Ich Bin Ein Hamburger -or- Hamburgers, and How to Make Them
What’s the name of my favourite Roger Miller album you ask?
Well it happens to be “Dear Folks, Sorry Haven’t Written Lately.”
There’s also a line from a song on that album in which Mr Miller says: “hamburger cupa coffee lettuce and tomata…”
Given that I haven’t written in a while, and BBQ season is well underway, and It’s the 4th of July, AND my resident hamburger expert has recently became a dad (Burger Dad), it just seems fitting to talk about the food that has everyone saying “oh yeah, I guess that’s a sandwich too”:
Now the reason I haven’t written in a while is that I have been long submerged, deep within the darkest recesses of a world of sandwich research that even you, as person currently experiencing this cursed year of 2020, would find shocking and repulsive. The controversy, the lies, the betrayal, and even run of the mill misunderstandings are a grotesque kaleidoscope only decipherable by the most objective and pure of heart sandwich researchers. After a lot of soul searching, many torn up drafts, and a few nervous breakdowns, I am happy to report that I am back on the other side once again with all of you. It wonderful to be at it again!
Also, I’ve just been working from home at my real job where due to covid related school and daycare closures, I am interrupted every 30 seconds by requests for snacks, butt wipings, and calls to clean up some seemingly unending and truly unfathomable mess.
But enough about me, let’s get back to the controversy!
Where to begin?
Well, there is of course the origin of the hamburger, which is claimed by about a dozen different people, places, and times periods. Then there is the proper construction method, preferred condiments, all beef vs filler, doneness, the non ground burgers, veggie/non meat burgers, questions on buns, and of course the etiquette of the compression of a burger to getting a full bite.
With all of this burger-baggage weighing us down, I suppose it’s important that we should start at the beginning.
Who invented the hamburger?
As with all sandwiches, this is a stupid question. Someone somewhere, long before the late 18th century degenerate English aristocratic gambler John Montagu, the 4th earl of sandwich coined the term, had put their food between bread or some other carb based items, and just didn’t write down the recipe or take any credit for it. The one big difference with the hamburger is that low and behold, somebody DID actually record their putting of ground meat and spices into a bread.
Roujiamo, which is a street food with ground pork served inside bread dates back as far as the Qin dynasty circa 220 BC. This gives the Chinese a pretty good claim on the general hamburger idea by about 2200 years. Even with that record, I’m sure other cultures probably had similar systems back them. they probably even made clubhouses, and grilled cheeses, but I mean come on, you really gotta write that shit down or someone is gonna steal your idea.
Mongolia and Russia
Ok, ok, so it’s not really the same, it’s not beef and it’s not a bun and if you loook it up, the meat is not even that fine ground. Fine. That doesn’t stop my ability to still trace the hamburger’s origin back to Asia. Let’s add a thousand or so years and head to a Mongolian tradition in the late 13th century under Kublai Khan. When the Mongols invaded Moscow they introduced the Russians to their minced horse meat, with with some local additions would later become known as Steak Tartare.
Between the 13th and 17th century, the Russians were part of the Hanseatic League (a bunch of merchant guilds along the Baltic sea), which made a lowly port known as Hamburg one of the largest ports in northern Europe. The Russians traded there so heavily that Hamburg was nicknamed “the Russian port” and this new Russian mince recipe (now mostly beef) went there with them.
The Hamburgers (the people) tweaked the recipe once again and made it their own by roasting it and putting it on toasted bread. This became known as Hamburger Sausage, a recipe for which appears in the popular cookbook “The art of cookery made plain and easy” published way back in 1758 when ol John Montagu was still mucking up his cards with dirty roast beef fingers and I presume loudly exclaiming “there’s got to be a better way!”.
Now Hamburg was still a major port in the 19th century, and the majority of northern European immigrants who headed over to America would have traveled via Hamburg, usually to New York, on the Hamburg America Line. With many Germans immigrating to the states fleeing revolutions in the 1840’s, the ships menus reportedly started serving what they called “Hamburger Steak” served between two pieces of bread. Even some New York Restaurants began serving “Hamburg Fillets” or “beefsteak hambourgoisie” to attract the new German influx. The oldest document recording ‘Hamburger Steak’ is from a menu at the legendary Delmonico’s in 1837.
Ok, finally we’re getting there. The Hamburger in it’s early form has crossed the Atlantic. Now to the hand held version. The modern American Hamburger, the bunwich we all know and love today has competing origins around the US between 1880 and 1904 stretching from Texas to Connecticut.
Most accounts involve a family recipe, a new restaurateur, or an innovative food stand somewhere in small town USA, all with good reasonable stories of how they, and their noble spirits just came up with it one day. A popular account of invention outside of the US comes from the slider-slinging chain restaurant White Castle. They claim the burger was a German invention as a portable food for sailors.
