2018 Festivus Guide to Gifts for Cooks!

The Straight Beef Festivus Guide to Gifts for Cooks

As the calendar winds down to the close of another year, we should gather with friends and family to celebrate the bonds that bring us together. Should. Deep inside, however, we’re all greedy little children who just want cool toys and as many cookies as we can jam into our mouths. Catch us on a good day, however, and we will share our cool toys. So in the spirit of Festivus (or whatever observance you, um, observe), The Straight Beef is proud to present our 2018 Festivus Gift Guide, a quick overview of kitchen essentials and nifty tools for the cook in your life.

Baking Steel

Let’s start big and work down to the stocking stuffers. First up, the mack daddy kitchen accoutrement: the Baking Steel is 15 pounds of kitchen magic. Yes, it is heavy. Yes, it is pricier than your average pizza stone. Yes, it is worth it. Inspired by the observation in Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” that steel is more conductive than a pizza oven’s brick floor, former pizza chef Andris Lagsdin of Stoughton Steel created the Baking steel, a 16” x 14” slab of solid steel that is not only the perfect pizza stone, but works wonders for breads and other baked goods and can double as a griddle for the ultimate homemade smashed burger. Don’t worry about storage. Just keep it in your oven at all times and it will regulate your oven’s temperature for more even cooking, no matter what you’re making. For great recipes that use the Baking Steel, add Baking with Steel to your cookbook collection.

Spatula of Joy

To make those smashed burgers, the Due Buoi Wide Spatula is the ideal tool. The Due Buoi is short, wide and stiff, perfect for burgers on a griddle or in a cast iron pan. Can a spatula make you happy? Yes, it can. Not quite giddy, but pretty darn close.

Sidenote:

For a first class primer on making smashed burgers (and why you should) see Kenji Lopez Alt’s article Smashed Burgers vs Smashing Burgers. While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Kenji’s The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. As Wired said, it’s the ultimate guide for nerds who cook. The burger section alone is worth the cover price.

Thermopop

Great cooking is ultimately the art and science of heat management. For that you need a Thermapen, the fastest, most accurate instant read probe thermometer available, to satisfy the fanatic in your family (Chad has three, if that tells you anything). For those not quite so obsessive, or if you need a great stocking stuffer, the Thermopop is perfect. No guessing. No confusion. No archaic subjective tests for doneness. You know with absolute confidence that whatever you are cooking is right where it should be, and you know it immediately. No interminable waiting with the oven door open for a dial thermometer to register. The Thermopop is fast, light weight, accurate, and inexpensive. There is a even a discount if you buy five or more. Thermopops for everyone!

Digital Scale

Continuing the science-y theme, a good digital scale is a must for bakers. Using a digital scale rather than measuring in cups and teaspoons is the difference between using your new high-tech laptop and writing in the mud with a stick. One of the more robust and accurate scales is the My Weigh KD-8000. It works in whatever system you need – ounces, pounds, or pounds and ounces (e.g. 20oz = 1.25lbs = 1lb 4oz), grams/kilos, and baker’s percentages, the method bakers use to weigh ingredients in proportion to the flour weight. That’s just freaking cool. This scale can handle up to 8 kilos or 17.5 pounds of ingredients with 0.1oz accuracy. Taking up significantly less counter space, the EatSmart Precision Pro kitchen scale is a great alternative.

Aeropress

If you really enjoy a good cup of coffee, and want it RIGHT NOW, the Aeropress is a godsend. Think portable, unbreakable French press and you have the idea. The cylinder-plunger-filter arrangement extracts the coffee under pressure, and while it’s not espresso machine levels of pressure, it does produce a rich cup of coffee in about a minute. Great for travel and camping, too.

