Louis’ Lunch. If you’re a proper burger aficionado, the name alone will already have brought a smile to your face. If not, believe me when I say that what you’re in for is a tale of what may not only be the most iconic burger in the world but also the most historic, most controversial and, well, downright tastiest. And we’ll be discussing how to make it at home! That and much more in the pages to come. This is, however, first and foremost the story about a Dane and his contribution to international cuisine.
It’s hard to believe in this day and age but a mere ten or so years ago, Danish contributions to international cuisine were few and far between – if not downright unheard of. With these past few years of Redzepi the Great making world headlines, Rasmus Kofoed winning the Bocuse d’Or, Christian Puglisi featured in Mind of a Chef and even our farmers winning international acclaim, it’s easy to forget that a mere decade ago, the Danish Rock Star Chefs of today were but diamonds in the rough and that few people outside this nation had ever really cared much for any sort of Danish culinary invention.
With one very notable exception… In the form of the perhaps most iconic sandwich of all time that, despite having a decidedly German-sounding name, is apparently of Danish culinary heritage. I’m talking, of course, about the hamburger!
That is right, ladies and gentlemen, according not only to rumor, but the US Library of Congress, too, the now so iconic hamburger sandwich was invented in humble settings in 1900’s New Haven, Connecticut by a Danish immigrant named Louis Lassen! Making the perhaps greatest and most popular fast food item of all time – if not the greatest culinary inventions of modern time – a Danish invention… I kid you not!
In a hurry? Want to skip straight to the recipe? No time for coffee and long reads? Fear not. You can go directly to the recipe by clicking here!
Louis’ Lunch: The birthplace of the hamburger?
How, pray tell, did a Dane come to invent the hamburger? Well, legend has it that some 120 years ago, in 1900 to be exact, a busy worker walked into a small lunch wagon, Louis’ Lunch, in New Haven Connecticut. “Louis,” he told the proprietor – a former blacksmith from Denmark who immigrated to New Haven in 1886, “I’m in a hurry fix me up something to eat!” (or words to that extend!)
Louis, being the resourceful Dane that he was, ground up a few steak trimmings from the night before, formed them into a steak patty and sandwiched them between two slices of toasted white bread. And just like that, without much ceremony, the hamburger was born… Or so the legend goes as told by five generations of the Lassen family, who until this day still own and operate Louis’ Lunch!
Louis Lassen at the original Louis’ Lunch – Source: Connecticut Local Legacies project – U.S. Library of Congress, PD-US.
What really happened on that day in 1900 is probably only known to the late, great Louis Lassen himself and to his supposed patron. But the fact remains that the US Library of Congress – albeit in a somewhat disputed statement – credits the Dane Louis Lassen with the invention of the hamburger sandwich! A sandwich which has since achieved great international acclaim, has been reinvented a million times over and is served by the millions daily far and wide from burgers across the globe… Including it’s supposed birthplace, Louis Lunch in idyllic New Haven, CT.
The original burger: Humble beginnings and a humble history
For being such a historic place, Louis’ Lunch Restaurant isn’t much to look at, being a small brick building on New Haven’s Crown street. But its beginnings were actually even more humble than current appearances hint. Louis’ Lunch started as a small lunch wagon operated by Old man Lassen who had begun his new life in the states as a food peddler, selling butter and eggs. After years of reasonable success, including the invention of a little something known as the hamburger, Louis’ Lunch eventually moved into its current building in 1917… Only at that time, the building wasn’t actually on Crown Street but rather a few blocks up the road. It wasn’t until 1975 when new developments threatened the landmark building that the community rallied together in a community effort to completely uproot the building and move it in one piece two blocks down the road to its current location. Where it now rests, as humble as ever.
You see, despite having grown in size since its original lunch cart days, Louis’ Lunch still only seats 30 people in an exceedingly crammed space, part of which is actually taken up by the original counter and some of the original 1890’s equipment that is still used in the production process. They stick to their roots here and they still serve things the way they used to in the old days. There are no fries at Louis’, you get your burger with a side of potato chips or potato salad… They don’t exactly cave into new fads and ideas here. Especially not when it comes to the cornerstone of the operation: the original burger!
