Notes from the Burger Underground: Media Roundup

This month’s edition of Notes from the Burger Underground is an overview of burger news and reviews that have appeared in major media outlets. Enjoy.

Roman Burger

The Roman Burger. Photo by NPR.

This is the Roman Burger from M Burger in Chicago, which uses grilled cheese sandwiches for buns. The fearless correspondents at NPR’s Sandwich Monday give it a (gut) glowing review.

Southern Burger

The pimento cheeseburger from Southside Smokehouse. Photo by Michael Stern.

Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food fame declare the pimento cheeseburger at Southside Smokehouse in Landrum, SC, the ultimate southern cheeseburger.

Disappering Burger

NY’s The Gander only sells this sweet baby during the day. Photo: Paul Wagtouicz

Grub Street laments the disappearing burger, a loss leader in NY restaurants that have proven so popular that chefs limit access to their meaty goodness. “More top New York chefs limit their burgers by selling them in very small quantities, or only at lunch, or only for the first 30 minutes their restaurant is open, or maybe just to the people sitting at the bar but not in the dining room, or possibly only on Mondays.”


Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Author Michael Ruhlman reminds us that if we want to make the best burgers we need to grind our own meat. Why?

First and foremost: taste and texture. When you grind your own, you can regulate the amount of fat you include; your hamburger should contain 20 to 30 percent fat for a juicy, succulent burger. I can season the diced meat before grinding it so that the burger is seasoned uniformly throughout. And I can use the large die so that it’s got real bite to it.

Importantly to me, when I grind my own, I know it hasn’t been contaminated by any of the bad bugs that can get into ground meat these days at big processing facilities, or even through carelessness in the meat department of my grocery store. Provided I give the whole muscle a thorough rinse and pat it dry, I can eat the ground meat as tartare or serve it to my kids as rare as they want it.

And finally, the NY Times’s Sam Sifton deconstructs the perfect burger, dividing the universe into diner-style griddled burgers and thick pub-style. The trick? “Cook on heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles. Cook outside if you like, heating the pan over the fire of a grill, but never on the grill itself. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.”

Notes from the Burger Underground: Five the Hard Way

Five the Hard Way

A Guide to Burger Best Practices

The Straight Beef just celebrated its fourth year and 50th official review. Over that time we have compiled some burgiatric wisdom. Restaurateurs and burger joint owners take note, this is the hard earned truth coming your way. These are my (Chad’s) opinions, not the consensus of The Straight Beef, but we agree on many of them.


Even excellent burgers get soggy when wrapped in foil

1) No foil! Do NOT wrap your burgers in foil. Just don’t. I don’t care if you were told that foil will keep the burger hot on the way to the table or in the customer’s car on the way home. The truth is that wrapping a burger in foil simply steams it. The bun becomes soggy, and toppings like pimento cheese or chili just turn into soup. Your perfectly cooked patty turns into a grey, flavorless puck molecularly welded to a soft goo formed from what was once the bun. If the customer made the mistake of ordering a chili cheeseburger, they now have to eat it with a spoon. There is a very good reason that In ‘n’ Out and other lauded chains use the “burger diaper” wrap. It works. Here’s a tutorial on how to wrap burgers in the parchment available from any restaurant supply.670px-Tuck-each-triangle-under-the-burger-one-at-a-tim-7

2) No Kaiser Roll! Unless your burger is greater than a half pound, you have no need of the structural support of a kaiser roll. A kaiser roll is too bready, too chewy, too much for most burgers. It overwhelms and completely buries the flavor of the patty. The proper burger to bun ratio has the burger patty slightly overhanging the bun. If the patty is completely enclosed in the bun you have too much bread. The traditional bun for a flat-top-cooked, diner-style burger is the potato roll. Even better is the brioche bun. If you want to see it done perfectly, order the burger at Buns in Chapel Hill with a brioche bun from 9th St. Bakery. That’s what it’s like when a perfect bun and a perfectly cooked burger come together. The only exception to the No Kaiser rule is for pub-style burgers of more than 8–10 ounces. A flame-kissed burger that’s more than half to three-quarters of a pound might actually need the hefty, juice-absorbing foundation that a kaiser roll offers.


No Kaiser Rolls!

3) No Gimmick Burgers! We used to make a point of ordering whatever “signature burger” a place offered, figuring that was where the chef or owner really wanted to shine and would put his or her best efforts. In the spiraling arms race of burger weirdness, those signature burgers have become freak shows. The happy surprises — like the “My Wife Said It Wouldn’t Sell” burger at Salem St. Pub in Apex, a peanut butter and honey burger that is absolutely delicious — gave way to monstrous concoctions of buttermilk Ranch bacon burgers dipped in desperation and deep fried on a donut. If you feel the need to create a Tex-Mex by Way of India burger with queso, masa harina and ghost chiles … Resist. Just don’t. If your signature burger comes with a warning, a waiver, or gets the eater’s photo on the wall, you have left the true path of burger wisdom and gone over to the dark side.


