Fab Burgers

Yield: 6 servings
Prep and cooking time: 45 minutes
Difficulty: Intermediate

There are hamburgers served in famous restaurants that contain truffles and foie gras and cost sixty dollars.  Don’t be envious: they’re not so much good as merely extravagant.  A superb hamburger necessarily contains superb beef, along with only those ingredients that will enhance the flavor of the meat, not compete with it.  A paste of pan fried mushrooms and shallots, called duxelles, is one such ingredient, and it’s easy to make.  The most important item is, of course, the beef itself.  If you get that much right and don’t overcook it, the burger will be good.

Most cuts of quality, dry-aged beef will produce a superior burger, but for those who want the best, the ratios of fat and collagen to meat are significant.  Some cuts, such as round, sirloin, and rump, create burgers with a dry, crumbly texture.  Shoulder cuts are very good for ground beef, as are cuts from the underside of the steer, which includes the brisket, flank, plate, and skirt.

The burgers described below are a treat, and dry-aged beef is recommended.  Skirt steak, as called for, has an earthy flavor that is further deepened by the mushroom duxelles and a splash of beef broth.  More importantly, when it’s well marbled, skirt steak has an ideal ratio of fat and collagen, resulting in exceptionally succulent burgers.  Hanger steak (onglet) is a fair substitute for skirt, but more expensive in some markets and unfortunately less fatty.  Slightly less desirable but good substitutes include any shoulder cut, or brisket or flank so long as enough surface fat remains.

Two pounds of top-quality, dry-aged skirt steak, as recommended, will cost $25 to $35 retail and serve six, for a portion cost of about $4 to $6, or less than you’d pay for a generic pub burger.  And yet, these taste better than the Yuppie burgers at Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in New York, which cost $59 each.

A unique element of this dish is the color of the saffron mayonnaise, and the flavor it gets from the Champagne vinegar, tarragon, and saffron.  If your budget won’t accommodate saffron, don’t hesitate to substitute a teaspoon of ground turmeric.  It looks as good, and the flavor will be close to the original.  Either way, these burgers will be the best you’ve ever tasted.  This recipe is in no way difficult, although it is complicated; however, the duxelles mixture and the mayonnaise can be made a few days ahead to simplify matters.  And because both have got myriad uses in other dishes, learning to make them is worthwhile.

Mayonnaise ingredients
3 tbsp Champagne vinegar (the Clovis brand is cheap and good)
1 tsp coarse salt, or 3/4 tsp fine table salt
2 tsp dried tarragon
1/2 tsp saffron threads, or 1 tsp ground turmeric
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp dry vermouth or white wine
1 tbsp prepared Dijon-style mustard
4 cups light, flavorless oil (e.g., canola); more if needed

Burger ingredients
1 tbsp unsalted whole butter
1-1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1-1/2 tsp dried savory leaves
1/2 cup homemade beef broth, or low-sodium commercial broth
1/2 lb portobello (portabella) mushrooms
1/4 lb shallots
2 lbs skirt steak

Presentation ingredients
6 soft Kaiser rolls, split
Saffron mayonnaise
6 lettuce leaves
6 tomato slices, 3/8” thick
1 tbsp unsalted whole butter
Pinches of salt and chopped parsley

Mayonnaise directions
1. Put the Champagne vinegar, salt, tarragon and saffron into small saucepan and heat it slowly to simmering. Immediately turn off the heat and let it steep for ten minutes, as if you were brewing strong tea. Cool it to room temperature and strain the “tea” through a fine sieve.  (Never use fresh herbs in mayonnaise; they will turn it rancid within days.)

2. Put the egg yolks, mustard, dry vermouth, two tablespoons of the oil, and half of the strained, seasoned vinegar into a mixing bowl and beat vigorously with a whisk or electric mixer until well emulsified. The more thoroughly you emulsify this mixture, the less trouble you will have later on. You can’t overdo this step.

3. Add the remaining oil in small dabs and whisk or beat vigorously, making sure that each addition is fully emulsified before the next. As the emulsion is established, oil can be added faster, in a thin stream. (A stand mixer with a whisk attachment makes this quite easy. Also, using a plastic squeeze bottle or a liquor bottle with a speed pourer makes it easy to add the oil slowly and steadily.)

