Buckle in … somewhere in with a great bar story and some musing is a recipe.
Is there any food more American? The hot dog, apple pie … forget about it. The burger is debated, ranked, written about and fought over. Fast food empires have been built on the humble hamburger.
I was tempted to call this “Poppy’s All-American Burger.” But that seems a little pretentious and my glass-half-full personality wants to believe, despite the current crop of politicians, that there is still honesty to be had in this great country.
It seems so simple, right? It’s a slab of ground beef between a bun … how hard can it be?
Until recently, I made it hard, I added spices, secret sauces, an egg to bind everything together. I cooked them here, I cooked them there. Were they edible? Yes. Was it a great burger? No.
It got so bad my family steered me away from making, as they called them, “homemade burgers.”
At that point my pride kicked in. I experimented, I researched, and most importantly I thought about the places that served up good burgers.
My favorite bar story…
There was a bar and grill in my hometown of Ferguson, Missouri (yes that Ferguson) that served up a great burger. This was not a fern bar. There was nothing trendy going on here, the regulars were unpretentious, the drinks were strong, the décor was “early attic”, it got cleaned once a month whether it needed it or not, and it delivered great burgers.
The lady that worked the day shift (Let’s call her Brenda) tended bar and did a little cooking as the need arose. At the end of her shift she moved from one side of the bar to the other. She ceased being an employee and became a customer. This coincided with the time I would normally stop by to get some take-out burgers for the family.
I honestly couldn’t say how old Brenda was, but I could say with conviction, she had not had an easy life.
I was seated a few stools down from Brenda where she was regaling the regulars with a story of her abusive ex. She related the time he pushed her up against a wall, thrust the barrel of a pistol up against her forehead and pulled the trigger. Brenda was still with us, so either the pistol was unloaded or it misfired.
She paused for a moment, bringing back the memories of that day, then said quite calmly, “you know … the funny thing is, that was the same gun I shot him with.”
My to-go order arrived about that time and I left with some good burgers and an even better bar story.
That bar eventually got bought out and cleaned up. The menu was expanded and food prep efficiencies were put into place. Unfortunately, the quality of the burgers suffered. The bar had an old-fashioned walk-in freezer some distance from the kitchen. With the old bar, when more burgers were called for you would see one of the kitchen staff walk by with a platter containing a mound of ground beef. The burgers were formed by hand, the shape and even the size varied, but they were always good.
Today the burgers are cooked from pre-formed patties … they are consistent in shape, they are consistent in size, unfortunately they are not as tasty. Aaahh progress.
Ok enough reminiscing Poppy … out with the recipe!
Here is what I have learned. As with most things in life, the simpler the better.
Start with ground chuck, it has the right mixture of meat to fat. We don’t like to talk about fat these days, but without it your beef would be dry and tasteless.
Unless you have a commercial grade griddle like that old bar in Ferguson, you are going to need a good cast iron skillet. I don’t try to fit more than two burgers in a skillet. I have two cast iron skillets, but if you just have one don’t despair. Done Poppy’s way these guys cook up so fast you can rotate burgers in and out of one skillet and keep everyone happy.
Speaking of fast make sure your beer is cold and your side dishes are ready to go because these burgers are done in minutes.
The trick here is heat and nothing delivers heat better than cast iron.
Coat your skillet with a thin layer of vegetable oil or any oil with a high smoke point, not butter. Then crank your burner up to high and turn on your exhaust fan.
I usually go for 1/3 pound burgers and create a simple ball of ground chuck in that size.
When your skillet starts to smoke drop those balls of ground chuck in and immediately flatten with a good sturdy metal spatula. I know this goes against many theories of burger cooking but give it a try!
When you see the browning start to creep up the sides of the patties flip them over. Even though you have oiled the skillet you may have to use a little force here.
As soon as the patties are flipped, sprinkle them with a 50/50 mixture of salt and coarse ground pepper. Nothing fancy here, just simple and honest.
At that point add cheese if desired. I use a slice of provolone and a slice of medium cheddar, but let your tastes be your guide.
Because cast iron retains heat so well, I go ahead and turn off the burners. When the cheese has softened, transfer them to the buns and let them rest for a couple of minutes. Add your condiments of choice and enjoy!
(Spend the extra buck and buy some good buns)
… shown with roasted potatoes, sweet onions and zucchini.
(and don’t forget the exhaust fan)