An urgent missive to pub landlords and restauranteurs around the UK on the humble burger

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Dear publican, restaurant owner / manager / chef,

You’ve doubtless noticed that London, and increasingly the UK in general, has undergone something of a renaissance when it comes to burger fayre. No longer are we satisfied with an overcooked hockey puck of beef, wedged into a floury bap and presented with a bottle of squeezy ketchup by way of condiments. That doesn’t mean we’re all pretentious gits who should order something else (well, maybe it does, but nonetheless); please consider the following attributes of a good burger, easily managed in virtually any kitchen, which will turn your ‘burger’ option from a tedious, seldom-ordered staple to a featured attraction.

After eating burgers at well-thought of pubs and hotels in the area out of curiosity (given I write this blog), I’ve been nothing but disappointed, so felt the need to offer some genuinely well-intentioned advice for chefs to consider. One of these disappointing venues, incidentally, is a five star luxury country hotel and the other is a local pub that boasts a chef who worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant in its kitchen, so these aren’t amateurs. Which makes their burger offers all the more mystifying in their mediocrity.

See what you make of the following:

  • If you freeze your burgers, freeze them well. Wrap them individually, seal them (zip lock if possible, cling film is porous apparently) limit moisture lose through sublimation when they’re awaiting cooking. Otherwise the juiciest burgers will become dry and powdery when you take them out to cook them. It’s perfectly possible to make a delicious juicy medium burger from a frozen patty – cook it slow and finish it fast.
  • If you’re buying your burgers in, get them to do all of the above! If they don’t, switch your burger supplier! I found an excellent supermarket burger recently, am sure they’d be available wholesale nationally.
  • The fat/lean ratio is important. Again, don’t feel the need to use lean meat. 20-25% fat vs 75-80% lean seems to be the magic number. People have to cope with the fact that a burger isn’t the healthiest option on the menu.
  • The grind is important. If you’re making your own burgers, don’t pack them full of finely ground meat and squash them till they hold their shape. Course ground, loosely packed. Makes for a less chewy mouthful and that melt-in-your-mouth experience.
  • Burgers shouldn’t be served well done. You’re not allowed by law to sell them below ‘medium’ so go with that. It’ll add a juiciness quotient that is well worth striving for. If you sous vide, this is easy to do for large groups too – just char them on a hot grill for a quick finish and those vital flavours. Unless you’re going for a different burger style (smash-burgers and sliders have different rules).
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You can see all the things that are wrong with this burger. Dry, overcooked patty. Tightly packed, fine ground mince. The thick cut bacon? Flavourless and insufficiently charred for my liking. Bun? Stale. Sauce? Ketchup on the side.
  • It needs seasoning! At least the salt and pepper, the rest is for fancier burgers, but the ‘natural’ flavour of beef is quite bland so help it out.
  • Think through the sauce. A good condimentary [sic] partner  for your burger may not be the cloying sweetness of ketchup or the sharp bite of mustard. A relish, a mustard fry – lots of easy, great options to plan a burger around.
  • The bun matters. Dry, slightly stale floury baps – won’t do. I’m partial to an egg-washed soft white roll, toasted on the inside only. Has to hold up to juicy beef, and depending on the sweetness of your relish/sauce, you may not want the sweetness of a brioche or demi-brioche (much as they are all the rage, it seems).  The bun/patty ratio is important too – except for,dehydrated frozen burgers (the bad kind) most fresh burgers shrink as they lose moisture, so plan your patty size/bun size accordingly. Unlike the BK ads, meat doesn’t need to overhang the bun (you’ll have a problem with bun structural integrity if you do) but less than 95% bun coverage and you start to have plain bread mouthfuls and that’s not a good thing.
  • Cheese needs to be melted on. Nothing else needs to be said here. A lid and a bit of water work well here without needing to overcook the burger (I witnessed the dirty burger chefs do this, also softening the lettuce and tomato slightly at the same time – a great trick).
  • Everything else is an accessory. But accessories matter! Whether you include a pickle. Raw or cooked onion or caramelized onion. Chicken-skin fries, triple or double cooked. Lettuce or slaw. Just think it through in the context of a plate. Less is definitely more.

I think that’s most things, but if I’ve missed anything, I’m hoping the burger community will help me out in the comments, and I’ll update this post (with attributions). It seems like a lot but… it’s not really! Change your burger supplier and your baker (or at least, your order from the same!) and brief your chef and you’re away.

In a year with Brexit, Trump, terrorist attacks and celebrity deaths, the last thing anyone needs is a mediocre burger to top it all off.