"A Hamburger is warm and fragrant and juicy. A hamburger is soft and non-threatening. It personifies the Great Mother herself, who has nourished us from the beginning. A hamburger is an icon of layered circles, the circle being at once the most spiritual and the most sensual of shapes. A hamburger is companionable and faintly erotic: the nipple of the Goddess, the bountiful belly-ball of Eve." -- Tom Robbins from "The Genius Waitress" in Esquire, 1983
Once upon a time, hamburgers were the All-American inexpensive meal that Dad was allowed to immolate in the back yard until they looked, and tasted like, black hockey pucks. Then came McDonald's and burgers became tan and tasted like a tanned hide.
To the observant burger anthropologist, there are at least a dozen distinctive species and subspecies of burger. Like sports teams, everyone has a favorite. Most hamburgers are distinguished mainly by the condiments. But condiments don't make the burger. The meat does. And how you cook it.
But first, let's play culinary anthropologist and study the menu of the major species of burger.
For the sake of argument, I will define a hamburger as a sandwich with a patty made mostly from ground beef, cooked, and served between halves of a bun or two pieces of bread that can be garnished with an infinite number of condiments.
If I've missed a legit style, let us know:
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This is the burger that wakes me up in the middle of the night. It is floating above my bed, just out of reach, dripping on my forehead and whispering provocatively, "eeeeat me, eeeeat me."
Made from ground steak, not scraps of lips and tail, it's adipose at 8 ounces and 3/4" thick and goes bumper to bumper on a 4" bun, with a chocolate brown crunchy crust whose savor is accented with a soupcon of charred beef fat amplified by more than a kiss of salinity, and, when broached, it bursts like a grape in my mouth coating it with earthy beefy flavor that says "I am not a lowly peasant meal, I am not an assembly line product, I am a rare treat that is American cuisine at its epitome because to make me properly you've gotta have your stuff together."
In the steakhouse, its dominion, this steakburger is usually broiled under scorching hot gas flames until the proteins metamorphose and the lipids in the fats char. It sits on a pillowy soft bun capable of absorbing its ample juices, buttered and toasted enough to add richness and crackly texture, simply adorned with lettuce, tomato, perhaps salty/smoky/crunchy bacon, perhaps a viscous layer of melted cheddar, and your choice of ketchup, mustard, mayo, or a blend of all three. In such a state, it transmogrifies from simple sandwich to feast. Forget everything you think you know about cooking burgers. Click here for my recipe for the perfect Steakhouse Burger.
Diner BurgersThe Diner Burger and its variations on the theme have a vocal following with good reason. It is a 3 to 4 ounce thin disk of ground beef slapped on a blistering hot griddle, cooked quickly until it is mahogany and crisp on one side, then flipped and seared until the second side matches the first. If the griddle is blazing hot this can happen before the center dries out. The griddle makes contact with maximum surface and that is what the Diner Burger is really all about. Beefy flavor and two surfaces turned brown by that miracle of chemistry, the Maillard reaction that makes proteins soar beyond their natural state when heated well above 300F. Click here for my recipe for the perfect Diner Burger.
The Smashed Burger. A popular variant of the Diner Burger is The Smashed Burger which starts as a golf ball sized meatball and gets smashed into the plancha to achieve maximum surface contact and jagged crunchy edges. This method is popular in diners across the nation, but the epitome is the Shake Shack with three locations in NYC and a cult following that forms long lines.
The Onion Burger. An excellent variant of the style is The Onion Burger, where raw onions are pressed into the raw top of the patty while the first side is on the griddle, and when it is flipped, they caramelize and get sweet in the burger grease and practically fuse to the surface.
CheeseburgersIt's really a stretch to call the cheeseburger a distinctive style of burger because, to make a cheeseburger, all you need to do is add cheese to any of the other burger species. Technically, the cheese is a condiment or a topping, even though sometimes the cheese is placed between two thin patties to make the ever popular sub species called the Double Cheeseburger or The Big Baby on Chicago's Southside. Click here for my article on The Zen of Cheeseburgers.
Patty MeltThe patty melt is a cross between the cheeseburger and the grilled cheese sandwich. It is traditionally a pan fried hamburger patty topped with pan fried onions topped with Swiss Cheese between slices of rye bread. It is then cooked on both sides in the meat fat or more often in butter until the bread is toasted on the outside and the cheese has melted. Variations include white bread, sourdough, ciabatta, and cooking on a sandwich press.
