Burgers. You knew they were coming. After all, this is a series for people who love arguing about food online and burgers are a lock for #1 best food to bicker over on the internet. All beef patty or a mix? 80/20 or 70/30? Onions grilled or raw? American cheese or cheddar? Eggs? Beets? Mushrooms?
The best part is that literally everyone considers themselves a burger expert. And they’re right. When the subject of a Cooking Battle connects to Zach’s Native American heritage, or my Italian heritage, or Vince’s East Fresno heritage (I kid!), we can each be pretty damn persuasive. But burgers are different. Burgers are “ours.” And by “ours” I don’t just mean “American,” either. They’ve grown past that designation. Burgers are the intellectual property of anyone who loves food.
Your opinions are therefore valid and you have every right to defend them. So just this once, we won’t attack you if you say something like: “Sorry but a burger MUST have a poppy seed bun! Otherwise, it’s just a sandwich — everyone knows that… STEVE!” or some such comment that typically would make us want to bash our heads against walls.
Unless you talk trash on ketchup. Then, vaya con dios and may the Lord have mercy on your burger-loving souls. Now let’s get to it!
BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Pumpkin Spice Showdown — 1) (tie) Vince, Zach 2) Steve
Thanksgiving Side Dish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Christmas Dessert Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Chili Cook-off Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Nacho Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach*
*Zach’s nachos are actually getting put on a menu in the real world. So, there’s that.**
**That ^^^ was written by Zach when I wasn’t looking but if we’re adding asterisks about injustices… I have a few thoughts. -SB
We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:
The best burgers are the simplest burgers. That’s an axiom to live by right there. There’s a tendency these days to overdo burgers in every way. Some of it is great. Yes, I want duck egg and foie gras on my burger … sometimes. But let’s face it, generally, we want a burger that’s just fucking good and the more elements you add to a burger, the more it’s going to fall apart. Often literally.
This recipe goes back to my childhood. My old man, Joe, used to run the grocery store in our town of about 5,000 people. That job meant he knew just about every resident. That was compounded by the fact that we raised pig and cattle and sold it off to neighbors and friends and even further because my dad was a fisherman. He’d head out before work while the salmon were running and catch five or six fish. He’d bring one home and take the rest to various restaurants and bars that his friends ran. It was extra cash and solidified our place in the community.
Those fish often translated into free burgers and fries whenever we dropped into those same restaurants and bars. The cigarette stained bowling alley was one of these places. My old man used to stop by there after work to tie one on before he went sober in ’84. After that, we’d still dip in on snow days, lazy summer afternoons after spending the day out fishing, or random Sunday nights for a fast and easy family dinner after a few frames. I remember the owner would always greet my old man with that level of respect that wows a seven-year-old. Then he’d ask if we wanted “three Joe burgers.” That was what he nicknamed what was basically their “deluxe burger” which every diner, dive, and bar has on their menu in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickle, special sauce, and red onion.
It really wasn’t anything spectacular, but to the seven-year-old me, it was everything special about the world. I remember being so proud to eat a burger named after my old man. I loved them. Even though my dad has been gone for nearly ten years now, I still make my sons a Joe Burger every now and then. It’s simple, delicious, and ours.
The sauce should always be the first thing you make. It has to rest in the fridge so all the flavors blend. I add a dollop of low-sugar ketchup, high-fat deli mayo, and dijon mustard. Then I add in about a teaspoon of garlic powder and a small splash of apple cider vinegar. Lastly, I dice some of my pickles and throw those in. Mix until smooth and set in the fridge. Done.
I’m going classic here, so there’s no need to over explain. I get out my mandolin and slice some vine-fresh tomatoes about 1/8 inch thick. Next, I slice red onions about 1/16th inch thick (or the thinnest setting on the mandolin). I then clean some nice broadleaf butter lettuce. I lightly salt everything to keep things crisp and coax the bitter notes from the onion and lettuce.
Lastly, I get some pickle chips ready. This is key. Pickle adds a crucial crunch and tangy, spicy counterpoint to all the savory. I tend to ask for double pickles these days because I need more and more to get me there.
This is the crux of any great burger. I went to my local butcher and got a mix of ground chuck and brisket with an 80/20 lean to fat ratio.
