Course One: The Humble Hamburger
A brief disclaimer: I’m still working out some kinks with my photos and photo editing, and I’m not thrilled with the writing, so this is a kind of test post for me. I hope you’ll bear with me as I learn the ins and outs of food photography and food writing. It’s just a little bit different than writing policy memos. 🙂
Greg and I move from North Carolina to Boston next week, and a few days ago a representative of the moving company we’re using came by to assess our apartment and inventory our things. The woman took one look around, and nicely suggested that I must like to cook. Ha.
We do have a lot of kitchen and cooking supplies. Project-specific bake ware, a Molcajete, Beer and wine glasses for each type of drink, matching dishware for 12. You need it, we almost definitely have it. (Looking for matching brunch plates and fruit bowls for a dozen of your closest friends? I’m your girl.)
But, if we have a lot of tools and utensils, it’s because we’re regularly experimenting with and recreating types of foods and cuisines from around the world. I find that preparing foods is one way of remembering. As I cook (and eat) I’m pulled back into the places I’ve visited: hot, fermenting Bangkok; damp, salty Galway; arid, oregano-scented Crete.
But we also love classic American fare and like many people, both of our families grilled often throughout the summer (shout out to my dad who actually grills all year round at our house north of Boston.) At the top of that grilled foods list is the simple hamburger and for the last few months Greg has been on a mission to perfect it.
It started with an article in a Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. We’re both huge fans of America’s Test Kitchen, the publisher of Cooks Illustrated, and own an impressive collection of their magazines and cookbooks (don’t worry, the moving rep noticed that too…) If you aren’t familiar with ATK you should definitely check them out. They scientifically test recipes dozens of times to make sure that’s perfect and easily replicated at home.
After reading the article, Greg challenged us to see if we could make an entire hamburger from scratch – patty, bun, ketchup, fries. The only things we purchased whole were the flours, veggies, and chuck. I also cut corners and used canned plum tomatoes and spices for the ketchup – I wasn’t about to start trying to grow my own cloves for this.
Josh Ozersky wrote in his 2009 book, The Hamburger: A History, “At the end of the day, nothing says America like the Hamburger.” And he’s right – the proliferation of McDonald’s around the world says a lot about our culinary identity. But the burger clearly didn’t originate here so in addition to the culinary challenge Greg threw down, I tackled some research on the subject.
I guessed that hamburgers originated as an easy way to use lower-quality cuts of beef, but beyond assuming that they came from Hamburg, Germany, I really didn’t know much about a food I’ve been eating for the better part of 30 years.
As it turns out, I was (somewhat) correct. While chopped meat dishes can be found in dozens of cultures around the world going back hundreds of years, the hamburger in it’s current form originated as the “Hamburg Steak” – a chopped beef patty often mixed with spices and onion. The rise of the Hamburg Steak closely mimicked the rise of the German industrial revolution – roughly 1850 – 1875 – and as young men fled to urban settings to find work in iron and steel factories.
From there, it seems that the nearly 6 million German immigrants to the United States brought the concept of the Hamburg Steak over with them between 1820-1918. Once here, it lost the onions and spices and added a bun (most likely at one of two fairs, where a sandwich format was easiest for patrons to eat.) There are many people who claim to have made the first commercial hamburgers in the US, but it appears to have shown up almost simultaneously in multiple states at once, so that’s probably a fruitless discussion. (It’s kind of like asking your 93-year old grandfather what he thinks of the 2016 candidate pool – you’re just not going to get anywhere.)
The burger was then further ingrained in American culture through policy. The first “farm bill,” which passed in 1933, began the practice of government subsidies for agricultural commodities. These subsidies have continued throughout the twentieth century in several iterations, and were included in the most recent farm bill, which was enacted in 2014.
The major subsidy that impacts the beef industry comes out of the commodity program, which essentially pays farmers when crop prices or revenues decline. This includes coverage for natural disasters. Between 1995 and 2014, these programs cost taxpayers about $8.6 billion. The Bureau of Land Management (part of the U.S. Department of the Interior) also opens land to ranchers for their cattle at a highly reduced rate relative to the market price (currently just $2.11 per year per beef head.) These subsidies are what helps make beef so inexpensive and accessible to most Americans.
Any discussion on the hamburger wouldn’t be complete without mentioning fast food. After World War I came to a bloody close in 1918, the US experienced a short recession followed by a decade of prosperity which was caused in large part by improvements in mechanization, refrigeration and commercialism. Industrial workers flocked to urban areas that then fostered an environment ripe for fast food production and consumption. White Castle became the first fast food company to advertise and McDonalds perfected production efficiencies in the post WWII years. As American society became more fast-paced and work focused, the fast food industry – and especially the hamburger market- boomed.
Today, that meteoric rise has spread around the world, taking the place of traditional cooking methods and giving rise to a global obesity problem. About 36,000 McDonalds can be found in 119 countries around the world.
Despite the health problems associated with eating fast food, the proliferation of hamburgers has continued to grow since its introduction making the hamburger the ubiquitous American food.