4. When approximately half of the oil has been used, add the remaining seasoned vinegar a few splashes at a time, then continue adding oil until all of it has been incorporated. If the mayonnaise is not firm enough, add more oil and continue beating until you’re satisfied with its consistency. The more oil you add, and the longer you whip it, the tighter it will become.

Burger directions
1. Peel the mushrooms and shallots. Remove the mushroom gills with a paring knife and discard. Pulse the mushrooms and shallots in a food processor until finely chopped but not puréed, or mince them finely by hand.

2. Melt the butter gently in a saucepan until the foam subsides, but without coloring it. Add the mushroom and shallot mixture, salt, and savory. Sweat at medium-high heat until the mixture becomes a paste. Turn down the heat periodically as the cooking progresses to avoid scorching.

3. Add the beef broth, then simmer over medium-low heat until all but 2 tablespoons of the liquid has evaporated. Remove it from the heat, add the black pepper, and chill it in the fridge. It can be kept for two or three days with plastic film laid directly on top.

4. Trim the meat of any remaining silver skin, but do not remove any of the fat. Slice the meat across the grain into 1/4-inch-wide strips, and grind it through a 1/4 inch plate. If you haven’t got a grinder, ask your butcher to grind it fine, or carefully pulse 1/2-lb batches in a food processor until chopped into a fine mince. Do not purée the meat.

5. Combine the chilled duxelles mixture with the ground beef using a fork. Try to distribute the ingredients evenly, but do not attempt to create a perfectly homogeneous mixture. It’s better not to overwork the meat.

6. Form the meat/mushroom mixture by hand into 6-oz patties 1” thick. A half-cup dry measure, generously rounded with meat on top, makes a good scoop if you haven’t got a kitchen scale.

Final assembly
1. Split the rolls and grill or toast the inside surfaces. Let them cool.

2. Spread saffron mayonnaise lightly on both cut sides of the rolls.

3. Lay a lettuce leaf and a tomato slice on the top half of each roll, with the lettuce against the mayonnaise.

4. Once the rolls are dressed and in place, melt 1 tbsp of whole butter in a large skillet and heat it until the foam subsides and the milk solids darken. Pan fry the burgers over medium heat, three at a time, for 3-1/2 to 4 minutes per side, or until they reach an internal temperature of 122 F. Place them on the bottoms of the rolls as they finish, so that the bread will absorb their juices while they rest.

5. Pipe a 1-tsp dollop of saffron mayonnaise in the center of each burger using a small pastry bag with a 1/2” star tip, or use a plastic squeeze bottle to lay it on in stripes or swirls.

6. Sprinkle each tomato slice with a very small pinch of salt, and serve the sandwich open, with a final sprinkling of chopped parsley over all, and mayonnaise on the side in a small ramekin.

Judging doneness
I call for burgers to be 6 oz in weight and one inch thick. The resulting shape will ensure that they develop a crust without overcooking (which is why I use whole butter for pan frying: it promotes crusting with moderate heat). If you’ve got gentle heat under them, they should be rare just as they show a light crust on both sides. A meat thermometer is the most reliable tool, although it involves piercing the burgers and a subsequent loss of juice. If the burgers are removed from the heat when the centers reach 122 F, they will continue cooking gently as they rest, and end up at about 125 F, or perfectly rare. For medium burgers, cook them to 132 F internal, and they will rise to about 135 F after resting. Judging by feel works with whole cuts, but is not reliable with ground meats. Because of the dark mushroom duxelles in this recipe, judging by internal color will not be possible.

I would not use bacon, mustard, relishes, raw onions, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, A.1. sauce, barbecue sauce, Tabasco sauce, or cheese. You want to taste the meat. Most restaurant burgers are loaded with extras because the meat isn’t terribly good, whereas these should be thought of as superb beef on a roll, not as a platform for condiments. The recipe is deliberately respectful of the meat, and fully justifies using dry-aged beef, especially skirt steak. Additionally, the mayonnaise contains extra vinegar, which gives it a tangy property like ketchup, only better tasting and more subtle. So try it my way first, and then decide how to perfect it.


One Response to Fab Burgers

  1. Amazing – really amazing topic. I will blog about it as well.

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