Big Burger
Burger Time
May 23, 2005

So, when I say "medium-rare" at one of the top San Francisco restaurants, clearly I mean "well-done." No, no, Absinthe -- obviously you know better with your $10.50 Niman Ranch burger ($11.50 with blue cheese and spicy onion toppings) and your $26 salmon and your $7.25* salad. What do I know? I'm just the one who's going to eat it.

You know, there was a time when I didn't trust restaurants to get my meat right. I actually fell into the habit of ordering medium-rare when I actually wanted rare. I was okay with that. Sure, it was a little annoying that people I was paying to cook my food couldn't get the basics right, but what the hell? I had my system and I was happy with it. Then we moved out here and we started going to restaurants that actually brought my meat cooked to order! (I know!) Very soon, I got comfortable with this new-fangled way of dining out. We were out there eating some of the best food of our lives and it was being prepared properly. And then last night happened.

After my second day of book signing (which went exceptionally well, by the way) at the Lafayette Book Store in Lafayette, my sweet husband proposed we go out and celebrate "the author." Absinthe is near to us, it has great cocktails and it's also one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city. We ate in the dining room soon after moving out here and loved it. Since then, we've brought scores of visiting friends to the cafe to sample their historical cocktail menu and nosh on some of their pricey bar food.

Last night, we were back in the cafe where you can also order off the dining room menu. We shared the burger which we requested cooked "medium-rare." And it came...grey. Grey is NOT medium-rare. Grey is NOT EVEN medium-well. GREY is overcooked, overcooked, OVERCOOKED! Yes, yes, we should've sent it back, but I'm a wimp and I hate doing stuff like that. However, it did get me thinking about how easy and delicious it is to make a good hamburger. And guess what? CHEAP!

I have to deviate a bit and share an anecdote. A few years ago, Dr. Mathra and our friend Mr. Mann were off in the wilds of Utah, attending a number theory conference. When they weren't doing number theory-y things, they'd take road trips to see all the awesome stuff Utah has to offer. One night, outside of Zion National Park, they stopped for dinner and Mr. Mann ordered a burger. He wanted it cooked medium, and because he was asking for something other than well-done, he actually had to sign something saying that he really did want his meat done that way. Can you believe that? Clearly the restaurant felt the need to cover themselves for such a WILD order. But hey, he got the burger exactly the way he wanted it. Maybe all restaurants could do that, then you could just point to the piece of paper and say, "Ahem?" if it didn't come out right.

First, you've got to get your condiments prepped and ready to stack so you're not wasting precious juice time after that burger comes off the fire.

Pickles and onions and tomatoes, oh my!

What you're looking at here are your basics. You've got your sliced dill pickles, red onion, fat tomato slices, mustard, ketchup, and mayo. Normally, I'm not a big fan of mayo on stuff, but Alton taught me that the fat in the mayo actually forms a nice barrier that keeps your bun from getting soggy from the oozing burger. A word on the yellow "plastic" mustard you see there, although I love the Dijon variety, I tend to prefer this kind on my hot dogs and hamburgers.

Now, to this basic range of condiments you can add cheeses: basic American, sharp Cheddar, pungent blue, tangy goat -- go crazy. Just keep in mind that whatever cheese you choose should have enough moisture in it to melt easily when it comes into contact with the burger. A fruity Gruyère is another fine cheese choice.

Also consider the pre-sautéed things: onions, mushrooms, and peppers. These are all things that can be cooked ahead of time and held until your ready to use them.

Once you've got all that in order, it's time to form the patties.


I think 3-4 oz of meat is sufficient for each burger. Keep them round and flatten only when about to slide them onto the grill, grill pan, or sauté pan. Never EVER press on the patties when they're cooking. All you're doing is squeezing out precious juices, and what you'll end up will be dry, overcooked, and nasty.


After 2-3 minutes on each side over high heat, I came out with the above. If you like 'em rare, this is the way to go. Otherwise, 3-4 minutes on each side is going to get you medium-rare (see top image). If you want your burger more cooked than that, you're on the wrong site. I don't do well-done.

Of course, my burger day wasn't without incident. We don't have an exhaust fan in our kitchen and a lot of our windows are stuck shut, so often when cooking over high heat we have smoke detector issues. I'd put a burger on the pan and as soon as it started to smoke, the damn alarm went off. I was periodically dashing into the hall to flap madly at the detector. Burger. Sizzle. Detector. Flap. Burger. Sizzle. Detector. Flap. Let me tell you, after a half hour of that, I'm working off a lot of calories and sweating up a good appetite. Still, next apartment? EXHAUST FAN!

For the complete burger recipe, click here.

*But seriously, people, $7.25 for a mess of greens, radish, and herbs? What is that? Are they famous radishes? The only time I've found a salad worthy of such as high price point was at Chez Panisse and even that was only $6.00!

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