Next, I use a small plate to press the burger (you can spend cash on a burger press, but this does the exact same thing for free). I like to season my patties with garlic salt and black pepper. You really want your spices here to accent not overwhelm.
I then bag up the burger patty and drop it in my sous vide water bath. I’m cooking the meat to 130F, which is about ten degrees from the safe zone of 140F. There’s a reason I’m undercooking these. When I sear the patties off in the skillet later, it’ll reach 140F in about 60 to 90 seconds. If I cooked the meat to 140F in the sous vide and then sear, the internal temp would reach 150F or more and start to dry out.
I let the patties cook in the sous vide for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, I heat up a cast iron skillet to white hot and melt some unsalted butter in there. As soon as the butter starts to brown, I add the patty and sear for about 30ish seconds on each side, or until it’s got a nice Maillard reaction going.
I was going to make a bun, but then I knew these other two weren’t and this ain’t a baking challenge. So, I meandered down to my neighborhood bakery and got a couple nice rolls. They call them brioche here, but they’re way softer — almost exactly like a great hamburger bun in America. Plus, I wouldn’t put it past Germans to misuse a French baking term just to make the bread sound good. Anyway, the rolls are potato flour based and delicious. They have a heft that’d perfect for burgers.
I butter each side of the bun and generously sprinkle it with garlic salt. I heat up a ceramic grilling pan to piping hot and toast off the buns. Done.
This is the fun part. I place a spoon of the sauce on the top and bottom bun. Then a piece of the lettuce goes on the bottom with the burger patty on top. On the other bun, I layer three tomato slices, some of the red onion rings, and pickle chips.
I pour myself a Brooklyn Lager (because that’s one of the only decent American beers I can get at my corner shop and this meal called for an American lager) and dig into an awesome burger. The sous vide means the meat is perfectly cooked and still so, so juicy. The crunch is spot on with the umami of the tomato, the bite of the onion, and the tang of the pickle.
It’s just a straight smile-inducing burger. Classic. Deluxe. Fucking good.
There really is something to be said for not going crazy with a hamburger. Does it need cheese? Not always. Sometimes you just gotta let a burger shine for what it is without making it so damn complicated. I’m pretty positive my dad and Ron Swanson would agree on that point (and the value of a mighty mustache).
Steve on Zach’s Burger: Zach, you ready to get nitpicked? Because I am going micro with my aggressions. Here’s what I got: That patty is THICK. And that’s cool, some people want that pure meat bite, but I’m guessing it puts you in danger of this being “one note” and that note being BEEEEEEEEEEEEEF. Especially with an 80/20 mix. Everyone knows that the perfect burger mix is 70/30! Since when is the dude who cooks with pork lard afraid of a little extra fat?
No wonder you have to balance all that un-fatty meatiness with the largest pickle slice in the history of time:
I love pickles but that’s a pickle-y ass bite. And Jesus, the way you write about them “I need more to get me there” — dude, are you conflating pickles with drugs?
Also, butter lettuce! Butter lettuce is fiberous and slick and you could use it as a rain shield on a jungle trek. It’s hard to bite through and has to be kinda torn. And don’t tell me that the bowling alleys of Washington had butter lettuce, because I grew up in those same dingy PNW coastal bowling alleys three hours south of you and they STILL haven’t heard of butter lettuce.
Any of that stick? Because I’m still a mess from that touching story about your pop and thinking about how much I wish I could have just one more burger with my own dad right now.
Vince on Zach’s Burger: I’m struggling here. The honest truth is that this looks basically like the burger I was going for. The sous vide seems like overkill and slightly unnecessary, but… it’s also kind of a good idea. If you’re in your kitchen putting together all the components, you probably have time to sous vide. When Zach started in with “my old man Joe…” I was like “oh, here we go again…”
But burger tastes are heavily memory-based. Which always annoys the shit out of me when people online want to fight to the death over Five Guys vs In N Out vs Shake Shack or whatever. You like whichever one you’ve formed the habit for, the end. I dunno, man. That looks like a good ass burger.
I never even really got into Parks & Rec, but I’ve always loved that scene above. It’s the ultimate war of “cheffed up” vs. “plain and perfect.” Go full-on $20 burger or eat like you’re in an army barracks. The yin and yang of my cooking consciousness. The warring sides of my culinary split personality.
