I have always been a fan of hamburgers but over the past year or so my taste for a good burger has sharpened. My quest to find a consistently delicious example in one (or more) of Toronto’s restaurants has been so frustrating that I am beginning to think that a very good (let alone exceptional) burger can only be cooked at home.
On occasion I’ve gone to some fairly drastic lengths to capture burger greatness. One of the first posts on Food With Legs was about grinding meat for burgers. Soon after I made my own potato-brioche buns. These were great projects and I enjoyed the ride immensely each time but they are really meant for a Sunday afternoon barbeque in July. I recognise that the craving for a juicy beef patty sandwiched between a soft, rich bun sometimes strikes on Tuesday evening on the way home from work in November. Project cooking is great but a hamburger sometimes just needs to be cheap, simple, and quick.
Some are lucky enough to have Cumbrae’s, The Healthy Butcher, or one of their cousins nearby but those places fail the cheap qualifier so I’m going to stick to grocery-store available products here. I was raised in a Loblaws family so while I imagine the Metro group or Sobey’s might have comparable products, for the purposes of this post I’ll stick with the Westons’ wares.
A particular reason for doing this is the ground beef offered as part of the new “Free From” line of President’s Choice meat. The Free From whole chicken and St. Louis ribs were good enough to prompt high expectations for the ground beef when I tried it a few weeks ago but even then I was positively surprised. This stuff tastes great.
Luckily, the Free From ground beef comes in a deep, roomy package (similar to ground chicken or New Zealand lamb) that keeps the strands of ground meat lined up. Heston Blumenthal devoted a good five minutes of his show on searching for the perfect burger to why this is important. Also the size of the tray is big enough that the meat can be shaped into pucks and seasoned without dirtying a cutting board. Those who are particularly concerned about foodborne illnesses will be happy to see this and while they might be less pleased that I insist on cooking my burgers no more well-done than medium I’m beginning to strongly believe that cross-contamination (germs from meat or elsewhere contaminates counters or cutting boards and then in turn contaminates raw ingredients like lettuce) is the far greater danger.
Regular readers will know of my (semi-religious) devotion to simple hamburger patties. That means no chopped onion, no egg, no garlic powder, and definitely no breadcrumbs. I also have a mild obsession with the New York-based Shake Shack mini-chain. As a hybrid homage to the Shack and the Blumenburger all I did to the beef was cut it into third-of-a-pound pieces and squeeze each puck to make sure it stays together and is roughly circular.
Finding the right bun may be the toughest nut to crack. Martin’s (supplier to the Shake Shack) apparently stocks grocery stores in the northeast United States with their top-notch potato rolls but won’t send them across the border. [One might expect that a family of bakers who runs a highly successful grocery chain might manage a hamburger more inspired than a flattened hockey puck but such is the world of monopoly retailing.] I was tempted to stretch the rules and go with a wacky idea like tearing the tops from two muffin-shaped dinner rolls or the religious route with either a kosher challah twister or a hot cross bun but that would have been cheating. Instead I settled for the tried and true D’Italiano Crustini Italian-style hamburger bun. Thankfully for my tastes in hamburger buns this is not at all crusty (unless you really over-toast it.) I compensated for the lack of richness by lightly buttering the bun before it was toasted.
Condiments are pretty easy and probably already in most refrigerators: mayo, mustard, dill pickle, cheese, onions, and ketchup (if you absolutely insist). I like Hellmann’s mayo but go lightly. I haven’t been on speaking terms with ketchup since it made all the grilled cheese sandwiches I had as a kid taste exactly the same as each other. The Heinz flagship version is pretty good (allegedly) so use it if that floats your boat. As a reference for Canadian burger-heads who wonder (I did) what purists mean when they insist on “American cheese” it’s what we know as “Kraft singles”. No fancy or fruity mustards here but not the yellow ballpark stuff that tastes more like its colour than anything else. A slice of a Strubb’s kosher dill pickle adds a tart, salty crunch and a few extra-thin slices of red onion round out the team (for those who don’t like the taste of raw onion there is an optional step in the instructions below). Lettuce is for rabbits.
I’m trying to duplicate the heat-tranferring, crust-creating qualities of a chrome-topped griddle so we’ll be using a pan (incidentally, the President’s Choice copper-bottomed pan is one of my favourites) on the stove. The stainless steel one I used works very well but, of course, so does a cast iron skillet. Things are going to get smoky and the smoke detector might go off so open a window, get your smoke-flapping towel ready and send any co-domesticates to the store for some beer.
Loblaws Burger with Cheese
- 1 package (about 500 g or 1 lb) PC Free From lean ground beef
- 3 D’Italiano Crustini buns
- kosher salt
- black pepper
- condiments, as discussed above
- Special equipment: A heavy, wide offset spatula and a thinner offset spatula, both metal as pictured below.
Note: While this recipe is my own, the technique is pretty heavily adapted (i.e. stolen entirely) from what the Shake Shack does–at least as presented in this video interview with The Feedbag‘s Josh Ozersky. I think this is easily one of the top-five youtube videos related to food. It has a picture-in-picture shot of a burger cooking, need I say more?
Also: Obviously you can shop at whatever grocery store you want and buy whatever buns, condiments and meat you want. I get that Cumbrae’s in-house ground beef blend is probably better than what PC has to offer and I too would much rather use a brioche bun from Fred’s Breads for my ultimate burger but the idea of this post is to create an excellent burger with standard ingredients. If you’ve found better (especially buns) at one of the other major Toronto grocery stores please let me know in the comments.
Finally: Health authorities and the handling instructions on ground meat all demand that grond meat beef be cooked to very well-done (71 degrees celsius). You follow this recipe, and cook your burgers to medium-rare or medium, at your own risk.
Heat a 12-inch, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat with about a teaspoon of vegetable oil. It’s better to use a smaller, heavy pan and work in batches–it’s less than five minutes from raw to done–than a light or flimsy, 12-inch pan. Lightly butter both halves of the bun and lightly toast it.
Cut the ground beef into three equal pieces. Gently squeeze each piece so that it stays together and gently shape the sides so that they are vaguely round–each piece should look sort of like two hockey pucks stacked on each other. Shape and form is not critical–handling the meat as little as possible is. Season one of the flat sides (top or bottom) with kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper.
Once the pan is hot and the oil is beginning to smoke place the meat pucks in the pan, seasoned side down. After about thirty seconds a crust will have begun to form and it is time to press the patties. Applying a pretty good amount of force to the top use your wide, metal spatula to press down each puck. I didn’t measure but I’d say each puck went from being about three inches tall to between half and two-thirds of an inch. Now season the top side with kosher salt and black pepper. Because the bottom of the wide spatula was pressed onto the raw beef you may want to wipe it off or hold against the hot pan for a bit.
Between two and two and a half minutes after going into the pan you should be able to tell that the brown colour has climbed about two-thirds of the way up the side of the patties and that means it is time to flip them. Use your narrow offset spatula to scrape the edges of the patty away from the pan.
Flip the patty over. Now is the time for the cooking of onions (if you really don’t like them raw) and the melting of cheese but you must work quickly. Place a few pieces of very thinly sliced red onion on top of the patty and then a slice of “American” cheese on top of that. The onions will cook and the cheese will melt largely from the heat coming off the now-exposed cooked side so make sure these toppings are on before the heat dissipates. One and a half to two minutes after being flipped your hamburger will be medium-rare to medium.
Place patty on your lightly-toasted bun, garnish with condiments and enjoy.