In almost 120 years worth of culinary history, very little has changed with the version of the burger served at its original home. It’s business as usual. Walk into Louis Lunch today and order a hamburger from Old Man Lassen’s great grandson Jeff Lassen and you will get exactly what people got 120 years ago: a flame broiled beef patty sandwiched between two grilled pieces of toast, only that and nothing more.
Moreover, the burgers are still broiled to medium rare perfection on unique and antique vertical gas broilers dating back to 1898 while the bread is toasted on a 1929 antique toaster. They’re keeping it real here. And deliciously simple. Your optional toppings of choice at Louis’ include tomatoes and onion. That is it. It’s as simple, as puritan and as wonderful as that. As for condiments? Don’t even bother! Ketchup is notoriously banned at Louis, as is mustard and all other types of condiments. They want you to first and foremost taste the quality of their beef, uncontaminated by anything else… And that’s the thing about Louis, it’s all about the beef!
And the beef at Louis’, much like everything else about the place is legendary. Their burger patties are made from a custom grind of five different lean cuts of meat, delivered fresh never frozen and ground in house every day. For over a hundred years, the types and ratios of meat used have been the only secret at Louis’ Lunch and the top reason their original burgers have become stuff of legend. With no condiments or much else to interfere, it’s the quality and the taste of the beef that carries the sandwich to stardom.
That, and the strange, dogmatic way in which they’re produced. First and foremost, they are prepared from lean meat – a big no-no in today’s burger culture. Secondly, they’re cooked vertically, encased in grill grates and shoved into vertical, antique gas grills, causing the juices and fat to render out and drain off during cooking. They’re then slapped on a piece of bread with two optional additions and served. A sad, sad sandwich, one would think, and a slap in the face of conventional burger wisdom. However, as anyone who have ever visited will tell you, there’s probably a pretty good reason this place has been in business for well over a century. Against all odds and reason, they manage to produce the most simple, most famous, controversial and downright tasty burgers of all time. Using a recipe and method that defies all logic and hasn’t changed in 118 damn years!
Well, hasn’t changed except for one little thing. Louis’ Lunch has but once bowed to popular demand when fourth generation owner, Ken Lassen in the early 1950’s put a cheeseburger onto the menu. However, in doing so, he discovered a flaw in the vertical broiling process as it basically caused the cheese to melt away during the cooking process. The solution? It was as simple as it was ugly. Processed cheese spread! A solution born more out to necessity and popular demand than flavor, I’m sure. Order a cheeseburger at Louis and you’ll get toasted bread smeared with cheese spread, topped with a medium-rare beef patty and your choice of tomato and/or onion. The cheese part, for the record, is one aspect where I firmly believe we could do better than our famous source of inspiration. If we were to try this at home… And speaking of trying it at home.
Recreating the magic: Louis’ Lunch Burger – Homemade version
Sadly, a visit to the home of the original hamburger is still on my culinary to-do list, but the burger is not! Being Denmark’s perhaps geekiest food blogger, it should come as no surprise that I couldn’t pass up the chance to put my own spin on the possibly greatest Danish culinary invention of all time. Ever since I first caught word of this original version of a (Danish) American classic, I knew this pure, unadulterated version of the burger was something I had to do. In a slightly perfected cheeseburger version nonetheless. And so, my research began.
You see, the original hamburger is a simple concoction at best, and as with anything simple, the devil is in the details. The fewer the ingredients, the more important every single part of the equation becomes. If we are to respectfully recreate this piece of culinary history at home, we must tackle four important issues: bread, beef, cheese and cooking methodology… and we must do so with a bit of focus and attention! So let’s have a look at each of them in turn:
Louis’ Lunch Burger – Issue the first: bread!
You wouldn’t think there’d be much to say about the subject of bread. That is until you realize how horribly sad, artificial, airy and, well, scary most of the stuff we shrug off as bread has become. I could rant on this issue pretty much forever (and in this post on homemade sourdough, I probably have), but I will try to keep it short and pretty: Most of our bread options today are either supermarket or bake-off varieties all of which are chucked full of not only air, but also of sugar and a host of mystery ingredients that we can neither pronounce nor explain. And that’s just sad.