For this contest, I decided to do both. I kept it simple and pulled the old Coco Chanel move: Taking off one last accessory before presenting my dish to the world. But I also made a few weird experimental plays and brough a new (for me) technique to the table. I was Swanson and Trager. Down and dirty meets fancy schmancy.
Unlike my cohorts, I actually have proof that I had a specific grind made just for me. I went 70/30 (obvi) and achieved that by using about 2/3 chuck, 1/3 short rib, and one slice of bacon. Normally, in this case, I’d do two grinds. But I decided to go for a single grind because I wanted it to really feel meaty and not at all mushy. (A good butcher will put it through twice but a grocery store will put it through four or five times until it all looks completely uniform.)
I added MSG, fish sauce, and black pepper. We’ve all said this before but just in case: You. Will. Never. Taste. The. Fish. Sauce. It’s just for extra umami and boy does it give a nice punch. No wonder that it’s literally the secret ingredient at Umami Burger.
The best I can hope for against Vince and Zach is to do something so basic that it hits our readers nostalgia receptors or so clever that it can’t be denied. Here I was trying to mix the two.
Here are my basic ingredients:
- Beef grind.
- Iceberg lettuce.
- Sharp cheddar (didn’t use).
- Organic American singles.
And here’s my more experimental, clever stuff:
- MSG and fish sauce.
- Black garlic.
- Kewpie mayonnaise.
- Stunning, sexy heirloom tomato.
- Mustard seed powder.
This sauce is made with black garlic, Kewpie mayo (another Umami bomb which all three chefs have vouched for), some chopped red chilies, mustard powder, and ketchup (which I unabashedly love). The black garlic is made by sloooooow roasting garlic until it’s literally black and — my god — is it good. It’s got a funk to it, almost like a French soft cheese, and the dimension it added to this otherwise basic sauce was unbelievable.
It was this sauce, which made my mouth so happy, that gave me the confidence to start peeling some of my other fanciful ideas back. In fact, it was this very moment that I forgot about adding a thin slice of beet to the burger, to honor my years in Australia.
But I’ll tell you what I didn’t ditch… EGGS. I grew up with eggs on my burger and damned if I was going to give that up. Still, I wanted to get a little technical and since no one cares about egg whites, I ditched those completely and just took the yolks. I wanted them runny but not wet, so I used…
A SOUS VIDE!
Yes, friends, Vince and Zach have finally gotten me on the sous vide train. In fact, I got the same one that Zach is always hyping in our gift guides, the Anova.
I used it to bring the water to 115 degrees and set my two yolks in there while I made the rest of my meal. The result was a yolk custard that I would happily eat by the spoonful from now until dying of high cholesterol at 39. (Can high cholesterol kill you? Should I know this?)
Patties pressed thin. I like my burgers like I like my chances of becoming a millionaire.
Right onto a piping hot pan. No grease or oil added. There’s bacon in those patties, let it do its work.
Organic American singles on top. Ignore the sharp cheddar on the second burger, that’s for my lady. I guess Iranian refugees just don’t savvy the finer things in life, like processed cheese.
Next, I fried up some bacon. I went into this thinking I wouldn’t play the bacon card. Then I thought: “F*ck that, bacon is delicious.” I was obviously, hungry by this point.
I toasted my organic brioche buns in some bacon grease.
Slathered the bottom one with some of that magic sauce and chives.
Sliced tomatoes and onions and tore a few pieces of butter lettuce.
And built the dang thing. I cooked the onions in the pan for a second, but boy it wasn’t much. They’re sweet enough and I wanted a little raw onion bite to counteract the umami.
On the top bun, I spread my egg yolk custard. Just look at that texture.
And finally, after abandoning the dill pickle at the very last second, we have this.
What you’re looking at:
Top bun (toasted in bacon grease)
Thich cut bacon
Organic American singles (2)
Flash cooked onion
Organic heirloom tomato
Magic black garlic sauce
Bottom bun (toasted in bacon grease)
Now tell me, doesn’t that feel like Chris Trager and Ron Swanson made a burger lovechild?