Wherever the idea orinigally came from (Qin dynasty China cica 200 BC), the moment Hamburgers (the sandwich) became a national obsession is not contested at all. That was at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. No one is exactly sure who’s cart it was that won everyone over because once again, no one wrote this shit down, but at least we have a collective “a-ha” moment as to when we collectively latched on and refused to let go of the hamburger as north american tradition.
As a side note, I was in the port of Hamburg briefly last year. Did I get a Hamburger instead of one of Germany’s incredible array of unbelievable sandwiches available right there at the train station just for the kitsch value? Yes. Yes I did.
And I did it at McDonald’s because I’m obviously just a stupid philistine.
My good friend Burger Dad did a similar thing in Frankfurt that same year, though he went to a real restaurant.
Alright, history is out of the way, Next up:
Composition and Doneness.
In my mind, there is no wrong way to make a burger as long as it’s aggressively seasoned and not too thick. There are purists out there who will gladly die on the hill of ‘no breadcrumbs! Meat only! Medium rare! Anything else is meatloaf!” but only a sith deals in absolutes. Have you taken the basic principle of hamburger steak and made something into a patty that will fit onto a bun with other toppings? Congratulations. You’ve made a hamburger.
When shaping your burger patty, binders such as egg and breadcrumbs, as well as herbs and spices are all very welcome, but if you really want only meat, go ahead. You do you, just so long as there are no giant chunks of onion in there. That’s still a burger, it’s just a really shitty burger. That said, the spectrum of “what is a burger” ends where ground meets whole. Chicken, veggie, and non meat burgers composed of ground or other minced materials are definitely burgers. A full piece of grilled chicken, or a whole portabella mushroom on a bun, are not.
On the subject of doneness, most burgers should be cooked through, but not overdone. Some high quality steakhouse, or specialty-handmade burgers can, and maybe even should be a bit pink in the middle. Mass produced restaurant and frozen grocery store burgers definitely should not. This is, for the most part, cheap ass ground meat. A good way to think of it when considering the doneness of a burger, is that unless it specifically says it’s made from a prime cut (or even a subprime cut such as chuck), it’s not a goddamned steak.
Toppings and where to put them
There’s a lot of thought that goes into this. When it’s BBQ time and you get served your hamburger and your empty bun, it’s sometimes hard not to freeze up at the condiment station. We’ve all stood there, others waiting on us as we try to rack our brains for visuals of really good burgers we’ve had at restaurants, or the composition of a favourite fast food burger. I, myself often panic and screw the whole thing up by piling on way too much and end up with a gigantic messy burger and an embarassing amount of used napkins.
That was before I reached the rank of Sandwich Dad. I have since memorized each major fast food construction system as well as those of a few of my favourite restaurants and I now consider myself to be adept. I still sometimes screw up and over do it, making a giant mess, byit Fuddruckers has pump-able cheese and vats of sauerkraut. what am I supposed to do? Not take full advantage of that?
There are only 7 principal burger toppings. This is excluding cheese and/or bacon, as those two items are considered part of the actual burger as they change the name (cheeseburger, bacon cheeseburger). There are 3 major sauces and 4 salad toppings. They are: Mayonnaise, Mustard, Ketchup, Pickles, Onions, Tomatoes, and Lettuce.
So we have 7 ingredients that can be placed in any order on one of 2 sides of a burger patty (top and bottom). So if we calculate the possible permutations:
There are 42 possible ways to build your Burger.
Nerds out there will remind you that 42 is also the answer to the ultimate question. The question of life, the universe,and everything. The problem is that no one was ever able to decipher what that ultimate question was which had that magic answer of 42.
I have found it.
How many possible different burger builds could you create using the 7 principal burger toppings?
I will now go over each of the 42 builds in great detail so that you, my gentle reader, need not bother yourself with such a task. In fact, to save you even more time, I will go over 37 of the 42 in my own head. I’ll then go over go over 4 popular builds that relate to popular fast food chains, and then I will go over how I usually build my own burger.
First off: McDonalds
Do you know why McDonalds is the most popular burger chain worldwide? They have an 8th ingredient that no one else uses in their signature items. Restraint. One might argue, and in fact two have argued at great length on The Doughboys podcast, that McDonalds burgers are best when they omit the lettuce and the tomato entirely. The also usually ignore the bottom bun as a canvas. Quarter pounder as well as McDouble, Cheese burger, etc are all: Bottom Bun, Meat, and then pickles, onions, ketchup, mustard on the Top bun. That’s it. No mayo either! Go make a burger or cheeseburger like that right now. If the bun is soft and the meat is salty, it should taste pretty similar.
Now if you were to get the QP deluxe they would put tomato and lettuce on there with tomato on meat, lettuce on tomato. Try that too, and you’ll find it’s somehow just not as good.
