As I flipped the pancake-thin patties at my son’s school picnic, I knew they embodied everything that can go wrong with a burger–chewy, dense, and underseasoned.
Staring into the flames, I thought of a burger I’d recently devoured at Monsieur Benjamin in San Francisco: It was an inch-thick, lightly packed round of ground beef topped with a sheer slice of Comté and sweet-and-sour onions. Each half of the toasted potato-buttermilk bun was smeared with tangy aioli. Crisp butter lettuce buffered the bun from the meat drippings.
The man responsible for that exceptional burger is Jason Berthold, the boyish executive chef of Corey Lee’s French-inspired bistro, who I met on a recent trip to the Bay Area.
To make it, Berthold grinds the beef, bakes the buns, and even makes his own ketchup (for the record, it’s the closest I’ve tasted to Heinz). But I wasn’t there to learn how to make ketchup. I met Berthold in his pristine, white-tiled kitchen to master the pro patty in my home kitchen.
Get With the Grind
It starts with grinding your own beef. Berthold pulled meat-grinding tools and a stainless steel bowl from the freezer. From the walk-in came a large sheet pan of top round and short-rib plate (a slab of short ribs, sans bones, from the front of the cow).
Some people freeze the meat before grinding to keep it from softening, as the heat of the machine can smear the fat into the leaner meat. Keeping the lean and fatty pieces separate is what gives the patty a loose texture—the fat melts as it cooks, leaving behind juicy airy pockets. But as long as you work quickly and the beef and tools are well chilled, Berthold said, freezing the meat isn’t necessary.
He dropped strips, not cubes, of meat through the grinder—first a piece of leaner top round, then a fattier short-rib plate. Once ground, he passed all the meat through the grinder a second time to mix it. The fat content of this burger is high—probably 30 percent—which means plenty of flavor and moisture.
Keep It Shapely
As Berthold shaped the patties, he pressed his thumb into the center of each one, creating a divot in the beef. Since the patties constrict with heat, these divots prevent the meat from puffing up into tennis balls.
Before Berthold started cooking his burgers in an enclosed grill called a Josper (think oven with a grill inside), he basted the patties like steaks, with butter and herbs in a cast-iron skillet. Cast-iron cooking, some think, makes for a more flavorful burger because the fat and salt stay in the pan and continue to season the patty. I tried a burger cooked both ways, and while the Josper burger was smokier, the skillet version was equally moist and tender.
Two Crucial Steps
Back in my city kitchen, I chose to reproduce the most important parts of Berthold’s burger and found that grinding the burger through a thick die either at home or at a butcher is crucial. It keeps the meat loose and lets you decide the quantity of fat to lean meat as well as tailor the flavors: earthy, nutty marbled short ribs; sweet, leaner top loin; buttery brisket; or beefy skirt steak.
Keeping the meat cool until you’re ready to cook it and salting it just before it hits the pan is also important, as this is key to retaining moisture. Berthold sprinkled a lot of kosher salt over his patties. “It should look like a light dusting of snow on your car window–just enough so that you can’t see through it,” he said.
This was perhaps the biggest take away: Season your patties and then season them again. (Then don’t forget the divot.)
Let It Rest
And while it takes willpower not to immediately bite into the burger, give it a good five-minute rest after cooking. Otherwise, the juices will run out of the patty and onto your perfectly toasted bun.
The caramelized onions and the aioli offer nice acidity, so I included those parts of the recipe, but you could certainly skip the onions, use store-bought mayo, and walk away a very happy person. I took those shortcuts one busy night. It was a fast, no-nonsense dinner with toasted Martin’s potato rolls, smears of Hellman’s mayo, and a seriously tender, juicy, well-seasoned patty—the perfect burger night.