Zach on Steve’s Burger: First my grievances. Yes, my patty is on the thicker side, but what Steve’s crop job in his critique conveniently fails to show is that the top bun is actually thicker than the meat patty … so, come on, it’s not that thick. Also, Steve, don’t you ride hard for Shake Shack, a company that uses whole leaf butter lettuce on every burger? Feels like you’re reaching, buddy…
Okay, to Steve’s burger. Seems odd you’d show really nice cheese on a burger next to yours in the pan but not use it for your burger. Chives on your sauce? That’s hashtag Steve 100 percent on brand.
A whole slice of f*cking white onion, again?! Is California suddenly Walla Walla adjacent? What happened to subtly accenting instead of over-powering with thick white onions slices. I know In-N-Out does it too, but their slices are about a third as thick as yours and Vince’s. Plus you already have onion notes from the chives. Overkill. Also, how tall is that burger? Mine was exactly the height of my four fingers stacked, easy to eat. Yours looks like it’s twice that.
I can’t argue with that egg custard though.
Vince on Steve’s Burger: Yo, first off, what is that plate you put your ground meat on? It looks like a dead jellyfish. Also, way to steal my MSG and fish sauce seasonings, you thief. And don’t ever describe food as “sexy.”
Oh, and I will be god damned if I have to watch some dumb Ron Swanson memes just to participate in a food battle. Ron Swanson is discount internet slurry.
Now then. Your burger is too tall. That bottom bun is going to turn to mush and you know it. I see you pandering to the idiot layman with that American cheese. As if it’s going to make the commenters forget about your weird grey sauce. That sauce looks like you jumped on a corpse’s chest and saved what squirted out of its dick. Mmm, cadaver jizz. On the plus side I’m not going to rip you for your chives this time. I don’t really understand the “egg yolk custard.” It looks like you took out everything in the egg except the obnoxious drippy part. Success? At that point maybe just use mayo? Mayo is literally egg yolks and oil. Anyway, this is fine. I’m sure it’s tasty (not as tasty as if you hadn’t used crappy, creamy, tasteless American cheese, which is going to drown out all the good flavor you built into the patty, but whatev) it would just be a pain in the ass to eat. And in my mind, convenience of eating is a big part of a burger. GIVE ME CONVENIENCE OR GIVE ME DEATH! This is the battle cry of late capitalism.
I’ll do my best not to pre-apologize to my future h8ers here, but suffice it to say, burger arguments on the internet are among my “top 10 most exhausting things.” My burger philosophy is this: burgers to me are about balance. I just don’t relate to the widespread penchant for gigantic patties dripping with oozy cheese. I like fatty meat and melted cheese as much as the next guy, it’s just that a huge meat patty overwhelms all of the other flavors and makes the burger kind of a big mess to eat. If you want a giant meat slab, get barbecue, or a steak. I hate the three-quarter-pound-meat-slab-wearing-a-party-cap style gourmet burgers. Ditto people who obsess about the inside being rare. It’s ground meat, man. The texture of a burger seared rare and one cooked medium don’t seem drastically different to me. I always order mine medium. If I want steak tartare I’ll order steak tartare.
The reason I enjoy a burger is that you get every food group — spongy bread, fresh crisp vegetables, and fatty, funky meat and cheese — in one convenient bite. Much as I like the idea of, say, a fried egg on top (and in general I will put an egg on anything), having to keep liquid yolk from running down my wrist kind of ruins the burger experience for me.
So, those were my considerations. Balance, simplicity, convenience. A good burger to me is not exotic ingredients or over-the-top decadence, it’s a series of little things done well.
My basic components are:
- Bun (brioche)
- Cheese (truffle)
- Bacon-Tomato jam
- Lettuce (butter)
- Homemade garlic aioli with mustard
I went to the fancy butcher shop and bought some 70-30 angus ground chuck, and mixed into that about 20% ground lamb. Growing up one of my favorite Armenian dishes (I’m sure they have them all over the middle east and central Asia) was lulu burgers or lulu kebabs, which was 50-50 beef and lamb, with chopped onions and mixed in. For this I just went about one fifth with the ground lamb.
I seasoned with: salt, pepper, MSG, Worcester sauce. I mixed the seasoning into the meat a few hours ahead of time and let it sit to soak up the seasoning and flavors. I think the lamb, Worcester (with its anchovy extract) and MSG give it a nice funk, more flavorful than plain ground beef.