Store BurgersIn my private lexicon, Store Burgers are dispensed by the national fast food chain "stores" as their owners prefer to call them, rather than restaurants. The skimpy patties are made in a warehouse far far away from trimmings of inferior cuts of meat and slabs of fat, pressed in a mold so they are perfectly flat and round, frozen and shipped across state lines in giant reefer (refrigerator) semi-trailer trucks. Sadly, burgers are not covered by the Mann Act. Some places griddle them, some flame broil them, but, if you peel off the smushed bun, wilted lettuce, pink tomato, corrugated pickle slices, and not-so-special sauce, you find uniformly gray flaps of mystery meat ground so fine that no bone could survive. They are all cooked well past well done until they are dry and closer to a chamois than a happy meal, wrapped in toilet paper, held under heat lamps until the buns are limp and soggy, and served in a cardboard casket. RIP.
Homestyle BurgersThese are the burgers Grandma made. Big and fat and loaded on the inside with so many veggies that they are almost a well rounded meal. Grandma loved to chop up onions, garlic, green peppers, and splash in some steak sauce or Worcestershire. Maybe she'd even mix in some breadcrumbs and an egg as binders. More like meatloaf on a bun, she'd cook them in a frying pan on the stovetop or even in the oven. Because of all the moisture they were juicy and crumbly. When you were 10, nothing tasted better after a snowball fight. Now they taste like nothing less than home.
Jucy Lucy and other Stuffed BurgersBefore the cooking begins, take a thin patty, top it with a wad of yellow or blue cheese, and then another patty. Pinch the edges together thoroughly and tightly so they don't leak to seal in the goodness. Matt's in in Minneapolis, MN, is the home of the original Jucy Lucy, and that's right, there's no "i" in Jucy. The molten core of the Jucy Lucy is cheese, but some folks use butter, especially herbed butter, and others insert sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, you name it. But those are Stuffed Burgers, not Jucy Lucys.
Smoked BurgersPut your patties in a smoker and then take them out and brown them in a frying pan or on a griddle. Barbecue joints around the nation do it. The now deceased Original Texas Barbecue King in LA smoked their humongous one pound King burgers on their smoker beneath their ribs so they can catch the drippings. With a recipe like that, how could they go out of business? Oh. LA.
Slyders. These burgers are cooked with steam rather than dry heat. White Castle "Slyders" (a.k.a. Sliders) are the most famous steamed burgers, so named because they slide right down. And yes, they were originally trademarked with a "y". That's one at right.
First a layer of chopped onion bits that have been defanged by soaking in water go on a medium hot griddle, then the 2.5" square patties go on top of them, never touching the griddle, each with five holes punched in them to speed cooking and to distribute the onion flavor, then some salt is sprinkled on the squares, then one lonesome crinkle cut dill pickle slice goes over the center hole, then the bun bottoms, face down, then the bun tops. They sit there and steam in the mist from the onions and the meat, without a lid, just the buns on top. No flipping necessary. Take home a sack.
Connecticut Cheeseburgs. Serious devotees of steamers are partial to the hefty, gooey versions served in Connecticut, especially Ted's Steamed Cheeseburg in Meriden, described below under regional burger styles. Yes, it is "Cheeseburg" without the "er".
Dome Burgers. A variant of the Steamed Burger can be found in scores of diners across the nation. The patty is cooked on a griddle under a metal dome, combining dry heat from below, and steam from above. Some short order cooks even sprinkle water or shaved ice under the dome to create more steam.
Deep Fried BurgersLoad up a frying pan with oil, preferably tallow made by rendering beef fat, make a thin patty, and when the oil is burbling, in goes the meat. It will sink, and when the crispy disk floats to the top, it is done. Shake off the surface oil, and onto the bun it goes. Since 1912, Dyer's Burgers on Beale St. in Memphis has been the mecca for deep fried burger lovers. Dyer's even makes a cheeseburger by putting the slice of cheese on the burger in the grease. Playboy ranks it as one of the nation's top 10, and Esquire puts it on their list of "60 Things Worth Shortening Your Life For." The owner says his secret is "Pride, tradition, and grease."
In Jefferson City, MO, Paddy Malone's Yogi Burger is a half pound patty that is dipped in batter and then deep fried, topped with Thousand Island Dressing and all the fixins' and served on Texas Toast. Is that Irish?
ButterburgersPopular in the dairy state of Wisconsin, the Butter Burger patty is schwabbed with a schmear of butter on one side which is then placed butter side down on the griddle. Another schmear goes on the top just before it is flipped. It is then served on a bun with schmears on the cut sides of the buns and on top of the patty beneath the condiments. Solly's Grille in Milwaukee claims to have invented the thing and it is served in a pool of the yellow stuff that has dripped off the sandwich. Ironically, Culver's ButterBurger is not a true butter burger. It gets its name from butter on the toasted bun, something any good burger should have. I go to Culver's for the custards, not the burgers.
The Novelty Burger
Finally, we have the Novelty Burger. One might be charitable and call them creative burgers made by innovative chefs, but most don't deserve the elevation.
