I Broke Up With My Burger Joint
…potatoes healed me
Like most of us, I love burgers, but I find the modern topography of the burger-map to be a bit… hilly. Lately, I broke up with my local burger joint (I mean the indignant, marching out, declaring out loud that I deserve better, never-looking-back kind of breaking up) for chiefly four reasons, which reflect my rather defined opinions about hamburgers.
- I can admit I might have brought some of my own baggage to this relationship: I have never enjoyed brioche buns for burgers. I find it unnecessarily rich, and most often simply too big — I came here for a burger, not to fill up on bread. People also seem to think that since brioche is a richer bread, it’ll last longer, and that no one will notice it’s actually quite stale. A quality “hamburger bun” is more than adequate. This was the first sin committed by my now former burger joint.
- Secondly, there was absolutely no seasoning of any kind on their burger. I’ve literally had saltier food in a hospital. If you’re going to cook meat, you need to add salt to it at some point before you serve it; I would regard this as an axiom. At least I could add salt myself — except this place has the further habit of not putting salt on the table, forcing its patrons to endure the indignity of having to ask for it. Is that hospitality?
- The third bell tolling: a burger, at its very heart, is a sandwich. It should be more or less horizontally-oriented, so that it can be comfortably eaten with the normal human mouth. If it is seven inches tall, we have a problem, since we are not a Burmese python.
- Finally, I was clearly eating ground sirloin. I won’t even stand on my Which-Fats-Are-Actually-Healthy Soapbox (that’s a separate piece): meat that lean just can’t produce a juicy, flavorful burger without some other trick. Round or chuck, or a blend of meats that approximates the fat content (i.e. flavor) of those cuts, is the way to go for a burger. (If we’re looking to reduce our fat intake for one reason or another, maybe burgers should not be where we begin that endeavor.)
Perhaps I should have cut the relationship off before I got in too deep, but I’m not a monster: in light of the overall air of hospitality (table-salt aside) and courtesy at this place, and its appealing proximity, I wanted to give it a chance. I also don’t think good burgers are a very complicated proposition, so I entered the arrangement thinking how easy it would be for them to change — always a bad position, I admit it.
Here’s one thing about me: If I imagine I can do something better myself, I will usually try. This keeps me busy and continually learning skills and honing them. It is also expensive and has resulted in a completely irrational collection of projects in my kitchen and out of it.
Immediately after my last-ever encounter with this restaurant’s burger, I didn’t come straight home. I needed to blow off some steam. I did so by briskly walking to my local butcher, a trustworthy chap I’ve been buying meat from for 20 years, from whom I now purchased a 3 1/2-pound piece of boneless chuck. When finally settled back at the comfort of my own counter, I cut this into large chunks, sprinkled it rather assertively with kosher salt and black pepper, and sprinkled on a bit of onion and garlic powders. I covered it with plastic, put it in my fridge, and forgot about it for a couple days, until I hauled out the grinder to make some third-pound-or-so patties. (Despite my ability to put it away, I am also not a half-pounder kind of guy. I find perfection in 5 1/2 to 6 ounces.)
When you can’t grill, but you have a gas oven (read: you live in NYC), broiling is a great way to get your burger (/steak /fish /brats, etc.) on. You might miss a little char or “grill flavor,” but with a little legerdemain and practice you can coax a nicely crusted burger from your broiler. (I put foil balls under the top pan of my broiler, which is dangerous and gets the food a couple inches closer to the direct flame.) I learned to do this to my reasonable satisfaction. While I was glad to have this relationship in the rearview mirror, I had to admit that there were some things I missed. Fries. Fries are part of a burger experience for me. And practically impossible to do well at home.
Like any kitchen person of questionable sanity, I have 8-or-so pounds of rendered beef tallow at the back of my fridge. At the risk of dating myself: many of us will wistfully remember the old days of McDonald’s, when their potatoes were still fried in tallow. They were genre-defining and mind-bendingly good. Tallow is the best. You will not use it at home, because it is quite solid at even warm room temperature, so any little bit that splatters (or, for example, many large puddles everywhere) is very difficult to clean. Additionally, when you’re done frying in it and it is cool enough to handle safely (still very hot, though), you pour it through cheesecloth into a clean pan where you can chill it, until it’s thoroughly solidified, at which point you pry it out, cut it into blocks for more convenient storage, wrap it in plastic, and call it a day. You won’t do this, and you’ll be right not to.
