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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Shake Shack cookbook: does the extra effort produce the desired results? 

The book is called Shake Shack Recipes & Stories, and the “& Stories” element is worth noting

It is difficult to achieve restaurant-quality results without access to professional equipment. Photo by Emily Price
It is difficult to achieve restaurant-quality results without access to professional equipment. Photo by Emily Price

It’s no exaggeration to say that Shake Shack changed perceptions of what fast food actually is. This is the place that propelled ShackSauce, Concrete desserts and the Roadside Double into the culinary lexicon. It’s at these no-frills dining spots that, in almost unprecedented fashion, customers happily queue for more than an hour, sustained by the thought of the spoils at the end.

What started out as a humble hot-dog cart in New York’s Madison Square Park in 2001, is now an international success story: there are close to 100 Shake Shack outlets in the United States, as well as franchises spanning the globe, from London and Moscow to Istanbul and the UAE. New openings are shrouded with anticipation, an alternative lingo is associated with a trip to the Shack, and fans tend to have their own highly specific go-to orders and list of meal add-ons.

In short, people don’t just like Shake Shack food, they go glassy-eyed at the thought of Crinkle Cut Fries, and suffer withdrawal symptoms from wax-paper-wrapped ‘Shroom Burgers. If all that sounds even a little bit familiar, the news that the Shake Shack cookbook recently went on sale in the UAE, with a promise to bring some of the brand’s signature flavour into our kitchens, could well be considered a boon.

First, though, let’s question if we really need this cookbook in our lives. After all, there are several Shake Shacks dotted around the region, and isn’t some of the joy of eating out tied up with the knowledge that the restaurant is producing the sort of food that eludes the home cook? Part of the appeal of Shake Shack is surely the anticipation, the careful gauging of just how long the queue might be, and the excitement when that little buzzer jumps to life, signalling that there’s piping hot food ready and waiting to be collected.

The Shack burger. Photo by Emily Price
The Shack burger. Photo by Emily Price

The next issue to ponder is whether we – amateur cooks without access to professional equipment – are really going to be able to produce the desired results? Is it not likely that crispy, crunchy, non-greasy, crinkle-cut French fry perfection will prove elusive? Is it possible to whip up a One-Stop Choc Concrete at home, and do we really want to face reality and get better acquainted with the ingredients list? Ignorance is bliss, after all, and while those desserts do taste blissful, they’re definitely not light on calories or fat content.

The book is called Shake Shack Recipes & Stories, and the “& Stories” element is worth noting. At least one-third of the pages is dedicated to the origins of the company, its founders and the evolution of their idea, as well as stories and snippets from staff members, information about suppliers and producers, and the company’s mission statement and community work. While much of this is commendable, given that the majority of people cooking from the book won’t be able to source the specific tomatoes from Florida used in the Shack Burger, or have much of an interest in its expansion plans across America, it feels a little self-­indulgent. You can’t help thinking that there could be a little less ­preamble and a few more recipes.

Moving on to the recipes, the book is divided into sections based on the menu items (burgers, hot dogs, chicken, fries, shakes and desserts), with each one accompanied by information about where the recipe came from, the anatomy of the base dish and an annotated image breaking it down into its component parts. A picture-led step-by-step guide to the recipe and spin-off recipes follow.

From the outset, there are a couple of issues: the book uses American cups and the imperial systems for its weights and measurements, and doesn’t offer a conversion system, which will prove frustrating for many. Perhaps more vexing, though, is that not all secrets are revealed. You won’t, for example, find the exact ingredients and ratios for the much-loved, highly additive, pour-it-over-everything ShackSauce in here. The company is far too savvy to give those details away, noting that some years ago they “threw away the key to the secret recipe for ShackSauce”. Instead, they offer an approximation with a note that it’s “close-enough” to the real thing. In reality, the combination of mayo, Dijon mustard, ketchup, pickling brine and paprika is undoubtedly moreish yet, sadly, it doesn’t taste like the real thing.

It would be remiss not to attempt to make a burger when trying out this book, so that’s exactly where we started. What quickly became clear is that despite a note in the introduction stating that “you can master burger perfection in five minutes”, this doesn’t tally with the processes and attention to detail called for.

The classic Shack Burger requires a combination of three cuts of beef (brisket, chuck and short rib), which need to be diced by hand, then passed through a grinding machine twice over, before being formed into pucks and dusted with a pre-measured amount of “our Salt & Pepper Mix” to ensure that the seasoning is entirely on point.

The same precision is required when it comes to accompaniments. As well as the aforementioned ShackSauce, the recipe calls for potato rolls to be reverentially brushed with pools of melted, unsalted butter, and toasted until golden and starting to colour around the sides. And don’t even think about grating Cheddar on top of a hot-from-the-griddle patty: creamy American sliced cheese, ideally from Wisconsin, is the only option here. Even cooking these burgers isn’t as simple as you might expect; to achieve Shake Shack’s trademark thinner-than-average smashed patty complete with craggy brown edges, there are processes to be followed, sturdy equipment to be used and timings adhered to.

So is it worth it? On balance, yes. There’s no denying it: these burgers are better than the ones I usually make at home. Thanks to the quality of the beef and its well-considered ratio of lean to fatty meat, they taste great; the potato buns soak up all that juicy, caramelised flavour very well indeed, and the ruffle of crisp lettuce and tomato slices add a nice freshness. This isn’t a burger to make when time is tight and dinner needs to be on the table in 30 minutes, but if you fancy a weekend project, you’ll be well rewarded.

Whether the same can be said for the Crinkle Cut Fries is debatable, though. After being cut by hand, the yellow-fleshed potatoes need to be rinsed, simmered in water until tender, drained, cooled and patted dry. Then they are deep-fried in canola oil, drained once more and transferred to the freezer to dry out. After that, you need to fry them again. In truth, it’s a whole lot of faff for an end result that tastes fine, but doesn’t quite achieve glistening French fry perfection. If you plan to make burgers from scratch, our advice would be to make things easy for yourself and accompany them with frozen supermarket fries; take them up a notch by drizzling ever so lightly with oil and dusting with salt when 10 minutes’ cooking time remains.

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Read more:

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In other areas, the Chick’n Shack and Chicken Bites recipes are simple and tasty, and the buttermilk marinade tenderises the chicken an absolute treat (if you struggle to get hold of buttermilk, just add a tablespoon of lemon juice or white grape vinegar to the same quantity of whole milk).

Turning to all things sweet, if you want to follow the instructions for those famous milkshakes and high-octane Concrete desserts to the absolute letter, you’ll need to make a super-rich custard base and have access to an ice-cream machine. The book does handily note that if this feels like too much effort, premium, shop-bought ice cream can be subbed instead. Do that, and whipping up the peppermint, chocolate and vanilla Shakes becomes a cinch. While these do taste pretty good (so they should, you’re drinking liquid ice cream), the result is just not up there with an actual Shake Shack Shake. And that might just be the issue with this particular cookbook: when a craving strikes and you’re prepared to blow some serious calories, why be satisfied with an imitation, when you can have the real thing?