If your signature burger was a person, who would it be?

4) DO offer your burgers in a variety of sizes. While a 5.5oz (1/3lb) patty is just about perfect, anything from 5oz to 8oz works. Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill offers its burgers in 3oz, 6oz and 9oz patties, allowing the diner to pick a portion that suits his appetite. Most places offer a double for those looking for a little more fulfillment. Borrowing from the Freakburger theme of #3 above, your 16oz “Enormity Burger” is a sideshow, not a meal. Keep it manageable. If I have to unhinge my jaws like a python to take a bite, you have failed.

5) Pay attention to the little things. House cut fries score major points. They let me know you care. I can tell freshly cut potatoes from the crap that came out of a Sysco bag. Unless you are buying the same frozen fries that chef Thomas Keller developed for Bouchon, you are better off investing the $50 in a french fry cutter and learning to properly double fry. IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE. So do toppings. Shred your lettuce. It’s a small thing, but shredded lettuce is so much better than the bun sliding around against a wilted leaf of iceberg. Oh, and tomatoes are seasonal. If they don’t taste like summer, leave them off. You’re just making the bun soggy.

I have exhausted my allotment of exclamation points for the month. These are some of the things that separate an average burger place from a spectacular burger place. You’ve still got to get the basics right. Use excellent beef. Grind it fresh every day. Buy your buns locally or make them in-house. Learn to cook to temp. After that, these five hard lessons should help keep  you on the path to greatness.

Burgiatry Breakthrough!

Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery Offers Brioche Bun

Ari and his soon to be world famous brioche bun.

Ari Berenbaum has spectacular buns.

There is one ingredient that always makes food taste better. It’s called “love.” It’s also called “butter.” And when there’s love and butter, magic happens.

That magic happened recently when The Straight Beef met with Ari Berenbaum, the new owner of Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery, to taste his brioche hamburger bun. Our host was George Ash, owner of Buns, Chapel Hill’s boutique burger joint, one of our top five burger places.

The Straight Beef has always taken a firm stance on hamburger buns. A bun is more than a mere delivery system. A good bun can make or break a hamburger. The classic diner-style burger bun is a squishy potato roll, which is perfect for a single patty cooked on a flat-top, but for anything larger, it tends to disintegrate with each bite, leaving the eater with a sloppy handful of patty and condiments. On the other end of the spectrum are wheat buns and the dreaded Kaiser roll, which offer greater structural stability but at the expense of excessive breadiness and too much chew.

Brioche, rich with butter and eggs, is a classic French-enriched bread. It is usually found in popover or loaf form and served at holidays. Ari Berenbaum has turned it into what may be the perfect hamburger bun.

Ari explained how the brioche bun is different from normal buns: In addition to the tenderness provided by eggs and milk, the introduction of softened butter–after the other ingredients are mixed–allows for ribbons of butter to layer in the dough.

“There is a richness to brioche,” Ari said, “a depth of flavor, a yeastiness and balance that you don’t often find in a hamburger bun.”

In the interests of objective burgiatric science, we tasted the brioche by itself. It was light, soft and delicious, with a beautiful sweet butter favor. Then we tasted George’s standard wheat and regular buns. The brioche crust was softer and easier to bite through, the crumb was light and airy, and the flavor trumped both other buns easily.

The real test came, however, with the burgers. Could the brioche bun stand up to a variety of toppings? Reverend Corey ordered his burger with bacon, grilled onions, American cheese and a fried egg to see how the light interior of the bun withstood the wet toppings and the ravages of a lava-like egg yolk.

Mr. Ward went classic with pickles, mayonnaise and sharp cheddar, the Spartan selection highlighting the interaction of the bun and patty.

Both burgers were enhanced by the brioche bun, adding depth and a hint of butter to each bite. While the bun had a way of dissolving quickly in the mouth, allowing the favors of the burger and toppings to come through, the interior remained structurally sound almost until the end, surrendering to the juiciness of the burger and toppings only at the last bite or so.

As always, the burgers at Buns were perfectly cooked and seasoned, offering the ideal test platform for the bun.

Ninth Street Bakery’s brioche buns are exclusive to Buns in Chapel Hill for the time being, but Ninth Street distributes its breads in grocery and specialty stores from Greensboro to Raleigh. The bakery expects to have brioche buns in Harris Teeter and Whole Foods stores in the upcoming months.

Pictured from left. Ari, Don, Chad, and George Ash.

Pictured from left. Ari, Don, Chad, and George Ash.