Heavy Duty Sheet Pans

Most of us have a shameful stack of warped and blackened cookie sheets and jelly roll pans hidden in our cabinets. Get rid of them. Go pro. Heavy, commercial grade half sheet pans and cooling racks make a huge difference. Cook’s Illustrated recently did a shootout, and the Nordic Ware Commercial Baker’s Half Sheet pans were their favorite, along with Liberty Ware cooling racks. Cook’s Illustrated is known for its rigorous hard-use testing. The Straight Beef adds the chaos and pure destructive power of kids and pets to our kitchen use, and we like these sheet pans too. Not the most glamorous Christmas gift ever, but sure to be appreciated

A residential oven won’t fit a full size sheet pan, but 1/2-sheet pans are just about perfect. Add in a non-stick Silpat baking mat and a fitted wire rack and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. The Silpat makes cleanup amazingly simple. Nothing sticks to it, so even problematic items like Parmesan crisps (frico) release easily. It can withstand temperatures up to 480° and can be reused thousands of times. A simple wipedown after use is usually all it needs. The wire rack is sold as a cooling rack, and it’s fine for that too, but the real magic comes when you use it to make bacon in your oven.  Yes, in your oven. Lay your bacon strips on the rack in the sheet pan, slide the pan into a cold oven and set the temperature to 400°. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Flip the bacon when the timer goes off and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or so. Done. Your bacon stays flat, is perfectly cooked, and has conveniently drained all of its grease into the sheet pan below for easy disposal. You are a freaking genius. As an added bonus, it is hands-off and frees the stovetop for everything else.

Offset knife

Often called a tomato knife or a deli knife, an offset serrated knife is an indispensable kitchen tool. The 7” version is a solid utility knife while the 9” version is a bit more versatile and can double as a bread knife.

No Airing of Grievances

See, it’s not all burgers all the time at The Straight Beef. We cook (or con people into cooking for us). Some of these gift ideas may seem oddly practical, but for cooks, good tools make the difference between struggling in the kitchen and having fun. Now, on to the feats of strength.

Sup Dogs Renegade Review (Greenville, NC)

I should really call this one more of a preview than an official renegade review. However, I would be remiss as a burgiatrist if I didn’t report my findings.
A few weeks ago, I went to my nephew’s graduation from ECU in Greenville, NC. We had about an hour to kill before one of the ceremonies we were going to, and he suggested we stop at Sup Dogs.
Boy, was that a great idea. The burger selection is good with innovative toppings and combinations for what is basically a college hangout. I ordered the bacon cheese fries burger.

Randy Jackson would be proud.

It had just the right amount of everything on it. Nothing spilled out as I ate it. It was a smash-style burger which, unfortunately, was way overdone. It’s an easy thing to do with a thin patty. However, the build was great. They didn’t bother with lettuce and tomato which similar places will throw on there because they feel they have to. The brioche bun was toasted on the griddle and held up well.
At the time, I lamented that I would be unable to get another chance to enjoy Sup Dogs. On my return to the Triangle, I learned that there is one on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.
My preliminary rating is a 3.75 out of 5, but look for our official review coming up in the next few months. I have high hopes that the overdone patty was a fluke, and this could be a 4.25 or 4.5. Fingers crossed.

Review #74 – Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant (Raleigh, NC)

Michael’s take: Brunch has always been an interesting meal concept for me. To quote Jacques from the Simpsons, “It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch…You don’t get completely what you would as breakfast, but you get a good meal.”

I’ve always just seen it as late breakfast with the option of enjoying an alcoholic beverage guilt-free. If you have bacon and eggs with Bloody Mary at 8:00 AM, you are a drunk. If you have the same meal at 11:30 AM, you’re having brunch.

Eating a burger for breakfast strikes me the same way. Burgers have been relegated to lunch and dinner. Big Ed’s throws that notion out the window. They have a Deluxe Hamburger and a Deluxe Cheeseburger right along side the biscuits and French toast.

It was seven ounces of juicy goodness. I had mine with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, and an over-easy egg. The patty was a touch over done. The server offered to have them make it over again, but I was already halfway done. The build was perfect. The bacon was broken on top in half-strips so as to maximize the flavor experience. Everything was cooked on the griddle including the bun.

