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James Beard on the All-American Hamburger

Elena North-Kelly

October 19, 2016

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In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from the pleasures of oxtails to a lesson in chicken anatomy to the perfect hamburger, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

Beard on Food: The Hamburger Can Be Great

The hamburger is so firmly established in America’s culinary Hall of Fame that it comes as rather a shock to discover it didn’t originate in America at all. The city where it was probably first eaten—Hamburg, Germany—disavows any connection between their kind of hamburger and ours. Therefore, for centuries, chopped beef and onions have been formed into patties and cooked in a little fat on top of the stove, then served, sometimes with gravy made in the pan, as a main course. According to all the great French cookbooks, Germany gets the credit for this dish, which the French call bifteck à la hambourgeoise. It is very often served a cheval, or with an egg on top, and very good it is too. There are all kinds of theories about how the hamburger landed on a bun, the way we mostly eat it today. One school claims that it all started in a New York delicatessen, another that it was first served in that fashion at the St. Louis Fair, while various and sundry persons  all claim to know the secret of the original hamburger.     

Wherever and however the hamburger made its debut, it has certainly taken over the country. Chains like McDonald’s, which sell millions of hamburgers a year, have made a billion-dollar business out of it. When I was growing up, there was a chain in the West that served the most delicious and elaborate hamburger imaginable: a four-ounce patty on a toasted and buttered bun, smothered with mustard, mayonnaise, relish, sliced dill pickle, tomato, onion, and lettuce. It was wrapped, diaper fashion, in a paper napkin and slipped into a glassine envelope to prevent the lovely juices from dribbling down your front as you ate. These hamburgers were extraordinarily good, and, as I remember, they cost all of fifteen cents.         

I have a favorite hamburger recipe that I’ve used for years. It’s subtle, it surprises a great many people, and I happen to think it’s one of the best ways to cook hamburger. You take 2 pounds of top-quality chopped round or chuck, spread it out on a board, and grate 2 to 3 tablespoons of onion into it—use a fairly fine grater so you get just the juice & very finely grated raw onion. Now mix in about a tablespoon of heavy cream and some freshly ground black pepper. Form into patties; I like a 6- or 8-ounce patty for an average serving.     

As to the cooking, it is my firm belief that a hamburger is best cooked in a heavy skillet with a combination of butter and oil, which prevents the butter from burning when you cook at high heat. I think that gives a crustier, juicer hamburger than broiling, unless you happen to have a really good broiler that browns the meat fast. So take your trusty old black iron skillet or your best copper one or your pet aluminum frying pan, Teflon-coated or not (with a Teflon coating you won’t need much fat, just a little bit for flavor), and cook your hamburger in the butter and oil over fairly high heat, giving it 4 to 5 minutes per side, depending on how well done you like it. I like mine crusty on the outside and very rare in the center. Salt this creamy, oniony, peppery hamburger before serving it on a buttered bun or English muffin, or as a main course with sliced tomatoes and onions or home-fried potatoes.     

With that creamy, oniony flavor running through the meat you won’t need any ketchup or condiments. Mind you, the addition of the cream means that the meat will not be as pinky-red as usual, but if you want a hamburger that is out of the ordinary, this is it. With a good salad it makes a most satisfying meal.     

I’m also very fond of hamburger au poivre, an offshoot of the steak au poivre (steak with coarsely crushed peppercorns pressed into the surface) you find it in many French restaurants. I don’t advise this for a hamburger sandwich, but it makes a good main dish. Form ground beef into 6- or 8-ounce patties (I prefer a generous 8-ounce serving.) Grind or crush 1 to 2 tablespoons of black peppercorns (use a coarse pepper mill or a blender, or crack them with a weight), and press a godly amount into both sides of the patties. Broil, if you like, or sauté according to the method given in the previous recipe. When done to your taste, salt the hamburgers on both sides. Then, if you want to be opulent, flambé them. Pour a little bourbon or brandy into the hot pan, ignite, and shake the pan until the flames die down. Serve these sensational hamburgers on very got plates, with the pan juices spooned over them. I like to accompany them with a baked potato or Lyonnaise potatoes (potatoes mixed with a little onion and cooked until crisply brown) and salad.

The hamburger may be a humble food, but it takes kindly to being elevated to a more exalted plane of eating. Just try it. 

To make James Beard's favorite hamburger at home, grab the recipe.