Back to our burgers. I had to work and Greg is a (just graduated!) MBA student, so he volunteered to make the English muffins. A quick note: I have Celiac disease, so these are not regular English muffins. They are from ATK’s How Can It Be Gluten Free, Volume 1 cookbook and they.are.amazing. Greg even thinks so and he’s a big nooks-and-crannies guy and also a big gluten guy. I also made ATK’s ketchup from their D.I.Y Cookbook (Are you sensing a theme here?) and Greg ground the beef and made the patties. We added tomato and avocado to the burgers, made some oven French fries to go with them and let the juice run down our chins. It was pretty much an out-of-body experience considering the simplicity of the dinner at hand. They were so good that I haven’t been able to bring myself to order a burger out anywhere since.
Enjoy – I know we are looking forward to making these again outside when the weather turns nice out in Boston and we get sick of eating lobster. (Just kidding.)
Gluten Free English Muffins (adapted from How Can It Be Gluten Free)
Note: Gluten Free baking works better if you weigh the ingredients. I use a kitchen scale I bought for less than $12 and it is great.
Makes 10 English Muffins.
3¾ ounces cornmeal
2 cups warm water (110) degrees
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
14 ounces gluten free flour (I make my own based on ATK’s blend)
4 ounces oat flour
1 ½ ounces nonfat dry milk powder
3 tablespoons powdered psyllium husk (AKA unflavored colon cleanse)
2 tablespoons sugar
2¼ teaspoons instant yeast
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons vegetable oil
- Sprinkle about ½ cup of cornmeal on two rimmed baking sheets. Whisk water, eggs and melted butter together in bowl. Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix the flour, oat flour, milk powder, psyllium, sugar, yeast, baking powder and salt together on low until combined. Slowly add the liquid mixture and let the dough come together, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the dough is sticky and uniform, about 6 minutes. The dough will be similar to cookie dough.
- Working with 1/3 cup of dough at a time, wet hands and shape into balls. Space each ball at least 1½ inches apart until you have 5 balls per sheet. Cover loosely with lightly greased plastic wrap and let rise until they’ve doubled in size – about an hour.
- Adjust the oven rack so it’s in the middle of the over and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Press on each dough ball until it is about ¾ of an inch thick and 3½ inches wide. Remove the plastic wrap and dust with the remaining ¼ cup of cornmeal.
- Heat 1 teaspoon of oil in a 12 inch skillet until it’s shimmering, about 2 minutes. Wipe out the skillet to remove excess oil, leaving a thin film. Lay 4 muffins into the pan and cook until set, about 1 minute, pressing down to prevent doming when necessary.
- Flip the muffins and replicate on the other side then transfer the to a clean baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining muffins.
- Bake until golden and brown, 30-35 minutes. Rotate sheet halfway through baking. Let muffins cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.
Gregory’s Best Burgers
Makes 4 burgers
1½ pounds sirloin steak tips or chuck, trimmed and cut into ½ inch chunks
Kosher salt and pepper
- Freeze the meat until firm but pliable, about 35 minutes.
- Grind the meat into about 1/32 of an inch pieces working in 3 batches. Discard any large chunks of gristle or fat.
- Mix in a pinch of salt and pepper and make four patties. They should be about ¾ of an inch thick and 4½ inches in diameter.
- Make a 1 inch x ¼ inch depression on the top of each burger. This prevents them from puffing up. Transfer back to the freezer for 30-45 minutes.
- Using a gas grill, preheat the grill on high, about 15 minutes. Salt and pepper the outsides of the burgers and put on the grill. Don’t touch them for 4-7 minutes until they easily release from the grill. Flip them and cook until the middle registers 120-125 for medium rare or 130-135 for medium. Don’t even think about looking up the temperature for well done.
- When the burgers are done, let them rest for 5 minutes and enjoy!
Real Ketchup (also adapted from ATK)
The only thing I wasn’t 100% satisfied with was the ketchup I made – it was too sweet for my taste. Next time I’ll cut back on the clove oil, half the sugar and add some jalapenos to give it some kick.
Makes two pints.
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 pay leaves
1 cinnamon stick, cut in half
½ teaspoon of allspice berries
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 small onion, minced
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes
¼ packed dark brown sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
- Bundle the first 5 ingredients in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine, leaving about 5 inches on one end.
- Heat the oil and add the cloves in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until oil begins to bubble. Cook for 5 minutes, remove from heat, cover, and let steep for an additional 5 minutes. Strain the oil and discard the cloves.
- Return oil to sauce pay and heat over medium until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened, 5-7 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, garlic and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Transfer to blender and add tomatoes. Process in batches if necessary. Return mixture to pot and add brown sugar, vinegar, and 1½ teaspoons salt. Tie the end of the spice bundle to the pan and submerge spices into tomato mixture.
- Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture is dark red, thick and reduced to about 4 cups, about 2 hours.
- Remove the spice bag and strain ketchup through a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl. Let ketchup cool to room temperature then season with salt and pepper to taste. Jarred ketchup can be kept refrigerated for up to a month.
Oven French Fries
1.5 lbs russet potatoes (2 medium potatoes)
1-1.5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Slice potatoes length-wise into one inch thick slices and pat them dry.
- Add the potato wedges to a walled baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil on top and sprinkle in 1 teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon pepper (or to taste) on top. Mix with hands until oil, salt and pepper are evenly distributed. Spread the potatoes in a single layer on the baking sheet.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes, flipping fries at the 25 minute mark.
- Let cool slightly before eating.