Back in the days when the burger was invented, they didn’t have today’s options of, ahem, refined breads and were forced to go with something fresh, simple and, well, natural. I suggest you listen to Old Man Lassen here and go to your friendly neighborhood bakery and get a nice, natural loaf of French-style bread and then work with that. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it just needs to be natural and well-made. It will cost you a buck or so extra, but it’s a buck well spent. Once you’ve had a real, natural slice of bread, properly toasted and swimming in beefy juiciness, you will thank me!
Louis’ Lunch Burger – Issue the second: beef!
It probably goes without saying that if we are to create a burger that is all about the beef, we need – first and foremost – great beef! Louis’ Lunch famously use a secret grind of five different types of meat. The secret of which, we’ll never get out of them, gunpoint or not. So we will have to come up with a solution of our own. We could grind our own and mix our way towards the perfect recipe, but that’s another post. No, friends, your best choice is probably to go to your friendly neighborhood butcher and ask him for his best possible options. Then find one you like and stick with it.
I’m partial to local Galloway cattle myself, grass-fed, free-range and organic. It’s succulent, buttery and packed full of deep, dark, beefy flavors – which is exactly what we’re after in this the most primal of burgers. You may prefer Angus over Galloway or corn-fed over grass-fed, or other breeds and feeding plans altogether. You may not even know what exactly it is you like, only that you like what your butcher hands you. The point here is: talk to your butcher and get some good ground beef that you’d actually feel happy eating. Our project depends on it!
What matters is actually not so much the type of beef, it is that you get something of good quality with good flavor and quite a bit of fat on it. And by quite a bit, I mean somewhere in the 20% fat range. No, trust me on this one: Fat. Equals. Flavor. Real burger aficionados will sometimes go as high as 25% – but anything in the 18-22% area will generally do. Indeed, Louis’ Lunch use a lean mix of beef for their burgers, but then again they’re magicians at their trade and I wouldn’t recommend trying to copy their moves. For burgers you’ll generally want fatty beef. Fat equals flavor and moistness and that’s exactly what we’re after in any good burger. Oh, and get enough of it, 200 grams or so per person. We’re not horsing around here, we’re re-creating a working man’s lunch.
As for the price? Well, again, a top of the line ground beef mix from a butcher who knows what he’s doing will cost you a fair penny, of course. But, again, your investment will be handsomely rewarded, I guarantee. And just think of all the money you’ll save on condiments, eh? 😉 So go on, live a little, get some quality beef. This, for the record, is one of those places where I would actually consider going with the ground version of the animal kingdom’s version of butter: Wagyu beef!
Still worried about the fat content? Don’t be, most of it will render out during the high heat cooking process and you can, if you so desire, drain it off and feel a little better about yourself. Or worse. Depending on how you look at it.
Louis’ Lunch Burger – Issue the third: cheese!
With such emphasis on pure, unadulterated beefy flavors and a century-long ban on synthetic condiments such as ketchup, it seems all but a little odd that Louis’ in the 1950’s opened up to the addition of processed cheese spread on their burgers. It really only makes sense from a “we can’t add real cheese to a vertical cooking method” sort of perspective, but any way you look at it, it’s still not right.
Now, I love cheeseburgers as much as the next guy, and I want to make me a cheeseburger… And while I’ve been known to be meticulous about NOT messing with original recipes, I’m going to throw principles to the wind, here and make a Louis Lunch-style cheeseburger… with a homemade all-natural cheese spread! You see, making your own cheese spread is not only easy, it’s also fun, and a hundred times more tasty than the processed counterpart you can get at stores. All you need is a bit of cheese, a bit of dairy, a splash of wine and some spice. The recipe? You’ll find it below along with everything else you need to make the original burger.
Is making your own cheese spread worth it? Well, just you try it and you’ll wonder why you ever had the processed variety. Homemade cheese spread is cheesy, velvety, zingy and perfect. Not gooey, strangely coloured, unnatural and overpowering like its processed counterpart. Want a cheeseburger? Got half an hour to spare? Try making your own cheese spread. It’s fun and you’ll never go back to store-bought. Promise!
Don’t want cheese? Don’t have half an hour to spare? Not to worry, you can just as easily skip this step and the results will be almost just as tasty – and a little more authentic, even.
