Sriracha? Kimchi? Lovage? Fermented fish flakes? None of the above. A hyper-experimental cook learns the hard way.
I have a problem. I have a daughter, too, but she's not the problem. The problem is, I am happiest in the kitchen when I'm going deep on some quest: studying the finer points of offal cookery, trying to make everything from pork kidneys to ox heart palatable, or testing my theory that a great cassoulet depends upon first butchering a pig and a lamb and a duck. This is a problem because my 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, passionately prefers familiar foods: spaghetti and meatballs, tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. Most of all, that girl loves hamburgers—old-school, fast food burgers like the ones she gets in classic American burger joints courtesy of certain well-meaning people we might as well call grandparents.
In all fairness to myself, I had dreamed up family burger night as a loving concession, a way to offer the kid at least one meal a month she could feel good about. It should have been a growth opportunity, too—a chance for me to learn that not every meal has to be a step forward on my personal journey. All I had to do was buy the buns, the preground chuck, some lettuce, pickles and ketchup, and then put aside my ego and make my child happy. But I couldn't stop myself from upping the ante, so I flipped through my Alice Waters cookbooks until I found a hamburger recipe, in the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook.California-meets-Provence, bistro-style, it called for toasted levain bread, grilled red onions, an obscure green herb called lovage that took weeks to find and cost a fortune, and nothing but Dijon mustard as a condiment. ("Sorry, kids," I found myself declaring, "no ketchup allowed.")
Hannah liked that burger fine, but I could tell it wasn't what she really wanted. So I pushed further toward what I mistook for excellence by adding garlicky aioli and then substituting the burger-patty instructions from Thomas Keller's best-selling Ad Hoc at Home. The secret, he explained, was to begin with whole cuts of sirloin, brisket and chuck, cut the meat into big chunks, toss it with salt, and then grind twice before gently shaping the patties by hand. To that end, I bought a grinder attachment for my KitchenAid mixer and discovered that my daughter did not belong to the minuscule percentage of 11-year-old girls for whom the sight and sound of a working meat grinder whets the appetite.
I loved those Alice-meets-Keller burgers. I'd eat one right now. But I couldn't miss the worry in my daughter's eyes, the fear that her father might never make a burger as good as the classic ones she ate at restaurants.
The next turning point came in a San Francisco stoner-Asian joint, Namu Gaji, where I had a sensational "Namu burger" on a soft white bun with spicy kimchi relish, aioli, and red onions glazed in balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. At home, I took the Asian-fusion impulse further, boosting my own aioli with Sriracha and fish sauce and mixing the beef with dried fermented fish flakes—a.k.a. katsuobushi, the ultimate umami-turbocharger. Then, in what I now consider the embarrassing nadir of my burger quest, I piled all of it right on top of the existing family sandwich—keeping the levain bread and the Dijon mustard—to create what turned out to be pretty much Hannah's worst nightmare.
This time, however, it wasn't just the kid who felt empty inside. Taking a bite of my own gargantuan Alice/Keller/Korean burger, I suddenly realized that it bore almost no relationship to the classic American burgers that even I had loved throughout my own American life.
"Time for research," I told the wife. "Let's hit a few burger joints, find out what the pros are doing."
She sent out queries on Facebook and Twitter, looking for recommendations. A pop-up called KronnerBurger rose to the top of the pile, so she made a reservation—just the two of us middle-aged married people squinting in the darkness of a seedy bar.
Chef Chris Kronner's girlfriend, Ashley Hildreth, set down our trays, delivering burgers that I can only describe as pop-art masterpieces—the burgers Andy Warhol would've created if he'd been working with Dairy Queen takeout instead of Campbell's Soup cans. Not too big and not too small, Kronner's burgers had simple white-bread buns with creamy white mayo, iceberg lettuce and red tomato and pickles, patties cooked rare. The visual aesthetic was old-school fast food—random burger joints in random little towns—but Kronner was a master chef, too, a veteran of San Francisco standbys like Slow Club and Bar Tartine. He wasn't playing around. (Kronner is opening a permanent KronnerBurger in Oakland, California, sometime this summer.) Each ingredient was a miracle of care and quality, combined in harmonious balance. My whole jaw slackened at the first bite. Every muscle in my mouth loosened as I chewed through a veritable clinic in advanced burgerology.
By the time I was done, I knew what my daughter had known all along: that the classic fast food hamburger is one of the world's perfect things. Glory lies not in reinventing that form, but in embracing its humble constraint, making it as good as possible without altering its fundamental identity.
We took the kids to KronnerBurger. They found the bar scary. Hannah—firstborn, rule-follower—demanded to know if it was even legal for us to have brought children there. Then we ordered, and Hannah picked up her burger. This, her face seemed to say, this is what I'm talking about.
I called up Kronner and begged for his secrets, hoping to replicate his burgers at home. Then I drove across town to purchase the exact pain de mie buns Kronner claimed to use. I removed a quarter-inch slice from the middle of each to improve the bun-to-patty ratio, and I spread butter onto each cut side so that, when I set the halves on the griddle, the butter's moisture would steam and softenthe bun's interior while the cut surface browned. I tracked down Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and, per Kronner's instructions, beat it into the mayo to create a covert cheeseburger effect. Red onions got sliced a quarter inch thick and then seared on only one side—never two—to create a sweet grilled flavor on one surface while leaving raw crunch on the other. I even pickled cucumbers from scratch, replicating Kronner's brine with lots of vinegar and salt—but no water or sugar—for a powerful acid-saline kick. As for the meat, it turned out that Kronner was blending dry-aged grass-fed chuck with short-rib fat, grinding exactly once and never pre-salting—convinced as he was that salt would break down cell walls during the grinding process, creating a dense meat-loaf quality.
Moments of beauty, in the weeks that followed:
Hannah saying, "You know, Dad, I would actually be happy with these burgers being our family burger forever."
Hannah, again: "And Dad, I'm totally over that well-done thing. If the meat's really good, I actually like it pink now."
And even: "I'm done with ketchup and yellow mustard, Dad. I only put that stuff on a burger now if it's a bad burger. It's kind of my secret way of insulting a hamburger."
But, like I said, I have a problem and I have a daughter, and my daughter is not the problem. The problem is that I'm the kind of guy who, once he's gotten a handle on the basic burger, can't help noticing the brioche smoked-potato bun recipe in bread genius Chad Robertson's new book, Tartine Book No. 3. And sure, making Robertson's sourdough starter is a weeklong process followed by days of mixing, kneading and rising to produce what could be the finest hamburger buns ever baked—but that's exactly the kind of trouble I can't stop looking for.