by Tara Pederson
The hamburger – a quintessential classic. An American culinary icon. Whether plain jane or dressed to the nines, the ground beef steak on a bun says U.S.A. in a way nothing else but stars, stripes and eagles can. Largely debated, from country of origin to health detriments to proper dressings, it has nevertheless sustained a reputation as our favorite fast food item.
Hamburgers have a few different international ancestors. The earliest account is likely 4th century Roman. Called isicia omentata, it was seasoned with pine nuts, peppercorns and wine and baked. Mongolian steak tartare followed with finely hand minced beef seasoned with herbs, spices, onions and topped with a raw egg, its focus was on the flavor of fresh ingredients and the immediacy of protein consumption. Steak tartare is still a fine dining delight I personally highly recommend.
Germany reimagined that minced beef as a large, pan cooked Hamburg steak (also called Frikadelle) topped with brown gravy and served with potatoes. In the mid 1800s, New York city was the most common destination for travelers from Germany. In order to attract both tourists and sailors, New York restaurants started adding Hamburg-style American fillet to their menus.
In the early 20th century, with the commercial availability of meat grinders came an onslaught of minced meat offerings, as a way to bring bulk amounts to the public at affordable prices. This also lead to the popularity of hot dogs and meatloaf. More land became dedicated to cattle, employed cowboys and ranch hands, and gave rise to refrigerated transportation and meat preservation. A small town in Texas most often takes credit for a cook first putting the Hamburg steak between two slices of bread, but the truth is, no one knows who invented it for certain.
We do know the hamburger became a fast, convenient and cheap way to feed the working class public, and is the original “fast food.” Don’t let that title throw you for a loop. Convenience is a way of life so often here, we continue to invent ways to improve upon the practice itself. But the best burgers are never preserved, flash frozen, partially or precooked… no matter how quickly those things put one in our hands. No, friends. The best burger is always made fresh, hand formed, and cooked to order. No matter where you fall in the arguments on seasoning, dressing, serving, cook temperatures or bun preferences, these three things are vital.
Many places insist the only seasoning a quality ground beef patty needs is salt and pepper on its outer surfaces. Most of the time, this advice comes from steak houses, where steaks really are best simply seasoned, or fine dining places not specializing in burgers. Most home cooks, I believe, get this notion from Food Network or some such, where someone perpetuated it along an ill-advised snobby sideline.
No disrespect to anyone, prepare your ground beef as you like, of course. But I call hooey.
Ground meat of any kind is best seasoned in bulk, throughout, and allowed to rest before formed and cooked. This is the only way to infuse any real flavor into the meat itself. I am all about each element bringing flavor to the party. The patty is no exception. You don’t have to get all crazy, as you’ll see in the recipe below. Just take the extra 60 seconds to dump some things in before mixing, enjoy a nice beverage, a walk around the block, a chapter of your favorite book, while they work their magic.
My basic recipe: (All of these are general. You don’t have to measure, but I suggest it until you work it out to your liking – I am also guilty of inadvertent over seasoning, so I advise measuring to avoid that as well).
2 lb ground beef, 2 tbsp minced garlic, 2 tsp each salt, pepper and Dijon mustard. Combine well and allow to rest 20 minutes. Form into patties of your preferred size, pan, grill or oven cook to your preferred temperature. Dress as you like!