins, which subsequently cross-link, turning your burgers from moist and tender to sausage-like and springy. The effect is dramatic. Need proof? See it here.

The best time to season your burgers is within minutes of the time their gonna hit the grill or griddle. Salt starts affecting meat—dissolving proteins, drawing out moisture—the moment it comes in contact with it, adversely affecting the exterior texture of your patties. And that's not a good thing.

7. Flip Your Burger as Often as You'd Like


An oft-flipped burger cooks more evenly.

How many times have you read that you should only flip your burgers once while they are cooking? Well forget about it! We recently proved that the nervous flippers are actually right. Flipping your burger repeatedly (as often as once every 15 seconds) encourages faster, more even internal cooking, shaving off as much as 1/3 of your grill time.

In the end, the difference is not particularly great, so there's no need to go crazy. Who wants to—or can—flip a grillful of burgers constantly? But next time you come across one of those backyard grill-nazis (you know the type) who absolutely insists that one flip is the way to go, just smile, nod, and let him cook the way he wants to.Rule one of grilling is never question the guy with the spatula.

But do make sure to quietly revel in your superior knowledge and maybe make fun of him behind his back.

8. Don't Futz With Your Meat

Despite outward appearances, ground meat is not dead. From the moment you lay your hands on it, it is changing dynamically, reacting to every knead, every sprinkle of salt, and every change in temperature. Working the meat unduly will cause proteins to cross-link with each other like tiny strips of velcro, making your finished burgers denser and tighter with every manhandling of the grind.

For the most tender burgers, grind your meat fresh, and form your patties as tenderly as possible. For griddled patties with superior nooks and crannies for cheese-catching, I sometimes like to grind my meat directly onto a sheet tray and gently coax it into patties without ever picking it up until just before I cook it. Superb.

There's a corollary point here: adding junk like onions, herbs, eggs, breadcrumbs, anything to your ground meat not only forces your to over-handle the mix, but it instantly relegates your burgers into the "meatloaf sandwich" category. If you absolutely must add junk to your burgers—and with a good, well-selected meat blend, there's really no need to—mix it with the cubes of beef prior to grinding (but don't add the salt yet!), so that it can be evenly distributed without the need to overwork the beef afterward.

9. Choose Your Bun Wisely


A grilled Martin's Potato Roll.

Buns come in all shapes, sizes, densities, and flavors. Make sure you've got the right one for the job at hand.

For smaller, thinner patties, like a good Shake Shack-style griddled burger or small Northern Jersey-style sliders, soft, sturdy, and slightly sweet Martin's Potato Rolls set the benchmark, although any soft, squishy, standard-issue supermarket bun will do.

A bigger, pub-style burger can overwhelm a soft bun with juices, soaking through and dissolving the base before the burger even hits your table. Toasting the bun can mitigate some of these effects, but for the most part, you're better off selecting a sturdier roll, or if you've got one nearby, a custom burger bun from an artisan bakery. Brioche has its adherents, but I prefer my buns to be a little more bland, so as not to compete with the flavor of the beef.

Do avoid anything with an overly chewy crumb or a tough crust, unless you want your burger to suffer from the dreaded backslide.

10. Don't Let Anyone Tell You What to Put on It


A standard selection of Fake Shack ingredients.

I like American cheese, raw yellow onions, pickles, special sauce when applicable (mayo when not), and tomatoes, but only when they are very very good. My wife likes American cheese, grilled onions, and a ketchup/mayo blend.

Am I right? Of course I am.

Is she right? Well, of course she is.**

**At least this time.

The point is, don't let anyone tell you what should and shouldn't go on your burger. If you want to go commando, do it with gusto. Do you like pecorino, pimentos, and peanut butter on your patties? Yes? Well, pile it on.

Then get your head checked. Really.


The 2009 Burger of The Year.

Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Burgers are an endlessly fascinating subject, and there's always more to learn. At least I hope so, if only for my column's sake.

About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog about sustainable food enjoyment.