Silly Burgers. Every pub looking to differentiate itself from the beer hall across the street feels the need to tweak the formula beyond rational. They come with all manner of mix-ins, ranging from the insanely hot Bhut jolokia (a.k.a. the "Indian ghost chile") to hard boiled eggs. Another Silly Burger, perhaps the silliest of them all, is the Luther Burger, named after an early fan, singer/songwriter Luther Vandross. It is a patty between two donuts or donut halves. It was relatively unknown until it starred in a TV cartoon, and grew in fame when the Gateway Grizzlies, a minor league baseball team in St. Louis, started serving it. They split a deep-fried Krispy Kreme Donut, lay a patty on it, and top it with bacon and melted cheese. Is there a doctor in the stadium?
We can also include in this category the 50 pound burgers (betcha can't eat one), and the quadruple stack (held together by skewers, not toothpicks), and the burgers topped with everything from pineapple rings to salmon. Any attempt to list all the Silly Burgers is as futile as trying to list all political lies.
Mini-Burgers. Among the subspecies is the recent trend to mini burgers. Some are thin disks, some are fat, they are meant to be less filling and higher markup, and often served with chocolate martinis and other abominations in shee-shee bars. Some audacious and uneducated chefs call them sliders. Not, not, not!
Gourmet Burgers. A subspecies of the silly burger is the Gourmet Burger. The concept goes back to the original Hamburg steak and its descendant, the Salisbury Steak (see below), an attempt to make ground beef a competitor with real steaks. The concept of upscale hamburger died as buns swallowed ground meat like Pacmen and then it resurfaced in 1975 when Manhattan's fabled 21 Club served a $21 burger. Now Gourmet Burgers are everywhere. Scores of restaurants serve burgers made from expensive Kobe or Wagyu beef with exotic mix-ins and toppings. The New York Times credits (blames?) Daniel Boulud with starting the trend in 2001 at his Times Square DB Bistro Moderne when he stuffed ground sirloin with braised short ribs, foie gras, and truffles when they are in season. It's more than $30. It's a fine sandwich, done perfectly, with a lump of foie gras about the size of a marble embedded in the center. That's it at right.
In 2008 TV chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay opened Bobby's Burger Palace in a New York City suburb, and other celebrity chefs have jumped on the bandwagon. Emeril Lagasse has opened BAM (Burgers And More) in the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, PA. Hubert Keller has the Burger Bar in Las Vegas, St. Louis, and San Francisco. And, mon dieu, according to the New York Times, burgers are Chic in Paris now!
Regional Hamburger Styles
Unlike hot dogs, which have numerous regional styles (see my article Hot Dog Road Trip), there are only a handful of hamburger styles that are truly regional. Many variations are served nationwide or limited to one restaurant. But there are a few styles that seem to have taken hold in a region where the locals call it their own. If you know of other regional styles, please let me know in the comments below.
The New Mexico Green Chile CheeseburgerThe Green Chile Cheeseburger is the bomb in the Southwest, especially New Mexico. It is a cheeseburger crowned with mild green Hatch chiles, the local name for Anaheim chiles. But Hatch is a town in NM, and no way they would name their signature chiles after a town in CA. In some restaurants the the chiles are smoke roasted, some fry them on the griddle, and some puree them in a blender with other goodies. Some are topped with bacon, and a spoon of sour cream. The Owl Bar & Cafe and the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, NM, are on everyone's top five list.
The South Carolina Pimento Cheese BurgerThe Pimento Cheese Burger (it is two words down there) is another regional specialty especially popular in Columbia, SC and in other pockets of the South. Pimento cheese spread replaces the melted cheese as well as the ketchup, mustard, and secret sauces. You can add lettuce, tomato, and onion, but that's it. And yes, I know the correct spelling is pimiento, but not many places spell it that way. The Varsity, in Atlanta, GA, probably sells more of them than anyone, but the owner was once a student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. So there.
The Connecticut Steamed CheeseburgThere is a section of Connecticut that seems to have a thing for Steamed Burgers, and there are a number of restaurants making them in the Burg'r Tend'r, a box designed just for the purpose. Just cram a big patty into a rectangular pan about 3" wide, top with a slice of cheese, and put in the steam oven. No need to flip it. Wet, juicy, gooey.
The Cincinnati Chili CheeseburgerThis town has made its fast food reputation with hot dogs (called Coneys) and spaghetti topped with a ground beef sauce called Cincinnati Chili, and then topped with oyster crackers, a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, and onions. Although the Chili Cheeseburger is not widespread, it can be found at such landmarks as Gold Star Chili. Click here for my recipe for Cincinnati Chili which you can add to your burgers with cheese and onions to approximate the real thing.
