Every chef has an opinion about hamburgers -- which cut to use, the optimal lean-to-fat ratio, how lightly packed, minimally handled meat yields a tender, juicier burger. Then there are questions about the bun, toasting, cheese or no cheese, and condiments.
Ana Sortun , owner of Oleana , says, "The more simple it is, the more perfect it is." The Seattle-born chef explains that right after her hometown's prowess with coffee comes its obsession with burgers. While her Cambridge restaurant is known for its exotic Eastern Mediterranean fare, she happens to love America's most ordinary food. And so, it happens, do other chefs around town.
For her burgers, Sortun seeks out high-quality ground beef from River Rock Farm in Brimfield. The farm grinds an 85 percent lean blend of flavorful, dry-aged cuts such as top and bottom round, shoulder, and chuck.
On the West Coast, burgers are thin, explains Sortun. "Not
Then there are chefs who have flipped burgers for a living; well, sort of. Mitchell Maxwell is co-owner of Vidalia's Truck Stop in Wellesley, a replica of an old-fashioned diner with a half-dozen burgers on the menu. (His other restaurant, the upscale Maxwell's 148 in Natick, doesn't serve burgers.) Good-quality meat and its simple treatment are priorities for this restaurateur. He grinds the meat himself when he has the time. But grinding at home isn't something the chef recommends, unless your equipment is very clean and the meat is kept cold. He does advise buying ground beef from a reliable source.
"I like to use rib-eye because it's got a good percentage of fat, and some chuck and sirloin for a nice balance of flavor," he says. Otherwise, he usually buys 85 percent lean ground sirloin. The only seasoning Maxwell adds is salt. "Sea salt or kosher salt," he says. "Something you can feel and see so you know how much you're putting on."
Spices and barbecue sauces tend to be overpowering, he adds. "That's OK for bland meats like ground turkey or for meatballs, but not beef burgers." Maxwell likes to top his scant 1-inch-thick grilled patties with a slice of beefsteak tomato, raw onion, ketchup and, on occasion, crumbled gorgonzola, and sandwich the whole thing in an egg twist roll.
While restaurant burgers might be gussied up, the same meat at home often comes to the table quite plain. "Chefs tend to like really simple flavors when they're away from their restaurants," says Tom Berry, executive chef of Cambridge's Temple Bar. And though Berry's culinary skills were sharpened during a five-year stint at Blue Ginger, Asian influences rarely find their way into his burgers. "I just want to taste the flavor of the meat," he says.
He uses 80 percent lean ground chuck and shapes it into 3/4-inch-thick patties. "What matters is that the meat is ground correctly, it's fresh, and has a nice amount of fat." Cheddar and good bacon are possible toppings. His weakness is the red stuff. "I'm a ketchup freak," admits Berry. He not only spreads it on top of the burger, but pours a "huge pool" on his plate for dipping.
Union Bar & Grille chef Stephen Sherman is another plain-burger cook. At the South End restaurant, Sherman offers an immensely popular, highly seasoned burger made of ground beef and andouille sausage, chipotle pepper, Dijon mustard, cornichons, and grilled onion, all mixed with an egg "like a meatloaf," he says. The eight-ounce patty is topped with Vermont cheddar and served on a brioche bun.
At home, Sherman and his wife, who have two young children, know that simpler is better -- and quicker. He uses only coarse sea salt and black pepper. "I season it aggressively, like a coating," says the chef. Then the burgers go onto a gas grill.
"Our emphasis is on eating together," he says. Get the burgers on the table. Hold the andouille and chipotle.