Sean Brock’s never-ending pursuit of the perfect burger

A Burger Manifesto

My theory is, you have to care about burgers way more than any human actually should to create the perfect burger. To truly understand the perfect burger you have to eat them often, good ones and bad ones. Burgers are a very personal thing; it will only be the perfect burger to you. To craft an exceptional burger, you must identify and document what you like and dislike about every burger you consume during your eternal research. I keep a photo album on my phone.

Now, when you’re ready to take up this quest, ask yourself these very important questions and answer them with vigilance.

These options below are ones that I have personally declared appropriate for a burger. You may disagree with some of them and I’m OK with that.

1. What kind of buns do you like?
a. Soft and squishy?
b. Big and dense?
c. Fancy and artisanal?
d. Potato Roll?
e. Do you like ’em toasted? (If so, tallow, butter, olive oil, lard, or mayo?)

2. How do you like your meat?
a. Aged?
b. Fatty and juicy?
c. Lean and mean?
d. Coarsely ground or finely ground?
e. What parts of the cow do you like best?

i. Chuck?
ii. Brisket?
iii. Blend?
iv. Ribeye?

3. Patty Preference?
a. Super thin?
b. Two thin patties?
c. Medium thick?
d. Big and thick?

4. How do you like your patty cooked?
a. Grilled?
b. Charcoal or live fire?
c. Griddled?
d. Smash and scrape?
e. Cast iron pan and baste?
f. Sear and steam?
g. Broil?
h. Rare, mid rare? Medium?

5. Cheese or no cheese?
a. Melty American?
b. Sharp cheddar or swiss?
c. Fancy pants cheese?
d. Bleu?
e. Pimento?
f. Pepper Jack?

6. Condiments?
a. None?
b. Metchup?
c. Secret sauce?
d. Mayo? (Duke’s? Homemade? Hellman’s? Miracle Whip?)
e. Ketchup? (Heinz? Hunt’s? Homemade? Hipster?)
f. Mustard? (Ballpark? Dijon?)
g. Pepper relish?
h. Pickles? (Bread and butter? Half sour? Dill chips? Spears on the side? Cornichons?)

7. Vegetable Garnish?
a. Onion? (Red or White? Shaved? Thick? Caramelized? Steamed? Griddled?)
b. Tomato? (All year or just in season? Sliced thin or thick? Raw or roasted?)
c. Lettuce?
Iceburg? Romaine? Bibb?
Shredded or whole leaf?

8. Potatoes?
a. Chips?
b. Crinkles?
c. Waffle fries?
d. Tots?
e. Old school frites?
f. Gas station wedges?
g. Potato straws?
h. Steak fries?

9. Bacon?
a. Smokey?
b. Super crispy?
c. Pepper bacon?
d. Chewy?
e. Ground into the meat?
f. Or none at all?

After you complete this exercise hopefully you too can start a lifelong journey seeking your perfect burger. Then, follow these instructions to cook one at home.

Place a large, well-seasoned cast iron pan over high heat. In the meantime, I portion the beef into 5 oz. patties. I use a secret blend that is dry-aged for around 45-60 days. I season the patties with Bulls Bay Salt and ember-grilled peppercorns on both sides, then roll them into the size of a baseball.

This burger ball gets placed in the center of the pan and smashed with a burger press, no additional fat. I smash it pretty hard into the cast iron and leave it for a minute or two. I turn the heat down a tiny bit and listen for a sizzle that makes me happy. (It’s a pleasant sizzle — not too fast but not too slow). Don’t leave the press on during cooking, just for the initial smash.

When I start to smell the crust form I take a little peek all the way around the burger without touching it. When the smell is just right and I can see a dark crust around the edge, I scrape it with a paint scraper that I get from Home Depot. It’s important to be fast and precise, like a samurai. You want to scrape the crust in one swift motion.

Once I flip it, I drown it in aged-beef fat that I lightly smoke near a fire. I then take thin slices of red onion that have been quickly rinsed in water and place them on top of the patty in a thin layer. Next comes the cheese. I developed a cheese that is half bearnaise sauce and half homemade “American” cheese from a blend of my favorite cheeses. This stuff melts quickly and the onions steam just perfectly between the meat and the cheese. When the cheese drapes the burger, scrape it out of the pan with the paint scraper and allow it to rest on a rack, in a warm place. Set a timer for 1 minute and 30 seconds. This allows the burger to relax. If you don’t rest it, the juices will turn your perfect bun into a soggy mess and the whole thing will fall apart and you’ll be the fool eating your burger with a knife and fork.

Next, I turn the pan off and add a little sour butter, a tiny sprinkling of salt, and some more beef fat to toast the bun. The pan is still usually hot enough to toast it properly. I really like steaming the bun for a few seconds before toasting it, the contrast of the warm squish against the crunch of a properly toasted bun makes me very happy. I always leave the bun connected at the back, the way it comes from Martin’s. It helps hold everything in like a taco. I like it when I can hold my burger with one hand and a cold bottle of Coca-Cola in the other.

I smear the top part of the bun with some Duke’s mayo that I fortify with some country ham fat for a hidden pork umami boost. The bottom part of the bun gets a little bit of special sauce, a small piece of iceberg, and a really thin slice of tomato when they are ripe and delicious, seasoned with salt and embered peppercorns, of course. I like some cornichons on the side and I will occasionally put some “wickles pickles” pepper relish on the burger depending on my mood. If I had to choose from those potato options, I suppose I would reach for the waffle fries and season them with a tiny bit of hot chicken spice. And always use room temperature Heinz ketchup on the side with a tiny splash of Red Boat Fish Sauce snuck in for the fries and the occasional burger dip. There you have it. My burger manifesto, for now at least. These obsessions can never seem to be tamed.

1) a. soft and squishy and e. butter and beef fat
2) a. aged
3) c. medium thick
4) d. smashed and scraped
5) a. melty American and c. Fancy pants cheese
6) d. i. Duke’s Mayo; e. i. Heinz; g. pepper relish; h. v. cornichons
7) a. red onion shaved; b. tomato ripe; c. iceburg lettuce whole
8) c. waffle fries
9) f. none at all

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