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The pickle goes under the patty! How to make the perfect burger at home | Food


You may have mastered several new skills during isolation – learning to hula hoop, perfecting sourdough, becoming fluent in any of the 100 minority languages spoken in Russia today. But one task is surely beyond the capability of mere mortals: cooking a burger. By cooking a burger, I don’t mean turning a small patty of minced beef grey. I mean a multi-sensory, artery-clogging, warm hug of an experience – like the sorcerers in our favourite burger places used to do on a daily basis before lockdown abruptly closed them.

Given that we could do with a bit of comfort eating right now, I decided to get some of these sorcerers on the phone to see if they could help us recreate their magic in our own kitchens. So let’s start with the most important ingredient … no, not the meat!

The best buns

Sometimes the bun is more important than the patty,” says Ben Denner from the London-based burger maestros Lucky Chip. “With the bun, it’s about keeping it fresh. If you’re buying from supermarkets then go for soft fluffy burger rolls rather than cheap brioche, which is often dense.”

Honest Burger’s Tom Barton spent last week raising money for food banks by selling limited-edition “Honest at Home” burger kits. He is normally a believer in sourcing high-grade meat from your local butcher, but says if you are limited to supermarket shopping just make sure you go for high-fat content – “no lower than 20%” – and aim for about 150g of meat per burger. Don’t bother adding anything to it, he says, “certainly not salt and pepper. Salt breaks down the structure of the meat and dries it out. Only season the meat when it’s cooking to get that nice salt crust on it.” But when you get to that point, don’t hold back with the seasoning – the burger itself should taste over-seasoned, according to Barton, because “as soon as you put it in a build, with bread and cheese and relish, it can taste bland”.

How to cook it

Lockdown hasn’t been kind to those lacking outdoor space, but for burger-making it’s not a problem. None of the experts I spoke to think a barbecue is the best way to cook; instead use a flat, non-stick pan, make sure it’s as hot as possible, and resist the temptation to use oil. “A flat surface seals in all that fat and flavour,” says Barton. “Whereas when you barbecue, a lot of the fat drips through the grill into the fire.” He adds: “You want a crispy sear, because that’s where the flavour is. You can push the burger gently into the frying pan to get a better contact.” Don’t sacrifice this sear for the promise of rarer meat – the focus should be on getting the exterior crust perfected, even if it means a more well-done inside.

Extra extras

Cheese is your next consideration, and Barton believes he has “never tried a cheese that doesn’t taste good with a burger, from super-aged Wookey Hole cheddar and blue cheeses to bog-standard American cheese that gets nice and gloopy.” Put the cheese on your burger while it’s in the pan to melt it. If your pan has a lid then whack that on, too, and consider putting the bun top in right at the end. “It will keep the moisture in,” says Denner. “You want it to be soft, like you’re biting into a cloud.” (If you don’t have a lid, you can steam the bun in the oven for 30 seconds with a splash of water on it.)

Of course there is more to a burger than bread, meat and cheese. As Sophie Michell, the food and drink director at Byron, points out: “McDonald’s made an entire business out of burger sauce.” Her recipe for classic burger sauce involves mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, garlic, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, with hand-cut shallots and gherkins to bring vital chunky texture. Trial and error may be involved to get it perfect for you – “I always use extra Tabasco for added kick,” she says.

Barton believes the best burgers hit all the flavour notes: salt, sweet and sour. He suggests dry-cured, smoked streaky bacon for the former, and a sharp pickle for the latter. Sauce and relish should bring the sweetness to make it harmonious. I particularly like one of his expert tips, which he says has been hard-earned after a decade eating hundreds of burgers: “Put the pickles under the meat, because that’s where it interacts best with the beef,” he says. “Generally, when you eat a burger the thing that’s on the top is the thing you will taste the most because it hits the roof of your mouth and then down on to your taste buds. We had no idea about any of this before we started out.”

A new twist





A burger with ‘fairground onions’



A burger with ‘fairground onions’. Photograph: LauriPatterson/Getty Images/iStockphoto

You should now be set to make a classic burger – and all of my experts are adamant that a classic burger is best. But that is not to say you can’t try things out. “My rule is never more than two wacky things at once,” says Denner. “I find onion rings are always good in a burger, and at the moment I’m putting french fries in the bun!”

“One thing I always do is what I call fairground onions,” says Michell, “because the best onions ever are the ones you have on a hot dog at the fairground. They’re not posh, they’re not caramelised, they’re just thick-cut, cooked on a high heat without much oil, and charred – almost burned – on the outside.”

Vegetarian options

If meat isn’t your thing, you can still get on board. Denner points out that there are decent meat-free supermarket patties available these days. Michell, meanwhile, prefers to use whole vegetables. “I’ll roast or boil a whole beetroot, slice it into thick slices, then chargrill it and that’s my burger – served with garlic cream cheese and rocket.”

Ultimately, it’s up to how you like your burger. “We’ve tried everything,” says Barton. “We’ve even put a Sunday roast in a burger. Whatever flavours you like will pretty much work, so experiment.” You may even have some time to do that right now.

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