If the patty was cooked medium as I ordered it, we’d have a new number one on our hands. However, to be fair, I have to dock them a quarter point. I give it a 4.75 with a strong recommendation to get it with a cup of coffee the next time you are in downtown Raleigh for brunch.

 

Don’s take: I am ashamed. I have let you down. I have let myself down. I have lived in Raleigh for the past 25 years and I have gone to Big Ed’s in City Market more times than I can count. And I have lived a lie. I have had their pancakes, their biscuits, their bacon, their eggs, but I have never had a burger until that day. And on that day, I cried. All the opportunities missed. All the burgers forsaken. I beg you to not make the same mistake, look past the breakfast options and go for the burger.

After all, you can add country ham and a perfect over medium egg on that burger and have it all, like I did. I ordered the burger medium deluxe style, plus ham and egg.. The only thing that was wrong in this burger was that it was just slightly overcooked, like Michael’s. The patty was delectable with a nice sprinkle of char; the lettuce- crisp, the tomato- robust.  Ed’s country ham combined with the perfectly cooked egg was that little taste of heaven that we rarely get the chance to have.  I give the burger a 4.75 and know that it will hit the golden 5.0 the next time I go back.

Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant: 4.75 out of 5. Ranking 6 out of 74.

Chuck’s Re-Review – Fall from Grace

Chad got there early. Despite the fact that the restaurant was 90% empty, he was denied a table. The hostess would not seat him until the full party had arrived. He had to go sit in the corner. Literally sit in the corner on a lonely metal chair. They might as well have given him a dunce cap.

Strike one. Nobody puts Chad in the corner.*

“Chuck’s has changed its burger formula. As I recall, they used to feature 1/3lb burgers, the perfect size (or at least gave you an option). The burgers at Chucks are now 1/4lb, which is fine if you like medium to medium well. I ordered mine medium rare. That’s a tricky temperature for a thinner patty, but I expected the grill cooks at Chuck’s to be able to pull it off, as they are among the best in the Triangle. They didn’t. I got an overcooked, underseasoned burger.

Strike two.

We generally don’t let atmosphere or sides influence our burger ratings. I’m going to make an exception here. I was not happy about sitting alone in the corner while the few patrons who were there wondered what I had done wrong, but I can deal with that. When Micheal showed up, the hostess did indeed show us to one of the many empty tables before Don arrived. That was nice. But the the other element that should not be influencing my feelings about Chuck’s (but is) are the fries. I haven’t been there in a while, but the last couple of times I’ve been to Chuck’s the fries have been plentiful and perfectly crafted. This time the side order of fries was skimpy and had clearly only been fried once rather than twice, which is standard restaurant practice to achieve a crispy outside and fluffy, potato-y interior. These were like the fries my mom used to make in her Fry Daddy — too brown on the outside and mushy on the inside.

Strike three.

Chuck’s used to be one of the best — if not the best — burger places in the Triangle. We have sung its praises for years. We put it at the top of our Best Burgers in NC list. In that time, however, the bar has been raised significantly. Al’s Burger Shack, Mojoes, b.good, Buns, Only Burger and others have come along to create a vibrant burger scene. Chuck’s has not kept up. They have rested on their laurels, and it shows. I can’t give this burger any better than a 3.5.”

* Extra points if you get the “Dirty Dancing” reference.

Michael arrived to find Chad sitting at his place in the corner. He walked past no less than 8 empty tables to be told that we wouldn’t be seated until everyone in their was party was there.

“The thing that really disappoints me about the Chuck’s burger is how good it used to be. I think I would give it a pass with something like a 4.00, if this is the first time I had eaten this burger. It used to be the pinnacle of burger establishments. When people would ask me about my favorite burger, I would tell them it was at Chucks.

Alas, The Spirt Animal is no longer the best burger in the Triangle. It is not even the best burger in downtown Raleigh. The care that was taken at Chucks originally set it apart. This burger was thrown together hastily. Gone are the perfectly-sized 5 oz and 8 oz patties. Replaced by a too small 4 oz and a too-thick double to replace the 8 oz.