Notes from the Burger Underground: Los Angeles Times Crowns Winner in Battle of the Burgers

Would You Eat It?

Battle of the Burgers 2013, clockwise from top left, STG (Save the gravy) burger, GCCB (Green curry chicken burger) ultimate fusion, Steakhouse burger, Hoad’s hot jalapeno burger and Texas luau burger. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)


The Los Angeles Times has wrapped up its third annual Battle of the Burgers (click link for recipes), crowning five winners from hundreds of entries. Recipes were whittled down by reader voting to the top 20. Each of those 20 reader selections was prepared in the LA Times test kitchen and judged by the food editor, the restaurant critic, the head of the test kitchen, and other staff members, who chose the top five.

That should produce a great hamburger, right? Instead, it produced a freak show.

Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much; let me sum up. In addition to my duties as a member of The Straight Beef, on-call forensic burgiatrist, and unofficial link to the seamier sides of the burger underworld, I sometimes judge beer contests.

Beers that win contests are rarely beers that you’d want to sip after mowing the lawn. They are bigger, bolder, maltier, hoppier and more aggressive than standard beers. They taste wonderful for the one or two sips that a judge might take, but you probably wouldn’t drink a pint of one, much less order a second or third.

These burgers are like contest-winning beers. They’re too much. Too over-the-top, with recherché toppings and multi-step (and sometimes multi-hour) preparations.

A good burger is a thing of beauty and a thing of simplicity: good beef treated with care, seasoned simply (but aggressively), grilled or griddled to a light crust on the outside, and topped with ingredients that enhance but don’t overpower the flavor of the patty.

That’s the recipe for a perfect burger. It’s also the recipe for losing a hamburger contest, where the premium is on originality rather than flavor.

These burgers are the monster trucks, the nitro-burning funny cars of burgerdom, behemoths seething with testosterone. They are built to impress rather than please.

The Straight Beef has a rule of thumb that any burger with more than four toppings must be truly exceptional to overcome the difficulty of eating it and the overwhelming likelihood that the toppings will mask the flavor of the beef. None of these burgers has fewer than seven toppings, and you could not possibly eat one without a knife and fork.

Great burgers to wow a contest judge. Lousy burgers to serve to friends and family.


Work Those Buns!

The Straight Beef’s recent Podcast #4 raised the critical issue of whether or not a patty melt is a legitimate hamburger. The answer to that question hangs on one’s belief in the importance of the bun. If the bun is a critical component, then the patty melt, which is traditionally served between slices of rye bread, is not a burger. If, as the Food Lover’s Companion says, a hamburger is “. . . a cooked patty of ground beef between two bread halves, usually in the form of a hamburger bun,” a patty melt is very definitely a variation on a hamburger just as a pimento burger is a variation on a cheeseburger. We’ll deal with this topic in greater detail (and with greater vitriol) in an upcoming review.

Why all the bun angst? Because the bun is important. The founding members of The Straight Beef are adamant that a kaiser roll is never a fitting delivery vehicle for a hamburger. Latecomer and burger iconoclast Chad believes that a kaiser roll is sometimes appropriate for pub-style burgers, those whopping half pound giants whose juiciness and  overloaded toppings can sometimes overwhelm a lesser bun.

All agree, however, that the perfect hamburger bun for classic, diner-style, griddled hamburgers is the potato roll, specifically the Martin’s potato roll. Our friends at the Burger Lab at A Hamburger Today conducted a series of taste test that confirmed our findings. You can see the results here: The Burger Lab: What’s The Best Bun For My Burger?

Photograph by Robyn Lee, A Hamburger Today

The minions at The Straight Beef’s secret undergound lair and test lab are currently putting the finishing touches on the ultimate homemade hamburger bun recipe. In the meantime, this recipe from King Arthur Flour is a good start: Hamburger Potato Buns

Photo courtesy of King Arthur Flour




 1) Combine all of the dough ingredients and mix and knead them — by hand, mixer, or bread machine — to make a soft dough.

2) Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until it’s almost doubled in bulk.

3) Turn the dough onto a lightly greased surface, gently deflate it, and divide it into 6 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball.

4) Place the balls into the greased cups of a hamburger bun pan, flattening gently. Or place them on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about 2″ to 3″ between them; flatten gently.

5) Cover and let rise until the buns have doubled in size, 60 to 90 minutes. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.

6) Bake the buns for 15 to 20 minutes, or until they’re light golden brown.

7) Remove them from the oven, and brush them with melted butter, if desired.

8) Transfer the buns to a rack to cool. Store buns, well-wrapped, at room temperature for several days; freeze for longer storage.

Yield: 6 buns.