The San Antonio BeanburgerThe San Antonio, TX, beanburger is believed to have originated at the late and lamented Sill's Snack Shack (a.k.a. The Triple S) in 1953. The patty is topped with refried pinto beans, cheese (usually Cheez Wiz or cheddar), onions, and crushed Fritos corn chips. Picante and guacamole occasionally barge in but they are interlopers. Several restaurants in and around San Antonio serve a version of the dish. One popular version is at Cheesy Jane's.
The West Virginia Slaw BurgerThe West Virginia Burger is made like their Hot Dogs, topped with a ground beef chili, hashed coleslaw, chopped onions, and mustard. Click here for my recipe for the slaw.
The Little Havana FritaAn import from Cuba, the frita is popular in Miami's Little Havana along Calle Ocho (8th Street). The beef patty is thin, about 4 ounces, occasionally mixed with chorizo (a spicy red coarsely ground pork sausage), slathered with a picante sauce while it cooks, and topped with a mound of potato shards made by shredding potato on a box grater, then deep frying and salting.
El Rey de las Fritas (The King of Fritas), is a spotless, friendly place in a strip mall on Calle Ocho, and it lives up to its moniker. No lesser luminary than Bobby Flay calls their fritas the best burgers in Florida. He likes them so much that he imitates them with "crunchified" burgers at his restaurants, topped with crushed potato chips.
Burgers of other countries
Love of American culture has brought the hamburger to many countries where growing demand was met with the expansion overseas of McDonalds and Burger King. Some nations have their own peculiar twist on the concept.
In Australia a typical burger may have pickled beets (yuuuuuck), sunnyside up egg, sliced pineapple, and chile paste such as sambal oelek or sriracha.
In Korea, don't be surprised to find kimchi, a form of pickled cabbage, on your burger. Hey, just think of it as a type of kraut or slaw.
In the Dominican Republic, you can get Chimichurris, a.k.a. Chimi Burgers, from pushcarts and hole in the wall joints everywhere. Each stand takes liberties with the recipe, with some using a green herb sauce similar to Argentine chimichurri sauce, while others use chopped onion, red bell pepper, garlic, oregano, and cilantro mixed in with the ground meat, and they are served with a warm coleslaw on top, and a sauce made with ketchup, mayo, and mustard, similar to my Burger Glop recipe. Chimi Burgers have traveled with Dominican expats to their new homes in New York and elsewhere.
In India, burgers are served on the flat traditional local Naan bread.
Not Quite Burgers, But Close
Salisbury SteaksIn the 1860s, during the Civil War, Dr. James Henry Salisbury, had success treating diarrhea with a diet of all lean ground beef. In the 1880s he introduced the Salisbury Steak, patties of beef scraped from pounded steaks, seasoned and mixed with onion, then grilled. He prescribed them three times a day as a treatment for all manner of digestive ailments. Within a few decades Salisbury Steaks began showing up on menus and in cookbooks, and they can still be found on menus, particularly in rural areas, often served on toast, smothered in gravy and mushrooms.
Hawaiian Loco MocoNot a true hamburger because it is not served on a bun, this popular local specialty begins with a bed of white rice topped with a ground beef patty or two, doused with brown gravy, and crowned with a fried egg or two.
Meatball SandwichesAn Italian American favorite. The meatballs are made with moistened bread, egg, and might even have pork or veal in the grind. Two or three balls, about 1.5 to 2" are served on a section of a high gluten and medium crust loaf, topped with a marinara sauce, and often sautéed peppers and melted mozzarella cheese.
Meatloaf SandwichesThese are usually made from leftover slices of meatloaf served on white bread.
Spoonburgers and ScoopburgersThese are a mound of loose ground meat that has not been formed into a patty. Some are griddled and some are cooked in a pot with stock and spices. The meat is then piled on the bun, crumbly. Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, IA, has been making them since 1928 and they seem to be popular in many joint around the Mississippi River in Iowa and Illinois. But it's not a patty so it's not really a burger.
Sloppy JoesA variation on the Spoonburger, this loose meat sandwich is usually ground beef cooked in a pan with onion and seasonings, drained, and mixed with a ketchup based sauce, usually doctored heavily.
Doughburgers or SlugburgersThese are a holdover from The Depression when restaurants stretched ground meat by mixing it with flour and cooking it on a griddle. Sometimes called slugburgers because you could buy one for a nickle, which was called a "slug" at the time, and they are still available in a handful restaurants in the deep South. There are variations made with grits, soy meal, bread, potatoes, and crackers. There is even an annual Slugburger Festival in July in Corinth, MS, but if you miss the party, stop in at Borroum's Drug Store & Soda Fountain in Corinth and order one. I'm told it hasn't changed much since it was founded in 1865.
Copyright (c) 2010 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. All text and photos by Meathead. For more of his writing, photos, and recipes, please visit him at his website AmazingRibs.com, friend him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.