If you’re only just joining us, I’m happy to report that this week is burger week here at johanjohansen.dk! I’m on the quest of creating a perfect burger as a big thank you to my colleague and buddy Frandsen who helped me out when I was in a big pickle a few weeks back.
I’ve already covered what I believe to be the cornerstone of a good burger, the patty, but before I get into weird and scary subjects like buns, baking and side dishes, I thought I’d cover some other important parts of burger construction: the condiments and toppings that play such an important part in burger creation.
People have a way of getting very feisty and opinionated on the topic of condiments and toppings, present company included. I’ve played around with many a strange topping including, but not limited to, blue cheese, eggs, nacho chips, and avocado – with great results even. But I usually find my way back to a few tried and tested classics, all of which I want (possibly in some jazzed up form) on my perfect burger.
Below, I’ve listed six or so burger additions that I believe belong in a perfect burger. I’ve done so along with some personal notes and suggestions. I’m not saying this is the definitive list of toppings and condiments for a perfect burger, but it’s a pretty good bet in my book! Your list may be completely different (in which case, I’d love to hear it!) but these toppings have served me well and will therefore end up on my “perfect” burger.
I’ve never really understood why some people put raw onions in burgers. The crunch is too subtle to add anything in terms of texture and the sharp bite is unnoticeable at best and otherwise just strangely misplaced. But what about caramelized onions? Yes please! The softness of these little babies go well with the rest of the burger and the deep, sweet, caramelized, almost burnt flavor really adds a lot of oomph! I make my burgers with heaps of caramelized onions and I take quite a bit of care when I cook my onions. The devil (and the great taste) is in the details, after all.
If there’s one trick to caramelized onions, it’s to start low and slow – and with more onions than you think you’ll need! Start with your favorite pan, put it on medium low heat and add a generous knob of butter. While the pan heats, grab your onions of choice: yellow onions make for a nicely sweet final product, red onions add character, while shallots add a bit more zing. A mix of of the three might be interesting. Peel the onions and cut them into rings using your sharpest knife, then add to the pan along with a generous sprinkling of salt.
Cook over low to medium heat, tossing and turning regularly until golden brown, largely reduced in size, sweet and delicious. You’ll have to go by eye here rather than by time, and you may be at it for a fair amount of time. You don’t want to rush this, some burnt ends are okay but burnt onions in general are not good eats. If you’re worried about time or timing, fear not. The onions can be made ahead of time and reheated prior to serving.
Once onions are golden brown and delicious, hit them with a sprinkle of sugar, then a shot of vinegar. Balsamic vinegar will do but sherry vinegar is better – it’s slightly less sweet and not so grotesquely overused.
Pro tip: If you really want to play it fancy, add a bit of reduced beef broth and a hit of fine French Cognac as the final step. Give it all a good toss together and enjoy the French bistro feel.
I love mushrooms on burgers. I blame the Americans and their awesome burger-cooking ways. It’s definitely not a Danish thing, that’s for sure. I’m glad I tried it while abroad, though. It just works!
For burgers, any kind of mushroom will do, really, depending on your taste and preference. I usually stick with the standard button mushroom because it’s pretty uniform in size and shape and browns nicely. White or brown, you ask? It doesn’t really matter; white button mushrooms are just brown button mushrooms grown in the dark. Sorry to burst your bubble.
I’m not going to pretend like there’s much of a trick to cooking mushrooms but then again, I may have a few pointers:
Mushrooms are about 105% water (give or take) so when sautéing mushrooms, the first thing you’ll want to do is to get them sliced up into pieces and throw them in a hot pan with just a hint butter and a fair amount of salt. The salt, along with the heat, will draw water from the mushrooms and they will, at first, begin to boil.
Now, the best thing you can do here is to not panic, just keep the heat fairly high and the water will quickly begin to evaporate. At this point, the mushrooms will begin to brown, and you can now throw in a bit more butter and really give them a nice sear. Now is also a good time to add any flavorings you may want. The mushrooms, having surrendered their water content, will act like a sponge and suck the flavors right up. Popular flavors with sautéed mushrooms in my kitchen include thyme, Madeira wine, beef broth, and/or the slightest hint of truffle oil (careful, it’s pretty potent stuff!). For burgers, though, I usually keep it simple: butter and salt will do!
Oh bacon, I could devote many a line to your awesomeness and my love for you. And I eventually will. This time around, I’ll keep it short: If using bacon for your burgers, don’t get the cheap stuff! It’s pumped full of water, liquid smoke and other even more odd and really scary things. Spend a few extra bucks on a few nice, thick rashers of top shelf supermarket stuff or your butcher’s home-cured stuff. Cook your bacon slowly over medium heat and save the fat that renders out during cooking. It’s liquid essence of bacon and pure culinary gold that you can use for frying at a later time. You can thank me later, friends don’t let friends waste bacon drippings!
Cheese, glorious cheese!
A burger without cheese is not much of a burger if you ask me, but what kind of cheese should you use? Now that is the question…
Starting a debate about cheese on a burger can be a lot like starting a heated political or religious debate. People have their firm beliefs and, eventually, it’s bound to get ugly. Generally, I’m a fan of the “use whatever the hell you like as long as it’s not American cheese”-approach. Why anyone would want American cheese (or processed cheese as it’s also called) on a burger is totally beyond me. Sure, it melt pretty nicely, but what of this flavor which we seek in our cooking?