Beefy Burger With Sweet-and-Sour Onions
Adapted from Jason Berthold of Monsieur Benjamin
Makes 4 burgers, 1 cup caramelized onions, 1 cup aioli
Active Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
For the caramelized onions
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound total), sliced ¼ inch thick
1 small bay leaf
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Banyuls vinegar
For the aioli
1 clove garlic
1 large egg
1 additional large egg yolk
2 teaspoons Champagne vinegar
1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
1 large pinch piment d’espelette powder
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons rice bran oil (grapeseed or canola oil can also be used)
For the burger
14 ounces boneless short-rib plate (well-marbled, untrimmed, from the forequarter), cut into 1-inch-thick strips (see NOTE)
14 ounces top round, cut into 1-inch-thick strips
1 small yellow onion
Freshly ground black pepper
Rice bran oil (grapeseed or canola oil can also be used)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 sprigs thyme
4 (4-inch) slices Comté
4 potato or brioche hamburger buns
4 leaves butter lettuce
1. Prepare the caramelized onions: Set a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once hot, add the onions and bay leaf and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the sugar, salt, butter, and vinegar and cook, stirring constantly to emulsify the butter into the vinegar, about 1 minute.
3. Cut a parchment round the width of the pan, then cut a 1-inch hole in the center. Place it directly on the onions and cook over low heat until softened but not completely melted, 6 to 8 minutes more. Remove bay leaf and cool.
4. Make the aioli: Fill a medium sauté pan with enough cold water to rise 2 inches and bring to a boil. Add the garlic and boil for 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to a blender.
5. Let the boiling water sit off the heat for about 4 minutes to lower the temperature to between 170F and 190F. (Turn the heat back on as needed to keep the temperature in this range.) Place the whole egg in a small bowl. Holding that small bowl over the water, dip and tip it slightly in the water and let the egg slide smoothly out. Gently agitate the top of the water with a spoon so the egg doesn’t stick to the bottom. Cook until the outside white has set and the inside yolk has heated through, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the blender.
6. Add the egg yolk, vinegar, mustard, salt, and piment d’espelette to the blender and puree until smooth. Add the oil in a slow and steady stream to emulsify, stopping to wipe down the sides of the blender. Season to taste with more salt.
7. Prepare the burger: Fifteen minutes before grinding the meat, place a medium bowl and the meat grinder attachment and blades in the freezer. (If you cannot fit them in the freezer, place them in the fridge until well-chilled.)
8. Using a die with ¼-inch-thick holes, grind the meat through the meat grinder, alternating between pieces of short-rib plate and top round. Grind the meat through the meat grinder a second time. Chill the meat until ready to use.
9. Slice the yellow onion into 1/3-inch rings and place them in an ice water bath; set aside.
10. Press 7 ounces of ground meat into 4 patties (4½ to 5 inch in diameter each). Use your thumb to press an indent in the center to keep the burger flat as it cooks. Chill until ready to cook.
11. If using the stovetop, heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Once hot, remove two burger patties from the refrigerator. Season generously with salt and pepper—enough salt so that it looks like a light dusting of snow. Add just enough oil to coat the pan. Once the oil is hot, add the burger patties and cook without moving until dark brown on the bottom and 60 percent of the sides are no longer pink, about 4 to 5 minutes. Flip, drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat, add 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 garlic clove, and 1 thyme sprig and cook, using a basting spoon to constantly spoon the butter, garlic, and thyme over the burgers until medium-rare or the internal temperature is 130F, about 1 minute more. Add a slice of Comté to each burger and cover the pan with a lid to melt it quickly, for about 30 seconds. Transfer the burgers to a cooling rack and let sit for 5 minutes. Repeat step #11 with the remaining two burger patties.
12. If using a grill, set a gas grill to high heat or heat the coals in a charcoal grill until they turn bright orange with a layer of ash over them. Once the grill is very hot, set the burgers on the grill grate and cook until dark brown and char marks form, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook for 2 minutes more. Add cheese to each burger, cover the grill, and let cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the cheese has melted and the internal temperature is 130F for medium-rare.
13. Toast the hamburger buns. Spread about 1 tablespoon of aioli on each side of a burger bun. Lay a slice of lettuce on the bottom half, place the burger over it, then roughly 2 tablespoons of caramelized onions, then a sliced onion (pulled from the ice water bath and patted dry), and finish with the top bun half.
Special equipment: A meat grinder or an electric mixer meat grinder attachment is useful. (If you don’t have a meat grinder, ask a butcher to grind the meat twice using a thick 3/8 or ¼-inch thick die.)
Note: Ask for the well-marbled, thinner portion of the short-rib plate from the tip of the ribs (forequarter). If you cannot find this cut, you can substitute 2 parts boneless regular short ribs to 3 parts fatty brisket, or 1 part skirt steak to 2 parts fatty brisket to 2 parts chuck or sirloin.