So that was fun.
This was not a “Raptured into Heaven” burger. The burger did not teach me Krav Maga, weatherproof my home, breeze through the final level of Diablo II, get me a new job, or straighten things out with my ex-girlfriend. Things are not about to get real all up in the dining room because I ate this sandwich.
Still, for a homemade burger? It was pretty amazing.
Exquisite flavor. Luscious but not fatty, strong but not overpowering, seasoned and straightforward, and right within that Goldiloxical zone of chew and tender. Each bite of meat held together just long enough for the deep notes of the beef to register before falling back into the palate in a slow, oozing taper of richness and umami.
It was well-composed, too, something I really didn’t think would be possible, given the richness of the bun and the complex flavors of the cheese. It was as if the other elements humbly accepted their support role – certainly you tasted the bun, and whiffed hints of herb in the cheese, but the beef took center stage.
I tried to conquer the Blumenburger this past weekend. The process actually took about six weeks, in between the planning, the shopping, multiple dry runs on the cheese and the buns, heated arguments with my wine merchant, several days of finagling with a butcher, and one final frenetic 36 hours by which one misstep could have, in theory, wrecked weeks of effort. But I think it worked.
I’ve wanted to grapple with a Heston Blumenthal recipe for a long, long time. As the owner of London’s “The Fat Duck,” Blumenthal has earned a reputation for culinary daring: using liquid nitrogen to scramble eggs, vacuum pumps to perfectly aerate poultry skin, or using industrial spraying equipment to frost a cake. But clearly evident alongside that playfulness is an almost Quixotic urge to understand the chemistry behind what makes food taste good… testing his food on machines that can measure a food’s resistance to pressure, or measuring the precise water content of potatoes (Shebar needs to ship me some Maris Pipers, pronto) before serving fish and chips.
I’ve joked that cookbooks are kind of like people. Some have high energy and fun, some are sexy, some are close reliable friends, and some… well… I’ve always thought of “In Search of Total Perfection” as one of those “special guest stars” who appear on popular television dramas. In the first scene, everyone will be hanging around with the amazing new guy, who seems like he’s been part of things forever: charming the ladies and high-fiving the guys. But there are troubling hints: he shoplifts… or smokes marijuana cigarettes behind the high school. People start to worry about him. This plays out for a good while. And then the final scene comes: a confrontation, an apocalypse, an arrest, a fire…Donna cries. Lesson learned, right? It might play on late night cable, but Prime Time is not ready for those who make pea butter in a centrifuge.
But for a book with 496 pages and exactly sixteen recipes, the burger instructions are relatively straightforward. It involves “only” four sub-recipes, and each one seems well within the range of an experienced home cook. If you have access to a decent grocery store and a farmers’ market and a high-quality butcher and a well-stocked wine shop, you should be able to find everything you need. (Well, the sodium citrate becomes a shibboleth – you absolutely cannot make the cheese without it and you basically need to source on the Internet.)
I have neither the time nor the inclination nor the stenographic excellence the to repost the entire recipe, it seems to be copied out here. Let me frame this as a public service – I’ll tailor this post to those who might have stumbled here thinking that they might want to try to make these themselves.
Three cuts of meat… basically a 2:1:1 ratio of short rib, chuck and brisket. Each are cubed, with only the chuck being salted. Supposedly this allows the proteins in the meat to bind lightly – seasoning the meat properly while still allowing for a loose, fall-apart feel.
The meat then ground in stages, with the short rib and brisket going through twice on a coarser dye (to break down the connective tissue), and then the entire mixture being ground a critical third time on a wider dye, and collected in such a way so that the strands of meat align… This “meat log,” as it soon became known, is critical. The point is to keep as many fibers as possible running parallel to the teeth, so that when we bite in, the burger basically dissolves in the mouth like good sushi.
One shout-out: It helps that I live in meat-friendly Cincinnati. The folks at Avril Bleh Meats were responsive and helpful, and, as always, the meat was top-quality. The marbling on the short rib alone made me sad I didn’t order extra.
If you are thinking about trying these yourself, consider cutting the pieces slightly smaller than what the recipe demands. This should make the grinding go a bit faster if you are using home equipment, and this will keep the fat solid a little bit longer.
While demanding most of the effort, they were, um, really nice buns. These were brioche-like yeast rolls with a pre-ferment and a final rise within precisely-measured dough-rings. The final flavor was mild and sweet – soft enough to yield easily but lending just enough structural integrity to the sandwich as a whole.
Yes, it was
a bit of a pain measuring out fifteen strips of aluminum foil to just the correct length, and the dough was easily the stickiest material I’ve ever handled (Baker’s Tip: Cold water on the hands releases dough quite quickly), but, as I said, totally worth it. If I ever do a burger party again, these will be the buns, regardless of the patty.
