There’s a lot of “Hemingway” foods and drinks out there. Papa was the original gourmand, blazing his own culinary path across the world. The Hemingway Sour and the Hemingway Daiquiri are probably the most popular. Then there’s the Hemingway Hamburger.
I was only tangentially aware of this recipe. I’d read about it here and there but really didn’t know more than it was a hamburger that Hemingway preferred to make while living in Cuba. I decided to rectify that situation and actually make the damned thing. But first, let’s get a little background.
This is a real recipe from Hemingway himself. It was part of the writer’s “papers” from his time in Cuba which were donated to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The papers included correspondence with Hemingway’s editors, personal letters, and even shopping lists with handwritten notes and recipes, including the scribe’s famous hamburger recipe.
The recipe’s gist is two-fold. One, it’s meant to be a hamburger that’s full of flavor and texture inside the patty. Two, it’s meant to be super “juicy” and meaty. Hemingway’s recipe was also very exact. He gives tips on how long to let the meat rest, marinate, sear, and cook in precise minutes. I tried to follow these as exactly as they were written.
I wasn’t trailblazing any new paths here. This road has been walked before by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan for the Paris Review. Tan gives very helpful instructions and also helped with sourcing a couple of ingredients I couldn’t get my hands on. After I followed Hemingway’s instructions via Tan’s guidance, I decided to see what would happen if I add my own flair to the hamburger with some of the things I like on my burger.
The Hemingway Hamburger
- 1 lb. ground beef (85/15 lean/fat)
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 green onion finely chopped
- 1 heaping tsp. India relish*
- 2 tbsp. capers
- 1 heaping tsp. Spice Islands Sage
- 1/2 tsp. Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning**
- 1/2 tsp. Spice Islands Mei Yen Powder***
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 tbsp. neutral cooking oil
**I cannot get Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning. So I looked it up and recreated it from scratch using Spruce Eats’ recipe. It’s a mix of one tablespoon each ground clove, onion powder, salt, ground bay leaf, allspice, black pepper, and one teaspoon each white pepper, nutmeg, mace, and ground celery seed. I combined everything into a small bowl and mixed it together.
***Spice Islands Mei Yen Powder has been discontinued. So I used the instructions Tan gives in the Paris Review guide. It’s a mix of nine parts salt to nine parts sugar to two parts MSG. I combined 4 1/2 teaspoons salt, 4 1/2 teaspoons white sugar, and 1 teaspoon MSG in a small bowl and mixed it together.
So, Papa described the first step of the burger-making process as such: “Break up the meat with a fork and scatter the garlic, onion, and dry seasonings over it, then mix them into the meat with a fork or your fingers.”
As you can see above, that’s what I did … in too small a bowl. So I transferred everything to a bigger bowl and used my fingers to mix the garlic, onion, and dry seasonings into the meat. Hemingway then says to let the meat rest for “ten or fifteen minutes.” So, I did.
And yeah, I can see the point of giving the spices and salts a chance to marry to the meat. Next, I added the rest of the ingredients. I was a little incredulous though. I’ve added an egg to a patty in the past (I lived through the early 2000s after all). But it often isn’t necessary. And I really couldn’t see an entire one-third cup of white wine not making this all a little sloppy. Anyway, I trudged on diligently, trusting in Papa’s gourmand ways.
So, I added in the beaten egg, minced capers, relish, and white wine. I worked in the wet ingredients with my hands. It was at first a little sloppy but did start to come together into a super-soft meatloaf after about a minute of kneading.
I then let that meat rest of ten minutes to “marinate.” Finally, I formed four, equal-sized patties very gingerly. The meat was very soft and needed a lot of coaxing to stay together. But, I was able to make four thickish patties that met Hemingway’s requirement of “an inch thick, and soft in texture but not runny.”
I got my cast iron on a high flame and added some Canola oil — one tablespoon as per the recipe.
Once the skillet was hot but not smoking, again per the recipe, I added in two patties and turned the heat down. I let the patties fry for exactly four minutes.
Papa then says to “take the pan off the burner and turn the heat high again. Flip the burgers over, put the pan back on the hot fire, then after one minute, turn the heat down again, and cook another three minutes.” So, I did exactly that. Accept one thing — I added two slices of aged Irish Cheddar to one of the patties for my experimental update. It’s also important to note that I never pressed down on the patties.
In the meantime, I toasted off two potato buns with butter and garlic powder in another pan. Once, those were ready, the three minutes had passed on the second side of the patties and we were ready to plate up.
As you can see below, the patties shrunk a little bit but maintained their girth. I was hoping they also maintained their juices because there’s nothing worse than a thick patty that’s also dry.
Looking at this crosssection of the burger, it’s pretty clear Papa knew what he was doing when it came to thick and juicy burgers. The look of this burger was very enticing with the speckles of relish, capers, and onions adding a nice nuance. But how did it taste?
The damn thing was dripping with juices full of flavor too. It was slightly funky with all the capers and relish alongside a real meatiness. It was also an umami bomb of a burger. The relish and capers did add a little bit of a textural element that I’d say is a step back from a crunch but you know it’s there. It’s really all about the flavors and this burger was full of them.
I mean, look at all that juice that comes out of this burger when you squeeze it! And yes, it was delicious all on its own on that bun.
The Updated Version or: The Hemingway Deluxe
So, I had to try this with a few accouterments to modernize it a bit. Hemingway’s Hamburger is literally just a burger patty on a bun and I had to know if it needed anything else.
So, I added two slices of aged Irish cheddar, a slice of in-season beefsteak tomato, some more pickle (I love pickles on burgers), and a couple of thin slices of yellow onion.
I decided to forgo any lettuce or sauce. There’s so much juice in the patty, that the sauce would have been washed away. As for the lettuce, I didn’t feel like a cold, bitter crunch would have added much more to all the flavors already in play.
And yeah, this was great. But about two bites in, I realized it was a great burger not because what I put on it but because that god damn patty was so god damn good. In fact, I’d argue the cheese smothered a little sharpness of the burger patty which I didn’t want happening at all.
This hamburger was really better with the less it had on it. If I made this again, I’d go full Ron Swanson and simply serve you this patty on a well-toasted bun. I’d watch as your doubts turned to bliss as you took your first bite and realized you can have a perfect hamburger with simply a patty and a bun and nothing else. I know it sounds crazy. But alas, it’s as true as the sun rising again tomorrow.