Culture: How to Construct the Ultimate Burger | Wine Enthusiast
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How to Construct the Ultimate Burger

The hamburger is one of food’s greatest vehicles for creativity. Sure, ground meat and a bun are involved, but the sky is the limit where you take it from there.

No one exemplifies the confluence of burgers and imagination more than Rodney Blackwell. He’s the creator of Burger Junkies, a must-follow on Instagram, as well as the founder of the Sacramento Burger Battle.

With Labor Day weekend approaching, who better to ask about the ins and outs of burger construction than Blackwell? If you have burning questions about the grind, the bun, the patty (or patties), topping selection and burger construction, read on for his answers to these important issues.

What meat/fat ratio do you like to use for your ground meat and why? And do you just use ground beef or like to add other cuts?

I usually go with an 80/20 blend if not a bit fattier. Sometimes closer to 75/25. The ground beef blend I normally use is mostly chuck and brisket, but every now and then I get fancy and do a custom blend of short rib, brisket, rib eye and a little pork belly.

Do you grind your own or use a butcher?

I used to grind my own until a new butcher shop opened up with some amazing local grass-fed beef. Now instead of raiding the grocery store for different cuts, I just go in and use their standard “Butcher’s Ground Beef Blend”. They don’t look at me as funny when I go in and ask them to grind up some short rib.

One big burger or multiple thin patties? Discuss.

Let me just say that I used to be fully #teambigpatty. If you see the progression of my Instagram feed, it was mostly all eight-ounce “bistro style” burger patties. The beauty of this size is that it’s almost like a steak in that you can get a good medium/medium rare temp to the burger. The downside is that it’s huge!

Being on the West Coast, I’ve always admired the In-N-Out style of burgers because the cheese to meat ratio leaned a little on the cheesy side. With a thin patty, you can stack burger, cheese, burger, cheese, burger cheese and still not reach eight ounces of beef.

So most of the burgers I cook these days are all smashed and griddled thin patties. I love the texture and flavor of the Maillard reaction sear that happens when you smash that first side on the flat top.

Photo courtesy Nicolette Skidmore

What’s the best bun to that doesn’t fall apart but doesn’t overwhelm a burger? And to toast or not to toast?

Sorry to take this question out of order, but for the love of all things burgery, please toast your buns! The toastier the better.

Buns should ideally be squishy and unassuming. They play an important roll, but you shouldn’t be reminded of it you’re enjoying your burger. I like Martin’s Potato Rolls when I can get them on the West Coast. A lot of brioche buns can be too heavy, but there’s a brand called EuroClassic that makes a nice light and airy brioche. I’m also lucky to have a friend whose idea of fun is baking bread and burger buns are one of his specialties. (Hi Greg!)

Does topping order matter? Can you have too many toppings? 

After a bit of debate with friends and chefs, the consensus was that if you’re adding lettuce and tomato to a burger, it belongs *below* the patty. Cheese goes on top of the patty. My personal preference if bacon is involved is to ditch the famous “X” bacon strip layout. It leaves bacon hanging off the burger and V-shaped gaps in the patty coverage. Crumbled bacon chunks or a bacon weave (if you’ve got time) are the way to go.

Yes, you can definitely have too many toppings. If you hear yourself uttering the words “knife and fork burger…” you’ve gone to far. No burger should be a knife and forker. One of the magical things about a burger experience is the all-encapsulated deliciousness in one handheld meal.

What are some toppings you’ve tried that sound strange but are worth adding to your burger?

One burger combination that surprised me is peanut butter, jelly, Sriracha and bacon on a burger. I had it first at the Grill ‘Em All food truck in LA. I ordered it thinking I would only take a bite to taste the novelty and ended up scarfing down the whole thing. A local restaurant here in the Sacramento area has a similar burger they serve “off menu” and it was a finalist at a recent Sacramento Burger Battle event.

Tell me about the Sacramento Burger Battle. What was the inspiration and what can people look forward to this year?

The Sacramento Burger Battle is a charity burger cook-off and tasting event I created in 2012 after attending the Denver Burger Battle in 2011. I started the event to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. My oldest daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she was five and the CCFA really helped our family make sense of what to expect and understand what she was going through. All the proceeds from this one night event are donated to the charity.

On September 15, fifteen of Sacramento’s best restaurants cook up their best burgers at Cesar Chavez Plaza in Downtown Sacramento. The attendees of the event get to taste all the burgers, interact with the chefs and restaurants, sample local craft beers, ciders and wines, listen to live music and vote for their favorite burger of the night. We also have a panel of judges that rates each burger and picks their favorite.

The event sells out every year and to date, we’ve raised over $100,000 for the CCFA. This year we’re adding a charity auction that allows the winner to join the Judge’s Table at the Burger Battle.

Finally, do you ever get sick of burgers?

No, but I think they may get sick of me. I swear I saw a burger jump off the plate when it saw me coming.

A Trio of Burgers Paired With Wine

We challenged Contributing Editor Jim Gordon to pair California wines with a variety of Blackwell’s burgers. Here’s what he came up with.

Ruby Hill 2012 Reserve Petite Sirah (Livermore Valley); $29, 93 points.

This engaging, flavorful and unapologetically tannic wine is made from Livermore’s heirloom grape variety and can match the cheeseburger layer for layer. The aromas are black pepper and grilled meat. Flavors suggest ripe Bing cherries and blackberries, while the seductive mouth-feel is rich and velvety. Aged 20 months in American oak barrels, the wine has great structure.

Klinker Brick 2015 Rosé (Lodi); $15, 90 points.

Very dry and delicate, this outstanding quality wine is the perfect foil for this burger. It has a transparent pink color, good crisp acidity to offset the caramelized onions, and fresh, charming flavors like pink grapefruit and white peach that will resuscitate the taste buds after the patty melt’s flood of cheese. Drink it as soon and as often as possible.

When you fire up the BBQ but you don’t know whether you want cheese hot dogs or burgers. ??? #burgervoyeurs #foodbeast

A photo posted by Burger Junkies (Rodney) (@burgerjunkies) on

Andis 2012 Cooper Ranch Barbera (Amador County); $26, 90 points.

Barbera is rightly known as one of the most muscular red wines in terms of acidity, and this all-in burger needs that muscle to cut through its hot mess of protein. The wine has meaty, smoky aromas and good, high-amplitude fruit flavors that give it a robust personality. It’s full-bodied, dry and firmly tannic in texture.

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