Also, this leftover dough, heavy in egg, makes phenomenal French Toast (use a Tbs of Grand Marnier to channel your inner Jeff)
If you are on the fence about making the entire burger, but still want to try something special – make these buns! I used regular bread flour and used “Crisco” instead of “Trex,” but everything in the recipe is easily sourced at Kroger. The only quibble I have with the recipe is the ring-folding. The circumference of the ring is critical, but the height is not – if you try to achieve the precise “height,” you’ll overfold and mangle the ring.
In other words, take a strip of foil, then cut it in HALF. Fold the half sheet down to about an inch in height, and then measure out about fifty CM. Use Scotch tape to adhese.Do the night before, btw.
Also, if you are going to go Full Blumenburger, consider a dry run on the buns, so that you don’t spend too much time on the critical day frustrating yourself with the rings. The dough is sticky enough that you should try and spare yourself the stress.
This cheese is an exercise in blind trust. Follow the recipe to the gram (my advice below notwithstanding) and reap the reward of zesty, complex supple cheese that gently envelops the entire patty. I’d suggest a dry-run, but do keep in mind that the recipe calls for two pounds of what might be expensive cheese, so you have precious little room for error.
Now, one of the quibbles I do have with Blumenthal’s cookbook is that the recipes often seem sloppily edited. The recipe serves eight, for example, but this cheese will be enough to cover at least twice as many burgers. Similarly, it’s frustrating how a recipe can vacillate between to-the-gram precision and incomprehensible vagueness, especially when it comes to a tricky emulsion. His “A little bit at a time” instruction for adding cheese really bothered me.
But I digress.
Basically, this cheese is homemade American Cheese. You are melting about two pounds of Comte’ (I used gruyere – and there is an interesting beer/cheddar option here), in an herb-infused sherry spiked with a bit of Sodium Citrate.
Basically, once this “sherry tea” is prepared, you slowly add your shredded cheese about 2 tablespoons or so at a time, waiting until the cheese melts before the next “add,” stirring constantly, and then pouring the mixture out into a very thin slab.
I’m not quite sure of the science behind sodium citrate. It was black magic: the dry run without it was simply disgusting, when I followed the recipe, it worked perfectly. Apparently it’s a stabilizing agent of some sort, helping emulsified fats to gel properly without curdling. I’m sure when I get around to learning to actually spherify things, it might come in handy.
This somewhat disquieting color does no justice to how the cheese melts, let alone tastes. Seriously. Make the cheese.
However, if you going to try this at home, consider halving the recipe. You’ll have quite a bit of extra. Also, at the behest of my wine merchant, I substituted Oloroso sherry for the Manzanilla. Tasted great. Oloroso sherry also makes a killer vinaigrette (1 part sherry with 1/2 part each mustard and honey, with three-ish parts olive oil)
Skip it. Make mayo.
I served these to eight of my closest friends, along with Mark Bittman’s Osmotic Pressure Cole Slaw and Alton Brown’s Baked Beans. A good time was had.
Are they worth it? If you temper your expectations slightly, yes, I think they are. Obviously you shouldn’t approach these as your everyday burger. I used good quality chuck for the first dry-run of the buns, and they tasted fine. Nor do you even want to think of these as your standard “I should make these once a year for a party” burgers. With so many details to manage, these will become a chore and you might be tempted to take short cuts.
If, however, you think of these as “something special to try,” and happen, as I do, to be blessed with wonderful food-forward friends, it might be worth considering. The recipe does serve at least 12, and you’ll have plenty of cheese and a few extra buns, but, again, worth a shot.
If nothing else, they were made with high quality meat, and served on a homemade roll specifically designed to support the exact patty you’ve cut. You have a tasty herbal-flavored cheese that adds richness without drowning out beefy flavor. Some crisp, sweet lettuce and a few beverages?
Now that the incubation period for e-coli has passed… I think it was a perfect July Saturday.
I’m always a little skeptical at the elaborate lengths chefs go to to perfect the burger, because I feel like a really good burger is something that’s already so within reach without any lengthy instruction. That said, I do like testing the results when someone else is doing the work. And I love you for trying all of this! I can be very patient with some things, but I can’t see myself grinding three times and then so much as thinking about the alignment of my meat threads. I do want to try the cheese recipe now, though.
Love the note about the sometimes-vague instructions, too. It’s little things like that that provide a counter-argument to those chefs that whine about other chefs relying on “tricks” or cooking “without soul.” No matter how scientific the approach, every good cook still does an awful lot by feel, often without even seeming to realize it. (Though what do I know, maybe he did test the definition of “bit by bit” and learned it didn’t matter enough to go into.)
Excellent write-up! And thank you again for letting us participate in your epic burger quest.
seriously, your parties always seem like so much fun!
would your opinion of the entire experience be different if the cheese was not involved?