Tomatoes? We don’t need no stinking (unripe) tomatoes! Yes, I realize that the original recipe lists tomato as an authorized addition. Since tomatoes are generally in season about two weeks a year in Denmark and this is the depths of winter, I’ve skipped tomatoes altogether. If you can find a ripe, juicy variety, by all means go ahead. I can’t vouch for the flavor, though.
Louis’ Lunch Burger – Problem the fourth: Vertical broiling process
Now, as mentioned, Louis’ Lunch very famously cook their renowned beef blend in their equally famous 1898 antique vertical gas broilers. Now, I’m willing to bet, dear readers, that very few of you have a set of working order antique vertical gas broilers at home, so we’ll probably have to find some way of getting around this problem.
Now, don’t worry, famously over the top as I am, I’m not going to suggest that we go build our own copy cat broilers (though if you’re intersted, Ballistic BBQ has a video on the subject). I’ve got something far better up my sleeve: Let me ask you this: What’s the polar opposite of a vertical broiler? That’s right, a horizontal broiler! And where would we find one such device? That’s right, it’s the most overlooked feature of our home oven! Granted, it won’t grill our patties on either side at once, but it will do a reasonably good job with only a single flip or so involved. Better yet, unlike Louis’ broilers, it won’t let the fat and juices escape from the beef during cooking, which buys us a little extra in the flavor department – aaaand, it will even double as a (non-antique) toaster for our bread while our patties are resting. It won’t be entirely authentic, but it will be pretty close, not to mention a hell of a lot easier than procuring a couple of hundred year old gas broilers.
Basically, all we need to do is flick on that seldom used feature of our oven, turn it up to 11, let it get nice and hellishly hot… And we’re just ready to cook our version of the original and most iconic of burgers:
This recipe makes one burger with plenty of cheese spread to spare. You can easily double, triple or multiply the burger recipe as needed. If mammoth patties scare you, feel free to halve the patties.
NOTE ON CHEESE SPREAD: If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to mess with double boilers, you can make the cheese spread in a food processor by simply whizzing everything together and adding more liquid if needed. This being a vintage recipe, I decided to include a vintage procedure using heat and a double boiler over raw power.
- 200 grams ground beef, 20% fat
- Two slices of onion
- Two thick cut slices of bread
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 200 grams finely grated sharp cheddar cheese, room temperature
- 20 ml white wine
- 20 ml cream, more as needed
- 20 grams of softened butter
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Grab your ground beef and shape carefully into relatively thick 200 gram patties large enough to cover the slices of bread you’re working with.
- Season well with salt and leave at room temperature.
- Pour about an inch of water into the bottom of a sauce pan over medium heat, then nestle a glass bowl on top to create a double boiler.
- Pour white wine, cream and mustard into bowl and stir to combine.
- Gradually add in cheddar and stir until melted and a smooth mass has formed, add more liquid if mixture is too thick.
- Kill the heat and let spread cool slightly while you make the burgers.
- Preheat your broiler till as hot as it goes.
- Line a baking tray with aluminum foil then place the patties on the tray and slide them into the oven beneath the broiler.
- Broil for 3-5 minutes or until well-browned on one side, watch them closely to make sure they do not burn!
- Slide tray out of the oven, flip the burgers and broil for another 3-5 minutes.
- Slide tray back out of the oven, flip the patties again, add the onion slices on top and slide back under the broiler for about a minute until onions are soft and lightly caramelized.
- Test for doneness by using the finger test or a thermometer. If using a thermometer, your target core temperature is 55-57C.
- Slide the tray out of the oven, set the patties aside, season them with a few grinds of black pepper, then cover loosely and let rest for about five minutes.
- Dump the slices of white bread onto the fat-soaked baking tray that you used for the patties.
- Put half a tablespoon of butter on top of each slide of the bread.
- Slide under the broiler for about 30-60 seconds or so or until well-browned on one side.
- Slide tray out of the oven, flip bread slices and repeat.
- Remove bread slices from oven.
- Smear one slice with a thick coating of your homemade cheese spread.
- Place the grilled patty, onions and all, on top of on slice of bread.
- Top with remaining slice of bread.
