By Chef Hinnerk von Bargen

The burger is a culinary phenomenon. Ubiquitous in the American lifestyle, it has also been introduced to almost every society and culture in the world. Just about everyone who has had a good burger is certain to ask for another one eventually. Its worldwide popularity is not surprising, and many cuisines have comparable dishes like steamed buns with a meat filling in China, kibbeh in Lebanon, or gyros in Greece. In recent years, burgers have even made their way into fine dining restaurants where skilled chefs profile themselves with their signature burger.

Where it all started
Many different beliefs and opinions surround the history of a burger. The name suggests that it originated in Hamburg, Germany. This may have some truth to it. A very popular dish in Hamburg is the “Rundstück warm” (literally translated warm round piece), a patty made of meat scraps served in a Brötchen, a small bun. Another popular dish in Hamburg is the “Hamburger Börsensteak.” It’s very similar to the Salisbury steak, made exclusively from ground beef, served with a fried egg, sautéed onions and gravy. It is believed that these dishes came to the United States with German immigrants during the 19th century. In 1916, Walter Anderson, who co-founded the “White Castle” fast food chain in 1921, created a soft roll on which he served the hamburger steak fast-food style; spawning a series of imitators whose establishments are visible in every town and city of the U.S. and foreign countries.

Technically a sandwich, a hamburger is made up of four main components: the bread, the spread, the main item and an optional topping. Complementary components of a well-designed hamburger have a synergistic effect on each other; the result is greater than the sum of all parts. Taking a closer look at each part will help .

Buns are key
A tasty bun is of paramount importance to a satisfying hamburger. Soft buns are best for texture and mouth-feel. A hard roll can cause the relatively soft interior to be squeezed out with each bite. Commonly, a classic soft roll or a Kaiser roll is used. There are more options, however. A soft focaccia-style roll will give the burger an Italian appeal. For a Mediterranean style burger, try pita bread; its pocket is an ideal enclosure. Whether you choose buns, rolls, or flatbread, freshness is imperative. Avoid commercial burger buns designed for a prolonged shelf life as they commonly have dough conditioners and other questionable ingredients added.

Create unique spreads
A spread, such as mayonnaise, is another very important component. It contributes flavor and prevents the bun from becoming soggy. Spreads can be enhanced with a multitude of condiments like garlic, herbs, basil, minced sun-dried tomatoes, olive tapenade, or harissa. When it comes to spreads, the sky is the limit, providing it complements the other ingredients. (Check out the chart at the end of the article for great ideas.)

It’s all about the meat…or fish…or mushrooms!
The most important ingredient of a burger, however, is the meat, which should be fresh and of highest quality. Avoid frozen burger patties; the low price of industrial burgers suggests low quality meat. Purchase the meat at a reputable butcher and, if possible, grind it yourself through a medium disk. Ground too finely, and the burger can become chewy. Coarsely ground meat will result in a crumbly burger.

Beef shoulder or short ribs, containing 20 to 25% fat, is a good choice. For a leaner version, use round or sirloin. An average of four to five ounces of ground meat is an appropriate amount per burger. Chefs at the CIA agree that it is important not to over-mix the ground meat or it will become sticky and more closely resemble sausage rather than a burger. Some chefs resist the temptation to alter the meat by mixing in large amounts of spices or herbs; they simply season it with salt and fresh ground black pepper so as not to distract from its flavor. Others feel that the addition of crispy bacon bits and grated cheese, carefully mixed into the ground meat, provides a pleasant texture contrast and flavor to the burger. In this case, it is important to cook the burger as soon as it is mixed, in order to retain the crispiness of the bacon bits.

Some chefs prefer to use a mold to shape the burger, resulting in a refined appearance. Others favor pressing a ball of ground meat into an irregular patty. The resulting shape suggests a homemade burger, and the jagged edges contribute positively to the mouth-feel. To accommodate shrinkage as it cooks, the raw patty should be a bit wider than the bun. A thickness of ¼ to ½ inch is sufficient since the burger rises slightly as it cooks.
It does not have to always be beef, however. There are plenty of options for adventurous diners. Salmon or shrimp, with their distinct flavors, can be ground and shaped into perfect patties. Poultry, pork, or veal are not uncommon. For a vegetarian burger, a grilled portabella mushroom with its meat-like texture is a welcome alternative to beef. Combined with the right condiments, all these items make for a wonderful unconventional burger.

Turning up the heat
A hot grill, gas, or charcoal is best to cook a burger. The intense heat, causing a slightly charred surface, contributes to a great flavor. If a grill is not available, a very hot cast iron skillet can achieve comparable results. The degree of doneness is a matter of personal preference. However, for commercial enterprises, the Food and Drug Administration mandates ground beef to be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 155°F; hence, it is difficult to find a rare burger in a restaurant. If you are using ground poultry, make sure to cook it at least to an internal temperature of 165°F to eliminate the risk of salmonella.

Before grilling, have all other ingredients ready, allowing you to enjoy the burger right off the grill. For a pleasing aroma, grill the buns cut side down alongside the patties and then apply your spread. A burger can be topped with a wide range of items. Bacon, cheese, onions, or mushrooms are common, as well as lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes. For a memorable burger, you can of course be creative. Try paper-thin slices of Prosciutto, grilled red peppers, or crumbled Feta cheese for a Greek-style burger. Please note that garnishes should have a purpose besides enhancing eye-appeal; their role is to add a complementary flavor and/or texture. Try some crispy fried capers for a Mediterranean burger or substitute the iceberg lettuce with some arugula, supplying a pleasant crunch and a distinct flavor.

A well-prepared burger is not only delicious; it defies the sometimes poor reputation it has among the nutritionally conscious. A fast-food environment does not do justice to a burger. Prepared at home, it is a healthy meal, deserving of the place it has earned as a favorite food—especially on game day!

Possible spreads Possible Garnishes
Aioli Crumbled Feta Cheese
Herbed cream cheese Smoked salmon
Tapenade mixed with mayo or sour cream Sun-dried tomatoes
Puréed dried figs compound butter Roquefort cheese and toasted walnuts
Chipotle sour cream Avocado and chorizo
Savory peanut spread Crispy fried thin slices of Chinese sausage
Quince purée mixed with yogurt Crispy Serrano ham
Sweet onion marmalade Smoked sturgeon
Smoked tomato and basil spread Freshly made mozzarella

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