“What about the Big Mac?” you say? Well it’s the same idea except the toppings are all bottomings because this time they put everything on the bottom bun(s). You might say, they turned the whole concept upside down! when you consider that the special Mac sauce includes both mustard and mayo, and there are still pickles and onions,and lettuce on there, this time it’s just leaving off the tomato products.
In fact I would venture to say that McD’s restraint in using tomatoes on most of its burgers is probably why so many ding dongs around the world are always out there asking for ‘no tomato’ on their burgers. It’s a travesty! If you are one of these people: Consider yourself seen!
Yes, yes, no one likes Burger King any more. That doesn’t change the lasting power of the Whopper, which is partially at least due to it’s excellent composition. When i was a young Sandwich lad back in highschool, Burger King was our mainstay, and I would venture to say we (Burger Dad, some other friends and I) would go there probably… every single day. I will now age myself by saying that this was back when a Whopper Jr was still .99 cents (or 1.29 with cheese).
On our last day of high school I wanted to do something special to say farewell to acedemia and cutting class to eat fast food, so I purchased 10 Whopper Jr’s, and was determined and confident that would easily devour them all in the hallway at school in front of my stilighty disgusted friends. I made it through only 4. Perhaps a foreshadowing and chiling metaphor for my adult years.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the build on the whopper and whopper Jr is one of the few things BK still does right. They aw well scoff at the idea of putting anything on the bottom bun. It goes, bun, meat, ketchup, pickles, onions, and then tomato, lettuce and mayo. The thing they do that works so well in my mind is that though putting the ketchup right on the meat is a weird bold move, it makes it so that you can taste the mayo and the ketchup at the same time without them being mixed. To me that’s the signature. I should also note that they omit the mustard on their burgs.
Next up: Wendy’s
Why are Wendy’s burger square? Because they don’t cut corners. That’s not a dad joke, its company policy. That said, seeing as Wendy’s was started by a dad who named his restaurant after his daughter, this is perhaps the ultimate dad joke. Certainly the most lasting. We don’t have a Wendy’s here in The Yukon. The closest one is in North Pole Alaska, about a 10 hour drive. The second closest is in Ft St John BC about 15 hours away. When I was in my 20’s I would often contemplate making that long drive just to get my hands on a Jr Bacon Cheeseburger, or JayBay, as I obnoxiously called them back then.
I am much older now, and either they changed or I did. Either way, I am less of a fan than I used to be of their system, which I believe is the only major chain (aside from “in and out” which I admittedly have never tried) to put the tomato on top of the lettuce instead of underneath. A bold move especially, when you consider its right next to the ketchup. In any case, Dave’s single is still a classic, and I will get one if I’m ever allowed to travel to the lands with Wendy’s again. Their system: Bun, burger, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup, mayo. They also omit the mustard!
Ok, A&W (Canada)
Every medium sized town in Canada with no other fast food chains will at least have an A&W. Even before they get a Tim Horton’s! they’re a bit more expensive than your average fast food, but much higher quality than the others. I have eaten a lot of teen burgers in mall food courts and adjacent to greyhound bus stations in nowheresvilles across the country. Lately, I’ve been pretty into their Beyond Meat burger. If you haven’t tried one yet, you should. Veggie burgers are a whole other thing, but these really do mimic meat very well. They even bleed a bit when you grill them which is….unsettling, but I suppose it’s just beet juice or something?
Anyway, A&W makes a good burger and I am realizing just now that they are the only chain that actually uses all 7 of the principal toppings, making them the most legit burger on the list so far.
They go: bottom bun, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, then meat, tomato, lettuce mayo.
Alright, this is getting really long and I haven’t even got into burger compression yet.
I’m just about to reveal how I build my hamburger, but in case you’re getting tired, or perhaps you’re reading this out loud as a bedtime story to your child, I should point out that this would be a good time to stop and take a break. There’s a bit more coming here and if you’ve made it this far, there is no shame in rubbing the bridge of your nose and saying through an exaggerated stretch “well, that’s enough for today. Sandwich dad will keep overnight. I’ll get back into it fresh tomorrow”. Just make sure you do come back later. I have more secrets to reveal!!
My hamburger is my go to, at home construction. I try other things a lot. Why, just the other day I tried a strange new go-to method from writer of “Steamed Hams”, and general fast food aficionado Bill Oakley, in which the tomato and lettuce are on different sides of the patty!
I like the idea of vegetable coverage on both sides, but I’m not a convert quite yet. Time will tell.
My Hamburger System, is the one that seems the most logical to me. I’ve recently changed my positioning of the tomato, putting it under the lettuce, but this has been my go to for the last several years or so. I like it fresh and light on top, with the stronger flavours at the bottom, so here’s how i do it:
Bottom bun, mustard, ketchup, onions,burger, pickles tomato, lettuce, mayo.
