The inevitability of the hamburger

The hamburger makes an ideal sausage, he said, because the meat flavor isn’t diluted by the curing salts used in hot dogs, and beef is more tender than pork because it has lower levels of myosin, the protein found in muscles. But there’s still enough myosin so that when the proteins are heated, they bond to create a gel that holds the patty together without the need for a casing.

The result is a cooked meat that’s less rubbery than other sausages and has a fresh-cooked taste that can’t be matched by cold cuts or reheated meats. It succulently exploits the Maillard reaction, named after a 20th-century Frenchman who explained the chemistry of browning meat and other foods.

When the beef patty hits the hot grill, the water at the lower surface quickly boils away, producing a very thin, dry crust, actually a transparent gel, called the desiccation zone. Immediately above is the Maillard zone, where heat causes reactions among sugars and proteins that turn the meat brown, yielding molecules with an intrinsically appealing flavor — at least to most humans.

That's Nathan Myhrvold breaking down the unique appeal of hamburgers. Josh Ozersky, the author of The Hamburger: A History, traces the genesis of the modern hamburger to White Castle and a man named Walter Anderson. Who knew?

Ozersky says Anderson's critical breakthroughs were "to use a specialized bun (instead of bread slices), to cook the meat on a very hot grill (500 degrees Fahrenheit), and to press down on the patty with a customized spatula made of high-strength steel."

Myhrvold has his own take on the hamburger in his 50+ lb. cooking tome Modernist Cuisine, and it involves sous vide and liquid nitrogen. Anything involving liquid nitrogen is impractical for the home cook, but a simple way to improve your home burger is to buy or make hamburgers with a higher fat content. The low-fat craze in America has too many people buying lean patties that taste like dried, salted shoe leather when grilled.

The ideal end state of the perfect burger doesn't seem in dispute: the center should be medium-rare, evenly pink like a ribeye steak from edge to edge, and and the outside should be seared or charred to add the magic Maillard magic. Leave out the liquid nitrogen and perhaps the basic technique of sous vide with a finishing sear on a cast iron skillet may work. I'll have to try that. Lots of discussion of hamburger secrets here.

While I'm not a hamburger fanatic, I've had more than my share over the years, from In N Out and McDonald's on up to the $32 D B Burger at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro with its truffles and foie gras. I dig the Double Shack at Shake Shack in New York City, and just as I left LA I heard from many friends that the best burger in LA could be found at The Tripel.

Says Ozersky:

There is an inevitability to the hamburger. It is the most concentrated and convenient way a person can cheaply eat everything that people like about beef.