Burgatory from Pittsburgh is the new Burger Brackets Champion

Burgatory, the burger industry insider trade magazine, hosts a March Madness-style burger championship throwdown. This year’s winner is Burgatory, a two-restaurant chain from Pittsburgh. Burgatory defeated a host of industry stalwarts to win. Who knew that icons like In-n-Out and Five Guys would go down so early or that Bad Daddy’s would make it so far? More than 16,000 votes were cast.

Burgatory skillfully used its more than 10,500 Facebook likes and more than 3,800 Twitter followers to get out the word. The Pittsburgh Penguins tweeted their fans and urged them to vote for the burger joint that operates a highly successful burger-and-shakes stand in their home arena.

Did the best burger win? Or did the best social media strategy win? You be the judge.


Click for larger version

Notes from the Burger Underground

Classic Drive-In Cooking


Sometimes you can’t get out to a restaurant when the burger craving hits. The Straight Beef feels your pain. Here, then, is your guide to making classic drive-in and diner style burgers, hot dogs, fresh cut french fries, onion rings, and milkshakes at home, courtesy of Holly Moore. Just click  the link to get started.

Drive-In Cooking: Quintessential American Fare

Holly Moore is a chef, restaurateur, food writer and lover of all things fried and greasy. More formally, he’s the former owner of Holly Moore’s restaurant in Philadelphia, former food and restaurant columnist for Philadelphia’s City Paper and did stints in product development for McDonalds and Burger King. He was one of the developers of the Big Mac. These days he does a little television and is the host and reviewer at Long before Guy Fieri’s ridiculous hair and over-the-top presentation, Holly was reviewing diners, drive-ins and dives with the passion of someone who has loved — and worked in — just that sort of place for a very long time. HollyEats is a road map to great food just a little off the beaten path.

In 2003, the food website eGullet started offering online classes in its eGullet Culinary Institute (eGCI) series. I wrote the knife maintenance & sharpening workshop and Holly provided this hands-on lesson in how to prepare classic drive-in fare, lessons learned beginning with the Sip’n’Sup Drive-In, “back when cars had fins.”

Scroll all the way down the tutorial for a link to a Q&A where Holly answers questions about technique, ingredients, et al.

Just another way The Straight Beef maintains and passes on the sacred burgiatric wisdom.

Notes from the Burger Underground

 I want fries with that!


There are two key tomes in the canon of hamburger lore, both published in 2005. It was a banner year for hamburger research. George Motz produced his highly regarded documentary and accompanying book, Hamburger America, and John T. Edge published Hamburgers & Fries: an American story.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a regular contributor to several food magazines. Hamburgers & Fries is a journey across America to discover the hamburger in all its glorious manifestations. It is also a response to the times. While part of the nation was damning fast food and its effect on society, haute restaurants were in an ever escalating war to create the most outrageous and expensive hamburgers imaginable.

But hamburgers are neither industrial death machine nor conspicuous extravagance. They are a uniquely American creation, inexpensive and egalitarian, and, for the last 100 years, a reflection of the times and places that shape them. As the Charles Kuralt quote that opens the book says, “You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.”

Edge is ecumenical, with a broad definition that takes in nearly every regional expression of a hamburger. Along with the usual White Castles and pimento burgers, we discover the onion burgers of Oklahoma and the slug burgers (soy) and dough burgers (flour) of Mississippi, Depression-era efforts to extend expensive beef with cheaper ingredients. Edge delves the mysteries of the “loose meat” sandwiches in Iowa and Kansas and the steamed burgers of Connecticut. I will admit that “loose meat” is disturbing to contemplate, much less type. He explores the bean burgers of San Antonio, replete with Fritos and Cheez Whiz; Minnesota’s Jucy Lucy, two patties with molten cheese sealed in the middle; and Miami’s Cuban frita, a spiced patty topped with crispy shoestring fries. It is a voyage reminiscent of Calvin Trillan’s Tummy Trilogy or Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, less a travelogue than a reflection on food and place.

There are two areas where the book falls down. While Edge explores some of the standard origin stories of Hamburg steak and trots out a solid half-dozen claimants to first placing it on a bun, he doesn’t come to any conclusions. He just says, “Screw it, let’s go have a burger,” and leaves it at that. It’s unsatisfying.

His greater sin is the short shrift he gives to French fries. Despite the title, Hamburgers & Fries, fries barely make an appearance. Again, this is a controversial topic in burgiatry. How much weight should be given to the fries when assessing the quality of a hamburger joint? But if you are going to call your book Hamburgers & Fries, you’d better damn well write about fries.

Hamburgers & Fries is a fun ride, and John T. Edge is a strong writer, though a little florid now and again. With the book on the bargain tables for $4 or $5, Hamburgers & Fries should be on the shelves of every burger enthusiast, even if it doesn’t properly acknowledge the importance of the fry.