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The Hamburger

Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

The hamburger's origin, like the Martini's, is indeterminate, but theories abound: it was a flattened meatball served on bread at a Wisconsin county fair or it was first offered at a fair in Hamburg, New York, circa 1885, etc. Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut, claims that in 1900 a customer in a hurry carried off a broiled patty between slices of toast. Louis', still in business, hedges its claim as "lore."

Fast-food chains hijacked the burger, but perhaps it's time to steer clear of the drive-through window and bring connoisseurship to bear. Master butcher Evan Lobel voices the great hamburger challenge: "Everybody wants a juicy and lean burger." But he warns, "You can't put juicy and lean in the same sentence. You need fat for juiciness." His solution: grind a mix of center cut chuck and lightly trimmed hanger steak. Without fat, burgers will dry and crumble. Burgers are not health food.Lobel offers more advice: "Don't compress the beef too tightly."

Chefs counsel aspiring burger meisters to invest in a meat grinder. Chef Craig Koketsu of Manhattan's Quality Meats suggests, "Grind the meat yourself to better control the texture of the beef. Store-bought ground beef can be too fine to achieve great texture." Koketsu mixes chuck and filet. He is also stern: No overpacking. And he keeps the seasonings simple: kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Victor Chavez of Wollensky's Grill combines filet mignon trimmings and short loin for the restaurant's in-house grind. He urges serious cooks to learn about different types of beef cuts, but cautions that the percentage of lean to fat in a burger must always remain about 80/20. Chavez's preferred cooking method: sear the patty in a cast-iron pan over high heat.

New York wholesaler Pat La Frieda has sold ground beef from "chucks, clods, and brisket" for 90 years. It claims small-batch production from a "low-pressure" chopping machine prevents overworking and crushing. In the hands of a conscientious burger chef, La Frieda's coarse grind is distinctive. Sample it at HB Burger near Times Square.

If you want to really take burger to the limit (and really don't care what your accountant or your cardiologist thinks), do what Chef Daniel Boulud has done at his DB Bistro Moderne and stuff it with truffles and fois gras. Hold the ketchup? Louis' Lunch proclaims that "no true connoisseur" would consider "corrupting the classic taste" with the tomato condiment. The zero-tolerance policy may be too strict, but do at least taste that high-quality beef before upending the bottle.

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