On Friday, April 1, food writer Josh Ozersky (he composes the Taste of America column for Time magazine and was formerly the editor of New York magazine’s don’t-miss food blog, Grub Street) spoke on the ideal hamburger, the burger of his dreams. He’s entitled. The man wrote the book The Hamburger (2008), which is a great read on hamburger history and is now out in paperback. And he has done more thinking than most of us about the subject. That, however, doesn’t mean he knows what the heck he’s talking about. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Ozersky was speaking—and cooking—at a session of the Hill Country Wine and Food Festival at Whole Foods Market, and about a couple dozen participants gathered to see what the great burger maven had to say. He began by booking up a bunch of meatballs for a taste test. The first was pure brisket. The second pure short-rib. The third pure chuck. The fourth a blend of the first three. Fascinating. Now THIS was terrific information. They were all damn good, but the brisket was definitely my favorite and the “sweetest” (for want of a better word), the short-rib the beefiest, the chuck between the two. His choice: short ribs. His ideal ratio is 30 percent fat to 70 percent lean—buy your preferred cut and have the butcher grind it.
On to patty fabrication. Ozersky’s perfect patty is minuscule. I mean, seriously tiny, not much bigger than a White Castle burger. It starts with a ping-pong-ball-size piece of meat, pressed thin. As he said, he doesn’t want “a big, giant, grotesque beef bomb.” If you MUST have a bigger burger, make it larger in diameter, not thicker. Or use two patties.
Once the meat is pressed into a small, thin patty (which should be exactly the size of the bun, not hanging around the edge like an untucked shirt), it should be salted with coarse kosher salt on both sides. Says Ozersky: “Salt is the secret soul of a hamburger—salt is ‘cocaine for your mouth’.” It should, he says, form a delicious crust on the outside of the meat. Note: Salt before cooking, not after.
Once you get the teeny-weeny patty on the griddle or pan (oh, the ideal cooking grease is beef tallow), let it get a nice sear on the first side and then flip it almost immediately. You want to cook it 20 percent on one side and 80 percent on the other. He never explained the rationale behind this, so you’ll have to take it on faith. But be careful not to overcook it. He says, “The center should remain pink, buttressed by a delectable crusty brown surface.” (Great point, but good luck making it happen—I don’t see how you can have such a thin patty and expect the interior to be pink, but I digress.)
Now he comes to a really interesting secret tip: onion water. You chop up onions beforehand, throw them in salt water (he didn’t say how much), and let them sit for around 40 minutes. While you’re cooking, spoon onions and water on top of the patty. “It suffuses the meat, steaming and braising it at the same time,” he declares. (Sounds interesting, except that I think it would make the hard-won crusty surface soggy.)
While the thing is cooking, get out the bun, which he insists should be the all-American white, squishy, mass-produced type. No sesame seeds, no onions, no jalapeno-cheese. Nada. Just plain white bread. And not buttered and toasted either. He doesn’t care. (Insert sound of me banging my head against the table here.)
All right, we’re in the home stretch. You’ve got your thin meat patty, crusty without, pink within, salty through and through. If you’re in the mood for a cheeseburger, top the meat with a Kraft Single (the man said a Kraft Single), put the top bun on top of that, remove it from the pan, and immediately plop the meat-cheese-bun assemblage on the bottom bun. “And there you have a cheeseburger,” he proclaims proudly.
And I guess you do. Sort of. But it’s a cheeseburger without mayo, mustard, ketchup, onion, lettuce, tomato, pickles, or any of the things that most Texans, indeed most Americans, have come to identify with the concept “hamburger.” We may fight like cats and dogs over what we slather on, but we all agree something is necessary. No way, says Ozersky, “His parting shot: “It is a total act of bad faith if you’re talking about all the toppings. A hamburger is about the meat.”
And with that, the session was over. In a minute, burgers made to Ozersky’s specifications were passed around for all the attendees to sample. The man sitting next to me loved his. It was gone in three seconds. So some people like it. I’m happy for them. But I looked over at his wife and her friend and our eyes met in silent agreement. No toasty bun, no condiments, no character. This wasn’t a burger by any definition we knew.
Josh Ozersky may be a very smart guy, and a highly entertaining one, but he’s not making a hamburger. He’s making ground meat on a bun. Big difference, friends. BIG.