- Cut in half on the diagonal and serve.
Louis’ Lunch Burger Copycat recipe: The Verdict
How does this, the original and most simplest of burgers taste, then? Well, you may be surprised! In a world of gourmet burgers where focus is on condiments ranging from lightly smoked duck eggs over leaf gold to ketchup leather, Matcha Mayo and specialty sauces, it is quite refreshing and wonderful to have a go at a specimen where the focus is on the very basics: the quality of the meat, the charred flavors of the cooking process and the marriage between meat juices and the quality bread used as a delivery vehicle.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love me a refreshing, over-stuffed, gourmet burger. I really do. But this is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Or, well, old air is probably more like it. This genius concoction by a fellow Dane puts the focus where the focus should, essentially, be; on the meat, and it doesn’t mask it between layers of contrasting flavors and condiments. Proving once and for all that the perfect burger should first and foremost be about the quality of the beef patty, not the condiments used to accent or in some caseseven hide the flavors of the beef.
The addition of cheese spread is a little bewildering to be honest, and I honestly cannot say why the Louis’ recipe calls for a processed cheese spread to be used. With so much focus on basic flavors, it would seem a bit of a shame to slather it in chemicals and cheese-like substances. However, with a decent, homemade sharp cheddar spread with a bit of acidity and character thrown in from white wine and mustard, everything sort of comes together in this homemade version. It adds a little oomph and texture without in any way overpowering the strong, dominant flavors of the meat patty. It’s a fun experiment, but definitely not a must.
Is it the simplest burger I’ve ever had? Yes! Is it the best burger I’ve ever had? Strangely enough, yes! And I’ve had burgers in a myriad of places, on several continents, even those of the Michelin-starred variety. But this, the original, if done right, well… It sort of beats them all. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Get yourself an order of the most flavorful beef at hand, a few slices of bread, a few slices of onion and a bit of tomato if they’re in season… Add a bit of salt… Heck, you can skip the pepper… And just go to town. It will change your life! Promise!
Other Original Burger Contenders: Did Louis’ Lunch REALLY Invent the Hamburger?
In that far-away, strange, wonderful and often-confusing place that is America, it goes without saying that the claim to invention of something as iconic as the hamburger sandwich will, of course, not go unchallenged. And believe you me, many have challenged Louis’ on their claim. Some citing earlier efforts such as those of Charlie Nagreen who supposedly in 1885 sold a meatball between two slices of bread at the Seymour Fair. Others add obscure formalities, coincidences and fuzzy logic to the equation, such as Otto Kuase who claims to have cooked a beef patty topped with an egg in 1891 thus apparently inventing the hamburger (steak) as it came to be known after the eggs were apparently removed by German sailors at a later time. Kuase’s invention, though, seemingly lacks a very important aspect of the hamburger sandwich, the bread surrounding the meat! Indeed, it seems that Louis Lassen may well have been the first to sandwich an all beef patty between two slices of bread, but then again, that disqualifies him as invent0r in the eyes of some (including NYT Food Editor Josh Ozersky) as they laconically state that Louis’ sandwich lacks the simple but major defining characteristics of a hamburger: a beef patty nestled in a split bun. The hamburger bun, it seems, wasn’t actually invented until some 20 years after Louis Lassen first served his iconic sandwich to a busy patron. That is unless you believe the story of Oscar Weber Bilby who claims to have served a hamburger on a year bun as early as 1881. Putting it shortly, it’s all rather complicated, really, but you can educate yourself further here and here.
What we can all somewhat agree on, is that the hamburger sandwich gained widespread popularity following the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair where it was sold to hordes of hungry and amazed guests from near and far by a myriad of street vendors who pushed it as something new and exciting.
Opinions on the true origins of the hamburger vary and arguments have been heated. It is unlikely we’ll ever truthfully know just who invented the hamburger sandwich or when. And even if we did, it’s even more unlikely that we’ll ever all agree on the subject. What we do know is that Library of Congress recognizes Louis Lassen, a Danish former blacksmith with the invention. And, quite frankly, my love for culinary history and correctness aside, as a food-loving Dane and a patriot, that’s good enough for me!
Besides, whether the true, original burger of not, it’s a damn tasty sandwich!