The Spirit Animal is described as having tortilla dust. The first time I had it, it was pulverized and mashed into the cream cheese. It gave a hint of tortilla flavor without any evidence it was there. On our re-review night, there was a solitary tortilla chip broken into 6-7 pieces on top of the cheese. The other toppings were below the patty making it a pathetic mess. Below. The. Patty.

I may sound harsh in this review for something that, honestly, is decent. This used to be a 5.0 burger. The burger against which all other burgers were based. Now it is an uninspiring place that is more about flare than flavor.

Chucks? Pfft. Whatevs. Head down to b.good a block or two away. 3.5″

Don was nostalgic for better days. “There comes a time when your greatness causes complacency – like a middle-aged burger reviewer who once could spin words into gold, comedy gold, but now can barely string two words together with a hyphen. Unfortunately, Chuck’s is struggling with this now. There was a time when I would fast in the morning and  gladly schedule my time where I could be there at 11:45 am to beat the lunch rush just to get that fresh juicy love in my stomach. It was special, it was our best. But alas that time has past. And the worst thing I can say about is, ‘it has become ordinary’. A fairly good ordinary, but ordinary and unmemorable.

I go my usual, ‘Bear in Heaven’ and it was nothing special. Unlike my com padres I don’t worry about atmosphere or fries, so my burger is my task and my task was uninspired. The ingredients played well together, but it had lost something- that “it” factor.  It has been mentioned before, but the lack of the bigger patties being replaced with thinner smaller patties really removes the juicy factor to the burger that made Chuck’s so special.

Chuck’s you are still pretty good- a 4.0 but you, like me, were so much more.”

After our re-review, Chuck’s falls from 1 to 15 out of 73.


Carolyn has since been to Chuck’s since our visit described above.

“I went to Chucks on Monday for lunch and was surprised at the burger, in a good way.  I got the Dirty South, as I always do, but it was much better than it has been in the past 3 or 4 visits.  I’m not sure if they have a new cook or what, but the burger was excellent.  The past few prior times the burger has been sub-par – the meat has been meh and the toppings have been spotty and limp. Monday, tho – everything was working together, fresh-tasting and snappy.”

Is this a sign that Chuck’s has started to turn it around or a one off visit? Time will tell.

Renegade Review: Wahlburgers (Myrtle Beach, SC)

The writing was on the wall (pun not intended) about this burger. Right there on the menu it had a schematic of the Our Burger. I will quote from the menu, “Paul strategically stacked the Our Burger from the bottom up to deliver maximum taste & happiness.”
No. No. No.
If you want to deliver maximum happiness with a burger, how about having the burger be what you taste the most. They need to take a page out of Smashburger’s book and put the main flavor on the bottom. The only thing between the bottom bun and the patty is the seasoning. The theory is that the seasoning will touch the tongue first, and that will be the dominant flavor.
With the Our Burger, you get sauce (good), lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, then the patty. This build is just wicked wrong.
It’s a shame, too, because the patty was excellent. Excellent balance of char and flavor. I highly recommend heading to Wahlburgers if you have one near you. Just be prepared to take it apart and build it properly.

YAY!

BOO!

My rating is a 3.75. It would have been a 4.75 if the build hadn’t been upside down.

What to expect in 2017 and the TSB app

Happy new year burger lovers.

You probably noticed that the content on TSB.com has been sporadic in 2016. I’ve been working on a new project with Burgiatrist Emeritus Scott (more on that to come.) Chad’s constantly working on other writing projects. He’s the only one of us that actually makes any money writing. Don is busy being a professor and with other design projects. Carolyn has a new baby.

Unfortunately, writing about delicious burgers in the triangle has taken a back seat to everything else.

Take heart, though, TSB will continue. We are still discovering new burger places, and we’re going back to old places to make sure they live up to TSB’s exacting standards. We’ll put up podcasts as subjects come to us. Just subscribe or follow us on Twitter to stay up to date.

