BEIRUT: Nothing is easier than making a hamburger. Throw a beef patty on high heat, add a slice of processed cheese, wedge it between a bun and slather on the sauces. Right? Wrong.
If there is one thing to be gleaned from the ever-growing number of gourmet burger joints in Beirut, it’s that there is more to the craft than a hot grill and a bottle of Heinz.
An abundance of options have increased the appetite for authentic burgers as well as the number of self-declared connoisseurs of America’s most iconic food. Few are Lebanon’s bloggers that haven’t dedicated a post to their favorite in town.
But what magic do the country’s gourmands hold that makes their burgers such covetable fare? In their own words: none. During this summer’s barbecue season, the moderately ambitious need only follow a few steps to grill up and assemble burgers of comparable quality to those at their favored bistro.
SOURCING THE BEEF
The meat is the single most important variable in how a hamburger tastes, and the only way to ensure good flavor is to pick the cuts and have them ground – or grind them yourself.
“The burger is about the meat. It’s the heart,” says Zalfa Naufal, owner of Frosty Palace, which serves a classic American diner-style patty with a big reputation.
Like her competitors, Naufal buys imported meat from grass-fed Australian cows as a way to ensure consistency for customers. Even dive-style hotspots such as Marky’s buy imported South American beef and grind it in-house twice a day before the lunch and dinner rush. It’s easy for home cooks to find cuts of imported beef with gourmet meat sellers such as Meat the Fish or grocery stores such as Spinneys, which stocks Argentinian beef.
But there is good Lebanese beef, Naufal says. After all, this is a country that has so much faith in its beef that families will wake up and eat raw cow’s liver for breakfast.
I understand the need for quality control in restaurants, but for the sake of proving that a good burger is accessible to all, I chose to buy Lebanese beef from my hole-in-the-wall butcher in Geitawi.
MAKING THE CUT
Even more important than where the beef comes from is what part of the animal you’re using. Typical burgers have a high fat content of around 15 percent. They include a mix of cuts, with leaner meat complemented by fattier bits, which makes the patty more flavorful: Think rich T-bone steak verses rubbery biftek.
In fact, if there’s any mystery in burger making it is perfecting this ratio of cuts.
“This is the secret,” Naufal says. She divulged that Frosty Palace’s recipe, like most, includes chuck, a piece of meat that sits above the shoulder of the cow, as the fatty base.
Marc Kandakji, owner of Marky’s, also keeps the ratio secret but says that most authentic burgers are a mixture of sirloin, a leaner cut of meat from which pricey steak filets come, and chuck.
SOME RATIOS THAT WORK
r Half sirloin and half brisket with the fat on
r One-third brisket, one-third chuck and one-third sirloin
r Half sirloin and half chuck
r If you feel adventurous, though I haven’t tried this, you can mix half oxtail and half sirloin
Different cultures butcher cows differently, and my guess is that most one-man Lebanese butcher shops like mine stock only popular cuts for things like kibbeh, kafta and biftek. On their own, these cuts tend to be lean because butchers cut away most of the fat and replace it in ground mixtures with liyyeh, sheep fat.
“I’ve had burgers where you can taste the liyyeh,” Naufal says. This is the local preference, so watch your butcher carefully and make sure no liyyeh is added to your meat or else it will taste off. To remedy this, call the butcher a day ahead and place your order with a special caveat to keep the fat on.
I did not have the foresight to do that, so in the end I was able to make a delicious albeit slightly lean burger, by asking my small butcher shop for 400 grams of brisket, in Arabic “sidr”; 400 grams of sirloin, known basically as “filet”; and 400 grams of chuck, which, after I explained, he translated to mean the same cut as kafta. If you follow this, make sure everything is put through the grinder without a hint of liyyeh or parsley.
You can attempt to grind the meat yourself if you have the right equipment, but Kandakji warns of overworking the meat. Burger beef should be ground very coarsely, or else it will make a dense, dry patty. To avoid this, have the butcher grind it on the thickest setting, or in Arabic “khishni.”
With that said, I would avoid mentioning the word hamburger while buying or grounding your beef. Local butchers make burger patties by putting beef through a machine that finely minces the meat along with liyyeh. They then press them with a tool that squashes the patties into a flat round shape. This way of making burgers breaks all the experts’ rules, which call for coarsely ground meat barely worked with the hands so as not to the leave it dense and dry.
“A very important thing in burger making is to have the best quality meat and not manipulate the patty when they’re forming the burger. The more you work it, the more elasticity it has,” Kandakji says. There’s even a common spice blend put into the patties, which gives butcher-bought burgers a sweet taste.
GRILLING AND PLATING
With the meat ground and loosely mixed together, gently mold patties, keeping them thick as they will shrink on the grill. I got 10 burgers out of 1.2 kilos of meat. Both Kandakji and Naufal recommend seasoning with salt and pepper only.
The burger gurus also recommend medium as the perfect doneness, which means the patty is just pink inside, Naufal says.
“We’ve noticed a shift in our customers. More people want medium, though some still ask for well-done. One time, I told a customer, ‘The cow is already dead, do you really want to kill it twice?’”
For buns, many gourmet burger joints choose Prunelle, a local bread brand that offers a variety of bun options. I found Soft buns were also a passable option. The preference is generally for small, soft buns that will hold up to the burger juices. Burger buns by Wooden Bakery, for example, are simply too big and bready for classic-style burgers.
To make a restaurant-ready bun, butter each side and put it on the heat for a minute to crisp the edges.
Naufal says home cooks can have a bit of fun with cheese. I found sliced kashkaval was too flavorless. Cheddar and American cheese are classics, but avoid the processed singles.
For toppings, lettuce, tomato and caramelized onions are simple complements to the meat. I also found jalapenos were crowd pleasers for those who like a little kick.
“I’m against sauces,” Kandakji says. “Use enough just to season the meat. ... You don’t want to dominate the meat.”
The final touch of sauce should be simple and unimposing: a dash of mustard, mayo and ketchup.