I want flavor, I crave flavor and therefore if eating burgers at my house you’re likely to get them with a well-aged semi-hard cheese of sorts: Over the years, I’ve used many cheeses or combinations of cheeses, including Gruyere, cheddar and even Parmesan with great results. Two cheeses that I keep coming back to for my burger needs include apple-smoked cheddar and a seriously strong vintage cheddar from my local cheese monger. I loves me a good cheddar cheeseburger, and I don’t mind it packing a punch. That being said, you should use whatever makes you happy, even if that’s American, but at least try out a few different kinds of cheeses for your burgers. It’s great fun and you’ll actually have an informed opinion on the matter.
Mayonnaise: the great bun saver!
When cooking burgers, we aim to make the beef patty as juicy and tender as possible. We’ve been over this already. The trouble with having a juicy patty sandwiched between two soft pieces of soft bun is that sooner or later, the juices from the burger will soak into the buns, making them soggy and unstable. Before you know it, disaster may strike in the form of a total collapse.
Luckily, there’s a solution for this kind of problem that is as simple as it is delicious: Mayonnaise! Mayo is almost 100% fat and a great insulator and meat juice barrier. Even a thin layer spread across each toasted cut side of the bun will keep the juices from the meat from soaking into the bun, thus making your entire construction not only more stable but also more tasty. I’ve no proof that a thicker layer of mayo works better, but then again I also have no proof that it doesn’t!
When it comes to mayo, there are a couple of commercially available brands out there that are quite decent for your burger-making needs: Hellman’s being one of them. But for the perfect burger, you really can and should make your own mayonnaise! Yes you can! It’s much easier and much more fun than you think, and not at all scary! Plus, once you’ve had homemade mayo, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never go back to store-bought. And your friends will think you’re really cool.
For some reason, making your own mayonnaise has gone from being completely normal to being considered an exceedingly complicated and scary ordeal. It’s not, trust me!
You just need fresh eggs yolks from a trusted source (or pasteurized egg yolks), a few flavorings, a neutral oil, a steady wrist and a bit of patience and calm.
A mayonnaise can sense fear: And that goes for every other sauce ending in -aise, by the way, be it Mayonnaise, Hollandaise or Béarnaise. Nine out of ten times these sauces fail because people get scared and start thinking too much about things when really they shouldn’t. The all-important mantra of mayonnaise making goes like this: “Don’t fear, don’t think, don’t stop: just keep whisking, just keep whisking, just keep whisking…” And if it looks like it’s starting to split, just whisk a little more vigorously!
Two things and two things only can ruin a mayonnaise: not whisking enough or adding the oil too quickly in the beginning! Start whisking and then begin adding oil one drop at a time. Use an electric hand mixer if you don’t trust your wrist. That’s all there is to homemade mayo! Heck, even the ingredient list is simple.
- One egg yolk fresh or pasteurized, your choice!
- 1 teaspoon of mustard
- 1 teaspoon of white wine vinegar
- A pinch of sugar
- Juice of 1/4 lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 300 ml of flavor neutral oil such as grape seed oil
- Whisk egg yolks, salt, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice and mustard together till thoroughly mixed and shiny.
- SLOWLY and CAREFULLY start adding the oil while whisking vigorously. Begin with something like one drop at a time.
- Make sure each addition is integrated completely into the egg mixture before adding more.
- If mayo looks like it’s starting to break, immediately stop adding oil and keep whisking, don’t worry, it’ll usually come back together.
- Once the first few tablespoons of oil have been integrated, you can slowly start trickling in oil in a steady stream.
- Keep whisking and adding more oil till you’ve reached your desired consistency. The more oil you add, the thicker the mayo.
- When desired consistency has been reached, taste for seasoning adding salt, pepper, sugar or lemon juice as needed.
For even more anti-split insurance make sure that your ingredients are roughly the same temperature before mixing mayo. Prepared mayo will keep in the fridge for at least a few days, if you can keep your hands off it.
Don’t be a pansy, start making your own mayo and use it in your burgers. It’s easier than you think and it makes a world of difference taste-wise! If you’re truly and honestly too scared to make your own mayo or afraid the salmonella will get you (don’t worry, it won’t), do use a good store-bought kind, just don’t fall for the diet variety. They’re disgusting and even more full of artificial fillers than the regular store-bought varieties.
Pickles? On a burger? That’s another subject of heated debate. Some say yes, some say no, I say sometimes! When it comes to cooking, I like working with contrasts and the sweet and sour bite of the pickle coupled with the crunch of biting into a proper kosher pickle just works wonders in contrast to the soft, fatty, juicy flavors and textures of a good burger.
I adore the combination, some people detest it, so I’ve taken a page from the good book of many of the quality burger joints I’ve visited on my trip to the States: I now serve my pickles on the side, leaving it up to the diner to decide. For my perfect burger project, I’ve gone above and beyond and have, for the very first time, attempted to make my own kosher pickles that I intend to serve alongside my burgers. I’ll be very excited to see how that pans out!
Alright, this has all been rather fun, but I think I’ve now thoroughly exhausted the topic of things to put on a split burger bun. I guess now I’ll have to go find the perfect bun to split. That should be an interesting quest involving me doing something I don’t normally do: Baking! Luckily, if my research is correct, it will also include plenty of eggs and butter, stay tuned!