Hamburgers are delicious. That said, so many people around the world enjoy these without any real understanding of how to actually construct one properly. Well, let’s dive into what a hamburger is. A hamburger is first defined by the beef present, as this is the most critical ingredient. Technically speaking a hamburger is actually a menu item when no bun or other ingredients are present, but the lack of bread (or as you will learn another appropriate exterior shell material!) means we will classify that as a “hamburger steak” instead of a “hamburger”. There are hundreds of different ways to prepare beef to place in hamburgers, but the very popular ones right now include Kobe (Wagyu), Grass-Fed, Hormone Free, and Corn Fed. It is a popular opinion that Kobe is the highest quality beef, and that the rest of them are simply attributes that are simply do not contribute to a different taste. The next most important factor in beef is the weight. A hamburger patty generally weighs between ¼ lb and 2/3 lb when weighed before cooking. There are of course exceptions to this rule, notably the slider, a form of micro-burger.
The next important defining ingredient in a hamburger is what I call the “flair”. Flair is a non-standard ingredient that has a strong, prominent flavor that competes with the meat for dominance. Some examples of flair are bacon, blue cheese, garlic, pork belly, teriyaki, pineapple, blueberries, avocado, and BBQ sauce. If any of these ingredients are added to a burger, they become a part of the name of that burger. That said, these are completely unnecessary for crafting a delicious burger, and while they are delicious, they do distract from the other ingredients and are too often used as a crutch for shoddy work. Sauces and spreads are an extremely misunderstood aspect of hamburger structure. The best example of this is the approach many people take with mayonnaise. So many people wonder, why is mayo such a normal ingredient in hamburgers, when almost no one enjoys the taste? The answer is that the physical properties of mayo make it an essential part of any delicious burger. Hamburgers prepared medium-rare (the only way a burger ought to be cooked) are often quite juicy, and have the unfortunate habit of soaking the lower bun into a droopy mess.
Mayo is an oil based spread, and a liberal layer spread on the lower bun helps avert the juice and maintain bun integrity. So often do I see people place mayo on the top of a bun, where its properties are rendered useless, and I hope one day they will see the error of their ways. The two other “standard sauces” that tend to find their way into burgers are ketchup and mustard. I may be a bit of an anomaly, since I’ve never had ketchup, but I’m very familiar with its taste breakdown. The slightly sweet, slightly sour flavor adds another element of background flavor to a burger, and if there is one thing that is important for a good burger, its layers of flavor. Mustard on the other hand has a sharp, pungent bite to it that cuts through and sits on top of every morsel. Other sauces that really contribute to a hamburger include aioli, a similar creation to mayonnaise, but made with garlic and olive oil, BBQ sauce, a classic favorite sauce that varies in flavor as often as the wind changes.
I mentioned blue cheese earlier, so we ought to dive right into cheese to avoid any confusion. When a hamburger has a slice of cheese on it, it stops being a hamburger and becomes a cheeseburger. That said, cheese is so standard of an ingredient by now, that most people simply expect its presence. Cheese is a fatty, oil based layer, and in practice it provides a creamy layer that lends its flavors well to the hamburger as a whole. Blue cheese is a very sharp, strong flavor of cheese, and often overcomes the flavor of the beef, so it is an extreme example. It should be noted that in the absence of mayonnaise, a slice of American cheese placed under a patty can achieve the same oil layer that mitigates bun saturation.
The vegetables are next, and they are quite an interesting mix. The standard hamburger vegetable list consists of lettuce, onion, tomatoes and pickles. Each vegetable contributes in a different way, and affects the burger’s overall identity. Lettuce forms a cooling layer, and often sits above the burger to prevent it from being compressed and heated too much by the energy emanating from the beef patty. Lettuce also serves as a plate to place the other vegetables on for quick hamburger assembly. It is also very intriguing to note the existence of the lettuce wrapped hamburger. The constant health movements in America have created a popular resistance against carbohydrates, and many people seek to avoid bread products whenever they can. Restaurant have begun offering buns constructed from iceberg lettuce as an alternative, and it has quite the set of consequences for the sandwich community. Is a lettuce wrapped burger still a sandwich if it doesn’t have bread? I believe this is an edge case where the answer is indeed yes. The requirement of an exterior shell and an interior core is satisfied, and the meal item is designed to be held by hand, which fulfills the primary requirements. The next vegetable is the onion, an extremely versatile vegetable. Onions have varying degrees of sharp bite when raw, depending on whether one is using green onions, shallots, yellow onions, or red onions. In addition, it is a very common practice to deep fry an onion and form an onion ring, which is a welcomed addition to a hamburger. In general, many people add onions to hamburgers for the purposes of texture and to add an acidic afterbite to sit underneath the other flavors. The pickle is an interesting character in the hamburger, since there essentially are two types of pickles that are used, Bread and Butter, and All Other Pickles. Pickles generally are sour, and sit on the top of a burger and are the most memorable of the vegetable flavors. Bread and Butter pickles are sweet and delicious and crisp, and ought to be put on more things. If you have been avoiding pickles your entire life, you really ought to try Bread and Butter Pickles a few times in your sandwiches, just so you know what you are missing. The tomato is a bit of an odd vegetable. This is mostly because it is in fact a fruit, but also because it is very forgettable in a hamburger. I personally never eat tomatoes, but I am very aware of their contribution to sandwiches. Tomatoes are a juicy, crunchy and lightly sweet and acidic ingredient, and are very valuable for their texture. In addition, they have an interesting habit of complimenting savory flavors well, and change taste when mashed up into a sauce.
Putting the whole thing together is also a bit of an art. As is the case with everything, when you are making one hamburger, you have a different process than when you are making many. For example, hamburgers do tend to taste the most delicious when cooked on a grill, and in the eyes of most people, it is hardly worth firing up the grill to make a single hamburger. You might think that this is largely inconsequential, since it simply is a different method of heating the meat, but you would most certainly be wrong. Using a grill as the heat source provides the option of lightly charring the hamburger buns, cooking the onions alongside the hamburgers, and also presents the additional step of timing when to place cheese on a cooking patty. In general, the hamburger patties must begin cooking first, by about 10 to 15 minutes and then the onions can be sliced and placed directly on the grill for 2-3 minutes. In the final 1 -2 minutes of preparation, the cheese and the buns can be placed on heat. Knowing this schedule beforehand allows you to assemble the hamburger immediately after they are finished cooking, which is obviously the optimal time to consume a burger.