I am open to all sorts of new ideas for builds and your reasons for them. Feel free to send me rants about your own preferred stack. I got a new email address so I can even respond. firstname.lastname@example.orgNow if you don’t mind, I would like to get to the buns.
Don’t get too fancy with the buns. If the bun needs more than two adjectives to describe it, I’m sorry but you’ve gone too far. Artisan handmade rye and spelt sourdough made with molasses and candied spruce tips sounds very enticing, but that kind of bread is for savoring with butter or cheese or something simple. Throwing a dollar worth of ground meat and some ketchup on there is, as the Aussies might say, pretty bogan.
Just get a soft white bun. Something with a bit of lift and fluff. I find most grocery store bakeries have the best ones. A nice kaiser on maybe sesame, or poppy seed. Go brioche if you must, or hawaiian if you can find them and like it sweet. Get wonder bread buns, they’ll do. Just don’t put a burger on sandwich bread. I know some origins claim that the first hamburgers were just on bread, but I find it perverse and upsetting.
Speaking of which: it’s time I spoke about my favourite burger topic:
I just told you you want a nice big fluffy bun and you need 7 toppings aside from the patty. That stacks up pretty high pretty quick. How is your average sandwich person supposed to get their mouth around the damn thing and still manage to get each ingredient in a single bite? Many of you don’t want the answer. You’ll just stick your face in and get what you get. And that’s fine. Some of you have large enough mouths that this has never been an issue. Burger dad is one of these people and to him I say Congratulations. First, an earnest congratulations on recently earning the “dad” part of his moniker. Second, a less earnest praise for being able to enjoy the fluffyness of his hamburger buns while at the same time managing to always get all of the ingredients in a single bite.
I have been close friends with Burger Dad for almost 30 years, and we have been going out for burgers at lunchtime since we were 13. Even at that young age, burger dad could effectively consume a Jerry’s Hamburger (rip Jerry’s 1997-2020) without any trouble. In stark contrast, I had, and still have, the smallest mouth in the world. If I purse my lips the right way it effectively disappears. I’ve had to wear a moustache since my early 20’s to extend the damn thing and look reasonably normal. So clearly, a 13 year old me could very much not wrap his tiny mouth around a Jerry’s Hamburger. I could manage a McDonald’s cheeseburger bite at best. As such, upon receiving my own Jerry’s hamburger, I had no choice but to compress that beautiful fluffy bun right into those toppings in order to make it even remotely edible.
In the same way that I find hamburgers on sandwich bread perverse and upsetting, burger dad will not stand for the desecration of a fluffy bun, and considers a compressed burger to be a ruined burger. He made that very clear on that fabled day back in the late 90’s. I, in turn, have made my counter opinion very clear over the last 20 some years. Not only by remembering to look him in the eyes and press my palm firmly down on my burger every time we have had lunch together ever since, but also by telling all of our mutual friends over the years about his aversion to this practice, and getting them to do it in front of him as well.
How it started
You see, Burger Dad is perhaps the kindest and most well meaning person on the entire planet. In the nearly 3 decades I’ve known him, I have only ever seen him get angry or even mildly frustrated maybe half a dozen times, and 5 of those were about squishing down hamburgers. This is his reputation with all of his friends. This is the only thing in the world that genuinely annoys him, and so I (and other friends) often make an effort to do so in front of him or at least text him pictures of us squishing down our hamburgers. I’ve taught my children to do it when he’s around. I may have also secretly passed out burgers to co-conspirators at his wedding and at the end of my speech signaled everyone (including his wife) to “toast the groom” by holding aloft their burgers and compressing them mightily.
I recently saw a tweet stating “literally nothing on earth is better than repeatedly doing a bit your partner (on in this case, oldest friend) doesn’t like”
Clearly I very much agree.
Now, after all these years, I will admit here that burger dad is mostly right in his aversion. The fluffy bun is a huge part of what makes a good hamburger. If the bun is lofty and of high quality, it is certainly a shame to compress it at all. The problem is that most really great burgers are way too big for even average sized mouths to get a good full bite without a bit of squishing.
I guess what I’m saying is that as a small mouthed person who has spent most of his life so far committed to a bit to annoy his friend, I am inherently biased on the subject. Still, unless you are with, or about to text a photo to burger dad (@brendan_reese on instagram), just do your best. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get it in there. If what you’ve gotta do is flatten it with your palm, please take a photo of yourself doing that and send it to me (email@example.com, @thesandwichdad on twitter or @sandwichdad.ca on intagram) so I can pass it along to my friend.
Now that we’ve made it to the end, here is my recipe for a burger patty.
Next time on sandwich dad : more controversy!
We explore the open faced Sandwich