Another method of getting great fries at home, which I’ve tried many times, is to order them from the diner downstairs which has recently been much upgraded and by sheer luck happens to put out excellent fries. You might not have that handy, though, so I’ve been working on a third option, one that’s simple enough to do regularly and that yields results close enough in character to great French fries that even those extremely picky among us — that’d be me — will be satisfied.
This technique is similar to oven-fries, however I don’t like that title for them. We’ve all had oven fries and they were basically extra-crispy roasted potatoes. Those are just fine, but a burger demands something much more like a proper fry. I found that all I needed to accomplish this were pans, potatoes, and patience. The first thing I considered in this experiment is that all the best potatoes are the ones you cook twice — fries, mash, roasted, and even (who knew) twice-baked potatoes.
(The following ideas assume a gas oven.) To begin: get a large pot of water going on the stove, and place a wide cast iron pan (or a carbon steel one, or an old sheet pan) on the floor of the oven; begin heating it to 450 degrees. Select what you hope will be a sufficient quantity of Idaho (i.e. mealy, not waxy) potatoes. Scrub them (I don’t peel them), and then cut them into thick slices, maybe 3/4". I like to start with tiny slice off one end of the potato to create a flat surface. The diameters and shapes of the slices will vary but try to keep the thickness as consistent as possible. When the water is boiling, add several tablespoons of kosher salt, and then, when briskly boiling again, gingerly drop in the sliced potatoes.
Now — I’ve used this technique innumerable times, and every single time but one, I have accidentally overcooked the potatoes in the first step. (The one time they were perfectly cooked, they ended up being lovely roasted potatoes — oven fries — but that’s not what we’re going for.) These days, I deliberately “accidentally” overcook them. When they’re done to the point that you say “Oh, shoot, I let them go a minute too long,” they’re perfect, just handle them gently from here on out. Drain them, and transfer them to a bowl. Add a generous amount of fat — I’ve had excellent results with olive oil, duck fat, and especially with clarified butter; just don’t skimp, whatever you use — and season with salt and pepper. Carefully turn them about a few times with a large spoon, until they are generally coated with fat. (Invariably, one or two of them will break up as you do this; this is a good thing.) Don’t fuss. Any fat not perfectly distributed will melt at the bottom of your pan, which is right where you’ll want it anyway.
Assuming your oven is now ripping hot, pull the pan forward and carefully place the potatoes on it. Use tongs to spread them out so each large slice is flat against the hot metal, and replace the pan. Fifteen minutes later, pull it forward again, patiently flip each slice while saying “Oh, wow,” and cook for twelve more minutes. Remove, season as desired, and enjoy as soon as they are cool enough to not burn your mouth (or slightly earlier, if you’re like me).
This method is miraculous for two reasons. Remember when you slightly over-boiled the potato slices? This might have been mushiness, but by cooking them a second time, you created a beautiful, creamy interior (a theory behind all good French fries, as it happens). Remember when, a few minutes after that, you turned the potatoes a few times to coat them with fat, and a couple of them broke up? This broken potato material formed a starchy slurry with the fat, which coated the intact slices, and then produced an extra crispy surface on each of them as they fried in the hot oven. Crisp exterior + creamy interior = perfect “fry.”
The especially cool part of doing it this way is that you can switch from “bake” to “broil” after you turn your potatoes, and broil your burgers underneath them while they finish. (You should probably make a salad, too, at some point, just so you’re doing something perceptibly healthy.)
Normally, when recovering from some kind of breakup, I’d think it a bad sign to find myself sitting on my couch watching some sentimental nonsense, indulging in a juicy burger while materially noting the value of a perfect “fried” potato. Not this time. Does that mean I’m ready for a new burger joint? Or that I’m better off on my own?
P.S.: If your oven isn’t hot enough, or you need to slow things down for some other reason, you can hold the potatoes for a good while after the coating-with-fat step. As a further P.S.: I tried this just the other day with a waxy variety, and I can tell you that despite my expectation that they’d hold up slightly better, I was completely wrong: they fell to pieces.