The one casualty of 2016 is the TSB app. It was simply too expensive and too much work to maintain. I looked at what it offered compared to the mobile version of the site, and it wasn’t much more. Basically, I was paying for the ability to search a map of our reviews. I have found a few options to add that to the mobile site. Look for that in the next month or so.

That’s about all for now. We recently went to do a re-review of Chad’s favorite Salem Street Pub with a special guest. We also have a podcast to post soon. Thanks for your support over the years. We look forward to providing you with burger information and entertainment for years to come.

Michael

The Straight Beef Podcast #27

Excuse me waiter, there aren’t any flies in my soup. Our eminent burgiatrists Donald and Michael discuss eating insects. A sea change to help our environment or an underhanded tactic by the Musroom Council. You decide.

Download our latest episode directly from Libsyn. Subscribe via iTunes or Google Play.

You can also find all of our content on the go with the TSB app.

Revisit – Mojoe’s Burger Joint (Raleigh, NC)

How many times have you said to yourself, “I could go for a burger.” Well, the media, backed by the people at the Mushroom Council, has come to demonize red meat. If burgers are so bad for us, we should make our times spent with them count. We shouldn’t just go to the nearest fast food place to satiate our desire for ground cow meat.

We should go to a place like Mojoe’s Burger Joint. A place that cares. A place that serves up consistent quality. A place that uses the Keep It Simple Stupid method of burgering. A place that deserves to be TSB Certified.

Michael’s rating: I knick them a bit for poor bacon placement. When in rarified air such as this, one has to nitpick. I give them a 4.75.

Don’s rating: Mojoe’s has the consistency ideal down pat. A good burger at a good value. 4.5

WRAL Out and About Voter’s Choice – Editorial

So, the good folks at WRAL Out and About have put together a “best of” list for people to vote on. It is a lot of things to vote on, so make sure you give yourself some time if you wish to have your virtual voice heard.

Here are the choices for burgers:

  • Bad Daddy’s
  • Burger 21
  • Clouds Brewing
  • Five Guys
  • Tribeca Tavern

Are you kidding me?

To be fair, we haven’t been to Clouds Brewing, yet. The other four have no business being on a list of best places for burgers in the Triangle. Thankfully, there is a write in vote.

I beg you to please write in Al’s Burger Shack or Mojoe’s Burger Joint. Do not let an average burger establishment be proclaimed as having the area’s best burger. We are better than that, people.

WRAL Out and About Voter’s Choice

Revisit – The Players’ Retreat (Raleigh, NC)

We here at the Straight Beef decided to look way, way back, to our first review, The Players’ Retreat, and visit them again. This time it was Dr. Michael Marino and, me, the Reverend Donald Corey, putting the PR to the test, a re-test if you will. If the PR came through then it would receive the first Straight Beef Certification Sticker ever given, a coveted culinary honor.

Michael: I could go for the easy joke here. The Players Retreat in Raleigh is basically on NC State’s campus. In ordering the Wolfpack Burger, I could say that the Wolfpack offered a lot of promise but didn’t deliver — much like their basketball team. I won’t though. Even if I wanted to, I can’t. The Wolfpack Burger delivers a solid performance. A simple tasty patty on an old school sesame seed bun. The mustard, slaw, and chili complemented and did not overpower the experience. Even after all these years, the PR still delivers a great burger. I give it a 4.25 this time.

Don: I went with the similarly constructed Pete Burger, consisting of chili, mustard and onions (I have left off the cheese on this list as they left it off my burger). The lack of cheese was a disappointment in the overall occasion as it is rare that I will even consider a burger without it. But to the shocked crowd, I ate and enjoyed it, even collecting a bit of extra chili in my beard for a later trip down memory lane. My rating is 4.0. No cheese really hurt me, though.

After six years, The Players’ Retreat still cut the mustard and earned their Straight Beef Certification.

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Overall rating (including our original ratings): 4.10

#23 out of 67

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