Photo: Lodigs, Flickr
"The hamburger isn't just a sandwich; it is a social nexus," proclaims burger expert Josh Ozersky, casually armed with a shot of whiskey during his burger seminar conducted at New York City's RUB BBQ on Tuesday.
Heralded by the American public and arguably the most quintessentially American of dishes, the hamburger tends to be quite a polarizing issue. Ozersky, passionate eater and author of The Hamburger, provided his insight on what makes a good burger, throwing in pertinent background info on the topic.
Backed by a BA in literature and a PhD in American history, it is perhaps Ozersky's appetite and analytical spirit that spurred his interest in the burger's role in the history and culture of the good old U.S.A. Having trekked across the country devouring the carnal bite -- even overcoming a case of gout -- there's one mandate he insists upon: No matter what the fixings, the burger should support a "visceral delight."
More on the secrets to a perfect burger, after the jump.
Despite the twists and turns of regional varieties (we sampled the Wisconsin butter burger, which consists merely of a burger, bun and big pat of salted butter, and the Mississippi Slug Burger, traditionally extended with meal), one thing holds true: Fat is flavor. Seasonings are important, but the patty is only as good as the sum of its parts, or blend of its meat -- which should include brisket for smoothness, short rib for richness and sirloin to fill out the burger. (Though if you're taking the easy route with just one blend, Ozersky admits that chuck is the best).
Rather than allowing fancy buns to overshadow their contents, Ozersky insists that the bun needs structure but softness, favoring a mild Pepperidge Farm bun over a fresh-cooked brioche pastry.
Though he claims the burger, "like America, is infinitely adaptable and flexible," he puts his foot down on getting too creative with the contents of its patty. Nick Solares of A Hamburger Today chimed in, in agreement -- the two aficionados agree that you don't mess with the meat: It's gotta be steer -- no salmon, no veggie burger, no bison burger -- to qualify as a hamburger. In their purist minds, as Ozersky put it, "Only one thing is a hamburger: Ground beef in a white bun. Disk-like shape." (Which is also why he claims White Castle can take credit for inventing the burger in 1916, the first recorded time a bun was made to fit the burger.)
In terms of the actual grilling, he favors the smashing method, in which the meat is smashed on the grill, sealing and preserving its beefy taste. Though common perception correctly tells you that pressing the meat while cooking is intrinsically wrong, if done before the meat is cooked, it in fact seals in the flavor, allowing the burger to "confit in its own juices." In keeping with this logic, Ozersky encourages cooks to flip only once to preserve precious flavor.
Patty size is less relevant -- though he thinks it never need be bigger than 8 oz, and he errs on the "less is more" ethos with the last sample provided, his personal concoction, a "tribute to time machine burgers." At 2 ounces, they're easily devoured sliders, with a nod back to pre-Big Mac days, when, if you wanted more, you simply ate another burger. Seeking to achieve the "purest form," Ozersky's ideal burger piles a smashed patty high with chopped onions, a slice of American cheese (served below the burger, for more intense contact with the tastebuds, rather than the roof of the mouth), on a pillowy steamed bun. No earth-shattering flavors introduced to the palate, but the burger is a soft, somewhat indiscernible mass that melds together like butter in unified, beefy perfection.
In terms of toppings, though Ozersky acknowledges a world of possibilities, he snubs the usual cheese, tomato and lettuce for a pure burger, occasionally indulging in pickle slices, mustard or ketchup. After all, "If a hamburger can't be done with just a little salt and a bun, then [its cook should] get out of the business."
For more meaty musings and history on the ultimate ground round, check out Ozersky's paean, The Hamburger; his weekly blog for Time magazine, "Taste of America," or his oratory reveries as Mr. Cutlet for Heritage Radio. He is currently penning a book on the life of KFC's Colonel Sanders and, having passed on the idea of launching a line of "Greaseland" eateries, fantasizes about opening his own burger joint once he retires. We'll be loyal customers.