The definition of what makes the perfect burger varies from person to person. For most, it's the meat. Others, the bun. For some, it's adding the most outrageous toppings possible.
At a Labor Day barbecue, it might be difficult to satisfy all guests' preferences, but with a few burger-crafting tips from local chefs and one meat-market owner, it's worth a try.
For most burger aficionados, it all starts with the meat, and most importantly, using the freshest meat possible.
Mark Dittmer, the son of the owner of Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus in Los Altos, said he often recommends the German meat store's regular ground chuck, which has a touch of brisket ground in and sells for $3.99 per pound. Dittmer's keeps the chuck at about 15 percent fat.
"My dad is very adamant about having pretty much the best ground meat out there for first-time customers," Dittmer said. He also called his father, who is from Hamburg, Germany, "an original Hamburger."
For those looking to step off the beaten burger path, Dittmer said he uses the store's meatloaf 80 percent beef, 10 percent veal, 10 percent pork and Dittmer's father's own blend of seasonings to make his own burgers at home. He likes to mix in black pepper, a little red wine and fried bacon and onions with the ground meat.
Ryan Shelton, chef at the recently opened Palo Alto Grill, also recommends using ground chuck. Palo Alto Grill gets beef ground to staff's specifications from Bassian Farms in San Jose. The meat strikes a happy medium of 70 percent meat, 30 percent fat.
"This is kind of the sweet spot that we found between moisture and presence," Shelton said.
Adam Fleischman, owner of the Umami Burger chain (which has an outpost in downtown Palo Alto), comes from another camp: Don't buy ground beef.
He recommends buying three or four kinds of steak to blend together: a little chuck, a little skirt, a little sirloin or any fattier cut of meat. Chop them up, mix them together and let the mixture sit in the freezer for 20 minutes until it's cold but not frozen. Then put the meat mixture in a food processor until it's coarsely ground, not fine. (One of Fleischman's "early secrets," he said, is to use a food processor instead of a meat grinder.) Doing this part yourself, he said, is the number-one way to make a great burger at home.
When the meat comes out of the food processor, Fleischman said, pour it onto a pan or tray, very lightly pressing down so it barely holds together. Then put it into the fridge to "firm it up." When you take it out, season it at the last minute with salt and pepper.
Fleischman said to always cook burgers on a cast-iron pan or "anything that can get really hot." Put the heat on for 10 minutes until the pan is extremely hot without oil and then sear the patty without flipping it for two-and-a-half minutes. Flip it only once to the other side for another two minutes. At that point, it should be medium rare, and Fleischman said to take it off the heat for a two-minute resting period.
But the patty is the only one doing any resting. For Umami's Hatch burger, which Fleischman said is the most at-home-friendly recipe, use the two minutes to put together the toppings. Throw on a slice of white American cheese and a mix of roasted peppers (roast serranos, jalapenos and poblanos in the oven, put them in a Ziploc bag and then chop them up together) and cover the burger so the cheese melts.
Though Umami is known for adding uber-indulgent toppings (bacon lard, anyone?), Fleischman is a purist when it comes to condiments. "Don't put any condiments on the bun except maybe garlic aioli or mayo," he said. "Ketchup or mustard would change the flavor and take away from it."
Dittmer agrees. The store sells curry ketchup, but that's for fries, and he doesn't put mustard on his burgers. (But if he did, he would use Dusseldorf, a German mustard that comes in a glass container shaped liked a miniature beer mug and is named for the German city.)
But ketchup lovers shouldn't despair. Palo Alto Grill makes its own ketchup in-house to pair with Shelton's peppercorn burger. The eight-ounce, slightly salted patty is dredged in a coarse grind of black pepper, almost like breading a fish, Shelton said.
"You know, it's not a cheeseburger," he said. "It's just a burger. So I really want it to be the meat with the peppercorn on it and then the ketchup and the bun. I want that to be all you're tasting."
The burger is also served with lettuce and tomato "for a little bit of that kind of juiciness, that cooling contrast and texture," and a spicy pickle on top that customers can eat between bites or put in the burger. "But we really want it to just be the patty and the ketchup that handles the show."
The ketchup is made with malt vinegar, sugar, garlic and onion powders and tomato paste.
When it comes to grilling, Shelton recommends making a patty thick to produce a medium rare burger "with a good bit of red still left in the center."
"Don't worry about pressing it or turning it too often," he added. "Just let it crisp really well on both sides. It can go very fast because of the fat content. And don't be afraid of fat content, because it's really sort of a balancing act. If you have a lot of fat in the burger, it's going to help it to cook more evenly and retain more moisture." A low amount of fat will take longer to cook and will dry the meat out, he said.
He cooks the burger on a gas-powered charbroiler for about 8 to 10 minutes, depending on "doneness."
Last but not least in the burger-making process is putting everything together on a bun.
Joel Gott, owner of Gott's Roadside which started as a burger shack in St. Helena in 1949 and has grown into three upscale fast-food establishments, with a fourth on its way to Palo Alto this fall said the second most important thing when it comes to cooking burgers, after using the best meat, is the bun.
