Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Steven Raichlen The Perfect Hamburger

Now that is a bold statement, yet there it is on page 98 of Steve's book, "HOW TO GRILL". Big bold, headline. Well, he is setting himself up for this, but, it was good, very good, really good... But I've seen better.

Let me start with my standard disclaimer...Long time readers of the blog, I am going to start coloring the lettering in the disclaimer, it will be the same for each review, feel free to skip to the standard black colored text...

OK, here's my generic talk about Steven Raichlen and his book...and me... As long time readers know, I am doing my own tribute (rip-off) off the Julia/Julie project, cooking my way through Steven amazing grill guide, HOW TO GRILL. Unlike Julie, I won't be finishing this in a year, but I will be making an item at least once a week.

A word about reprinting recipes... I asked for some advice a few posts back. I understand that it is done, lots of people do it, and there would be no consequences. But, I decided not to reprint any of Steven's recipes from this book. I have several reasons, first and probably most important to readers, I just think that this is a book that should be in every one's library. Buy the book. It is very detailed, comes highly recommended by someone who cooks on the grill often (me), lots of photos, lots of instruction... Darn near idiot proof. But, most important to me, I want to respect the copyright. In another life, I owned a book store. I have met and socialized with authors, and I have a great deal of respect for the effort it takes to produce a work like this. It may take a couple years, but eventually, I intend to make every single recipe in the book. Starting to reproduce the recipes, intending to do them all would certainly offend me as a book seller, and probably Steven as the copyright holder. Buy the book, Amazon has used copies available for under $7. Worth every penny.

OK, on to the PERFECT HAMBURGER. First, I was very surprised that this came towards the end of the chapters on Beef. There are many more complicated recipes in front of this section. While I am not cooking these in the order they are presented in the book, it would seem to me that this should be one of the first recipes. The recipe provides a very easy and cheap way to get your feet wet in grilling. Trust me, I just bought a $60 whole beef tenderloin to cook this weekend. I would much rather start cooking $2 hamburger than that; yet, there it is, way ahead of the tenderloin section.

Also, the recipe does provide very easy directions for skills that will serve you well if you intend to continue and stretch your skill set.

So, aside from editorial placement, I also have an issue with the basic premise of the cooking method and ingredients. Steven begins by telling of the dangers of cooking a rare hamburger. All the well known possible diseases are brought up, and he assures us that just cooking hamburger well done will insure that you will not poison your guests. The basic idea is that even though you cook all the juice, fat (and taste) from the burger, you can artificially introduce a flavorful juicy hamburger.

Piffle, pischa, balderdash, nonsense and... Are you kidding me???

Hamburgers are meant to be juicy with the juices of the meat. Over cooking that meat will change the "perfect" taste. It may be a different perfect taste, but it certainly is not a perfect hamburger taste. There is just no getting around this fact. If you are so worried about the cleanliness of your own kitchen, clean it. If you are worried about the quality of beef you are buying, buy better beef. But actually, the problem lies in statistics. I am guessing that say a million hamburgers are made in the US every day (probably much more). Lets say of that million, only 5% are made medium rare (the temperature for my "perfect hamburger"). That is still 50,000 medium rare hamburgers made every day. Again, just guessing, but I just don't see that even 5 people a day dies from eating contaminated beef. Any more, and CNN would be going crazy. Remember the lettuce scare last summer, 24 hour news cycles love tainted food stories, and we would hear about them. So, using my guessed at stats, your odds are 1 in 10,000 of eating contaminated beef. Life is too short to alter your cooking method, and certainly too short to alter the definition of "perfect hamburger". I am not saying don't be aware of the dangers of food contamination, of course you should be aware. Of course you should do what you can to protect you and your guests from the danger, but... Well, you get the idea, I disagree with his premise for why this needs to be in the book. If you agree, and feel that cooking methods should always go overboard to protect ourselves from 1 in 10,000 possibilities, overcook everything in a microwave and find a different hobby.

Off my soapbox...

So, I started out making this recipe with a preconceived prejudice about what makes a perfect hamburger, but I decided to make as directed, and see what I thought. I have been making burgers over fire for 35 years. I can measure the doneness pretty well, with the pressure finger test. It was going to be tough to cook to an internal temperature of 160 degrees... medium well done. No pink inside. But, let's see what happens...

The recipe starts out with the cheat... Stuff the burger with a slice of flavored butter.

Spices and soft butter gets mixed...

The butter gets rolled into a tube shape, wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for a few hours...

Cut in slices, take two bits of burger, about 1/8 pound each (so you are making a quarter pounder)
Form two patties, put a slice of the butter in between and work the edges to get a seal. Season with salt and pepper and grill as normal... just a little longer.

He does include flairs for you burgers that certainly make them better... Toasted buns among a great suggestion that will really make your burgers better. Also, lots of condiments, fresh lettuce, grilled onions, ripe tomatoes, bacon and whatever you might like (even mayonnaise).
And sure enough... it was a great hamburger.

But not perfect. In my opinion, the flavoring in the butter changed the taste of the burger. I like hamburger. I like a medium rare hamburger, and I feel that is the perfect taste. All the condiments can accent that taste, but anything that changes the taste of the meat just makes it a meatloaf sandwich...

In my opinion (for what it;s worth).

OK, On a scale of 1 to 5, this gets a 2. I liked it well enough, but it was not perfect, it was not a hamburger. I prefer the deeper taste of the meat. I will not use this method of cooking a hamburger, nor his recipe again.

So far, Stephen has given me 10 highly rated recipes and only 2 that I would not make again. So far, still very very good.


  1. Well, he does have to cover his ass, which is why he put those instructions in there. You probably won't find any professional publicly stating you should undercook your burgers. Even Bobby Flay, in his burger book, tells you to cook to well done. At home is one thing, but as a pro, I wouldn't take the risk - even at home. Just my 2 cents. I've had food poisoning and can tell you that it SUCKS!

  2. Very nice looking burger! Though, I can see how the butter inside would be a little weird. Now butter on the toasty bun would be nice. :)

    I agree with Wandering Coyote on the medium rare / well done debate. I've had food poisoning more times than I can count, including a nasty bout of viral gastroenteritis. But, to each his own! People should eat their food the way they like it.

  3. Yeah, I just reread what I wrote, and did come off a little preachy...


    there ought to be a happy medium. I still think the recipe was an excuse to overcook.

    Fresh ingredients, proper kitchen hygiene, will do more to reduce the risk of food poisoning than changing a century old cooking style and a century old definition of the perfect hamburger.

  4. I've never had food poisoning and I cook my burgers medium rare, medium at most. Just my preference. I like to grind my own meat when I can and that definitely helps cut down on cross contamination issues.

  5. Speaking of which, when you trim that beef tenderloin, if you don't have something in mind for the "chain of bull" piece that you trim off of the side, consider this. Cut the lean chunks and fat chunks into two piles. Make your own 80/20 blend (85/15 by weight, assuming that the "lean pieces" have 5% fat already) and grind it up for burgers. Mmmmmmm.

  6. Thanks Chris...Actually, I am going to prepare it two different ways, so I will need to tie the tips together to make about equal parts. I appreciate the tip though.

    I think the thing that bothered me about Steven's burger recipe was the title. If he had called it "the perfect well done hamburger", I would have absolutely agreed with him. I just can't call a well done burger a perfect burger.

    ah well, to each their own.

  7. Saw him do the butter thing on TV one night
    and think it is the way to go. He actually
    had two different perfect burgers of which
    the butter one was one of them.