I didn’t used to get tomatoes on my burger (risks sogging it up) and bacon by itself feels a little messy. So I experimented with tomato bacon jam, which I’d never made before, and now it’s one of my favorite condiments. My version had:
- 1 heirloom tomato
- half a small shallot, chopped fine
- Two thick slices applewood smoked bacon, cut into small squares
- Pinch of ground espelette peppers (somewhere between paprika and cayenne in flavor)
- Splash of red wine
- Drizzle of maple syrup
I experimented with a couple types of buns, including pretzel, which are very good, but ended up going with the brioche. They felt like the right combination of size and softness. About the softest you can get that won’t sog up and fall apart with this amount of wet ingredients. Obviously, a grilled bun crunchy on the bottom is a must.
Here is my innovation. I learned this on the Mexico City episode of Somebody Feed Phil, where Phil visits a Mexican chef’s family, and they’re making quesadillas. Rather than put the tortilla on the pan with the cheese on top, they put the whole thing into the pan cheese-side down. The cheese melts in a minute or two and creates a brown crust on it. I did my buns the same way, with some Italian truffle cheese.
It comes out brown at the surface above a layer of gooey cheese and you don’t even need butter because some of the oil from the cheese soaks into the bun and makes it moist. It ends up tasting like the top of a lasagna.
Some people like grilled onion, some people like raw. I usually order my In N Out burgers with the raw onion, but I like both. For this, I kind of split the difference. After I flipped the meat (cooked in my piping hot cast iron, heated in the oven at 500 degrees for 20 minutes) I put the raw onion slice on top of the hot patty and covered it for a minute or two.
It comes out not cooked, exactly, but not quite raw. And the onion essence seasons the meat.
I initially tried to do it Big Mac-style, with an additional grilled bun in the middle, which looked kind of cool but was just too damned tall to eat conveniently:
I eventually settled on the single decker.
It’s got bun, cheese goo, cheese crust, tomato-bacon jam, par-cooked onion slice, patty, lettuce, garlic aoili (egg yolks, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic), bun. You get eggy flavor without a messy egg from the aioli, bacon flavor without unwieldy bacon slices from the tomato-bacon jam, and tons of funky, umami meaty flavors. I’m not reinventing the burger here, it’s just kind of a spiffed-up version, which was what I was going for.
Zach on Vince’s Burger: I agree with Vince about the burgers we love being a deeply rooted in memory. And, man, I do love a lot about Vince’s burger. But there are two things that stop me from diving in. One, 86 the lamb. I’m just not a fan of lamb in my burger. I get it, I love kofta. I have Persian friends here in Berlin that always cut their beef burgers with lamb. And I love lamb in general. But, on a burger, it just rings off to me. Second, I’m not down with that huge slice of white onion. I know some people love that shit, but, nah. Too much for me.
Look, I love the bacon jam, aioli, and the grilled cheese aspect. But the burger I really want is the top section of your double-decker. It’s got less lettuce, thinly sliced red onions, and just looks better assembled/ratio’d. But that’s the thing with burgers, they’re still pretty good either way.
Steve on Vince’s Burger: There’s a lot to love about this burger. How you seasoned your meat especially. Nice work with the MSG and Worchester sauce. I’m down with the lamb, too. Mixing those two particular proteins strikes me a litttttle weird, but I guess my complaint about lamb burgers is usually “too lamby” — so this seems like a good fix.
The #1 highlight for me: Those buns! What a power move. I can just imagine my man Vince serving a burger with that little cheesy-bun crunch and everyone sitting up in their seats in anticipation. It’s likely the best single element of this contest.
This is where Tom Colicchio says “The bun felt inspired.” And Padma says “That bun is the best thing I ate all day.”
But my god, buddy, is that not too much lettuce for you? It’s too much for me. Even looking at it, it feels disproportionate. Is butter lettuce super expensive in SF? Were you afraid of wasting? Did you feel bad for making a burger with three meat proteins and wanted to balance it out with a quick salad? Whatever the case, I think you need to chill on that.
The bacon jam is interesting. I’ve been making one lately for breakfast sandwiches and, if anything, I think you under-hyperbolized the flavor. But this is a burger. How about a little crisp bacon? A little crunch! Sure, the bun obviously had that but that heaping mound of slick butter lettuce probably counteracted it a little. Crisp bacon would have gone a long way here.