"The number-one mistake that people do is they get soft bread, and everything slides out the back," Gott said. Gott's serves its burgers on a toasted egg bun, which is soft on the inside with a glazed top that provides structure.
Dittmer recommends using Watsonville-based Golden Sheaf Bakery's ciabatta bread, which the meat market sells.
One of most sought-after menu items at Gott's is actually not a classic beef burger, but an ahi tuna burger. When making ahi at home, Gott said, "you want to get the freshest, cleanest ahi you can."
And it's best to buy an ahi steak, versus ground ahi, he added. Make sure the steak is cut evenly, so one side doesn't cook faster than the other. Dip the steak in a sauce like Soy Vay Teriyaki, get the grill as hot as possible ("You don't want to cook it; you're just trying to sear the outside") and flip it often so the outside is charred and the inside a little pink.
The best topping for ahi is some sort of Asian slaw or salad, Gott said. His restaurants serve the ahi burger seared rare with ginger-wasabi mayo and a slaw made with green and red cabbage, cilantro, ginger, shallots, green onion and an Asian dressing that Gott said is similar to Soy Vay. A chopped vegetable salad tossed in any Asian dressing could work well too, he said.
For a meat burger, Gott's words of wisdom are "don't overcook," and have fun with seasonal toppings. Instead of using cheese or ketchup, go on a search for artisan pickles (maybe pick up some Bubbies pickled green tomatoes at Dittmer's), make your own "secret sauce" (Gott's is basically ketchup and mayonnaise with some chopped herbs), throw a barbecued pineapple slice on top, find the perfect tomato or avocado.
Gott, who previously worked at a Sonoma County winery and now owns numerous wine brands of his own, had endless recommendations for burger-wine parings, but his go-to's are sauvignon blanc or rose for the ahi and zinfandels for a meat burger.
For beer, he recommends the classic Anchor Steam, any Pilsner or, for a Labor Day barbecue, purchasing a mix of local or craft beers that guests might have not tried.
Shelton said that if a burger does have ketchup on it, the sweetness makes wine difficult. "Sweet foods tend to make the wine bitter. But beer, you don't really have that problem." He recommends the Palo Alto Brewing Company's Hoppy Ending Pale Ale, "a good meat beer."
Fleischman echoes that, recommending a pale ale or IPA to go with Umami's Hatch burger. On the wine side of things, he'd do a fruity zinfandel or light white wine.
Regardless of where you get it or what you put on top of it, the one thing everyone can agree on is the importance of high-quality meat cooked right. Shelton might have put it best: "A burger is something your teeth should fall right through, you know?"
Dittmer's Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus
4540 El Camino Real, Los Altos
Gott's Roadside (coming soon)
Town & Country Village, Building 2, Palo Alto
Palo Alto Grill
140 University Ave., Palo Alto
452 University Ave, Palo Alto
Palo Alto Grill Ketchup (from Chef Ryan Shelton)
2 cups malt vinegar
1 1/3cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tube good-quality tomato paste
2 cups canned tomato paste
Salt, to taste
Instructions: Put malt vinegar, sugar, onion powder and garlic powder in a pot and simmer over medium heat until reduced to 2 cups total. Add tomato paste and season with salt, whisking smooth. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Umami Hatch Burger
Here's a basic home-recipe version of the Hatch Burger. Note that this is edited for home use and may not reflect the exact version in restaurants.
Brioche bun or Hawaiian Roll
6-ounce ground all natural steak blend patty (you can ask your butcher to grind it for you)
White American cheese
Blend of roasted seasonal green chiles (Anaheim chiles are a great addition. Also poblanos, serranos or jalapenos for heat. To reduce heat, remove the seeds.)
Garlic aioli (mayo with chopped or crushed garlic added)
Umami Master Sauce (available at umami.com)
Umami Dust (available at umami.com)
Instructions: Form patty and cook to medium rare. Season with a dash of Umami Master Sauce and sprinkle of Umami Dust while cooking for maximum flavor. Lightly butter and toast brioche bun or Hawaiian roll. Build burger from bottom up with beef patty, American cheese and chile blend.
Gott's Roadside Asian Slaw (makes about 3 quarts)
21/2 heads napa cabbage, shredded
5 carrots, grated
3/4 head purple cabbage, shredded
Spicy Asian Dressing (makes about 1 gallon)
21/4 cups rice-wine vinegar
3/4 cup sherry vinegar
3 ounces red-wine vinegar
11/2 pints soy sauce
3/4 cup hoisin sauce
3/4 cup sambal
6 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
4 cups pickled ginger (rinsed and strained)
3 cups chopped green onions
3/4 cup honey
11/2 pints sesame oil
3 ounces lime juice
7 cloves garlic
Instructions: For the slaw: Mix all the ingredients together and set aside in the refrigerator. For the dressing: Combine all the ingredients and blend with an immersion blender. Toss the slaw with the dressing. Apply one-half of the burger buns with dressed slaw. Place an ahi tuna burger on top of the slaw, and add some slaw on top of the tuna.