The difference between a terrible burger and a transcendental one is as dramatic as a disparity can be.
The constant quest to find the ultimate burger
Finding a cold, leftover, half-eaten burger in the fridge is instant heart-break; sadder than a lone sock in a laundry hamper, a child's lost milk tooth and the late freeze that killed all the apricot blossoms for the fifth year in a row. A leftover burger presents a great predicament for a practical hedonist: what are you supposed to do with it?
Unlike leftover pizza, the single-serving burger is an exercise in divisiveness, challenging even the most diplomatic diner. Reheating is out of the question. And whereas even bad pizza can be kind of wonderful, the same latitude isn't extended to burgers. The difference between a terrible burger and a transcendental one is as dramatic as a disparity can be. Through stylistic and dietary trends, pizza was shamed into a corner to play with the other carbohydrates. Meanwhile, burgers were lovingly swaddled in lettuce and brandished bun-lessly. But nobody needs to read another obsessive ode to the beauteous beefburger. Its popularity has been noted.
The food writer and humorist Calvin Trillin once said: "Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his hometown is a sissy." Emiratis love ground beef so much that it's a standard topping on our pizza, but Trillin's assessment would still get poor mileage here, primarily because chains and franchises dominate the local fast-food and fine-dining sectors.
Veterans of the Emirati old-school days might remember a time, long before Fuddruckers came to Abu Dhabi, when Hardee's was the lone fast-food outlet in town. Classmates reassured me that Hardee's cheeseburger trumped the offerings at the local "Burger Queen", but I could never bring myself to eat there to confirm the rumour. I remember the buzz around the grand opening of the country's' first McDonald's (in Dubai), and the ensuing sticker shock at realising that the food was priced for people who were willing to pay almost anything for a fix. (My brother and I got our Happy Meals to go and ate them in the car on the way up to Ras Al Khaimah, documenting every sloppy bite with a disposable camera.) In those days, my favourite burger was the halal bacon double cheeseburger at the A&W in the Burjuman food court, where I would wash the whole thing down with root beer before predictably keeling over in hyper-caloric catatonia.
While Wendy's was famous for its square burgers and Burger King was known for the carbon-dark charbroiled taste of Whoppers, the Big Mac was my first adolescent love for its deviant charm in the condiment department. The so-called secret sauce is basically a sweeter and more mustardy variant of Thousand Island dressing, which itself is a variant of Russian dressing. I made a big, rich batch of Thousand Island last week with the intention of spreading it on Reuben sandwiches, but a true addict knows that anything edible can be negotiated into a Thousand Island dressing delivery system. Sweet, tangy and piquant, I like to spike mine with sour cream and lemon juice, then stir in plenty of crunchy chopped pickles, sweet onions and fresh bright parsley. Honestly, I'd mainline it if I could.
In a similar vein, "Shack Sauce", as popularised by Dubai via NYC's Shake Shack, is a mixture of mayo, dijon and yellow mustards, tomato purée, onions, garlic, chipotle peppers and pickles. New Zealand's BurgerFuel, also now in Dubai, slathers aioli on their buns. And the cultish California institution In-N-Out Burger carries yet another custom version of secret sauce, called "Spread", that is pink, pickled and contains ketchup and mayonnaise. These "secret" and "special" sauces are tasty, but they're not all that special—and they're not all that secret.
If you want to learn how to recreate your favourite fast-food burgers at home, check out the recipes of the ingenuous codebreaker J Kenji Lopez-Alt's Burger Lab on Serious Eats (aht.seriouseats.com). Titles such as "Building a Better Big Mac", "The Fake Shack, Mach Two – The Double Shack Stack Cracked" and "How to Make the Ultimate Patty Melt" reeled me in, and that was it. I was hooked. I needed a burger, stat. With enough leftover rye bread and dressing from the making of Friday's Reuben sandwiches to make patty melts on Sunday night, I assisted in the whole process - and I even learnt a thing or two.
Black Angus; organic; prime or choice; grass or grain fed? Over the weekend, the questions I thought were the most important fell on ears that had gone temporarily deaf from the screeching of the brand-new meat grinder. What I learnt instead was the importance of grinding the meat fresh and grinding it as finely as possible. I'll avoid preformed patties from now on, having considered the statistic that a patty of raw ground beef at a grocery store is likely to contain tissue from hundreds of different cows. For the patty melts, we bought some boneless chuck roast and ground it with brisket, and it resulted in one of the greatest burgers I've ever had.
Burgers can be steamed, pan-fried, broiled, chargrilled, butter-poached, or whatever you fancy. But as great as a grilled burger can taste, the magic of a griddled burger is not to be underestimated. As the renowned meat fiend and burger historian Josh Ozersky said about burgers in a Saveur magazine interview: "It was invented on a flat-top griddle and it should only ever be cooked on a flat-top griddle. That is the perfect medium to preserve the burger's precious fats and fluids. When you cook a burger on a flat-top it is essentially confited in its own juices."
The famous New York butcher Pat LaFrieda makes custom burger blends that include chuck, sirloin, short ribs and brisket, used by some of the better burger joints around (including Shake Shack). In New Haven, Connecticut, Louis' Lunch, which credits itself as being the first restaurant ever to serve hamburgers, uses a secret blend of five different cuts of beef, which are flame broiled upright and served on toasted white bread with tomato, onion and a smear of Cheez Whiz, if you want it – but nothing else, ever. Ask for ketchup and expect to be derided. Ask for secret sauce - and who knows? It could get ugly.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico