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The perfect burger

In September of 2005, we turned to chef Nancy Silverton for tips on making a delicious hamburger. She made it easy and fabulous: the right meat, peak-season tomatoes and a great bun.

May 20, 2013|Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • TOP THIS: The hamburger according to Silverton stars fat-enriched, coarse-ground prime chuck that's seasoned generously and handled gently.
TOP THIS: The hamburger according to Silverton stars fat-enriched, coarse-ground… (B?atrice de G?a / Los Angeles…)

A word of advice. Never use the phrase "just a burger" with Nancy Silverton. I did and was promptly challenged on every aspect of burger-making, starting with where to buy the meat, what grind, size of patty, how to cook it, what to serve with it, what pickle, what bun, what ketchup, what mayonnaise, what mustard, what cheese, how thick to slice the avocado, what bacon, what smoke on the bacon, what occasion.

The co-founder of Campanile restaurant and La Brea Bakery may be famous for more sophisticated food, but to her, the burger is one of the great American dishes, and exactly the thing that she likes to give friends for an end-of-summer barbecue. To prove it, she immediately threw a party.

I was the guest taking notes.

When we arrived midday, the fire was going in her barbecue pit. It was made from almond wood, lighted at 8 that morning to give it time to form its own charcoal. The hamburger toppings were already prepared, the buns sliced. The world famous chef was in her element. "I've always loved hamburgers," she cried, "back to the day I ate them at Denny's well done."

Over the years, the way that she made burgers changed in step with her taste in restaurants. "If I like a burger, I always ask how they make it," she said. She learned about meat by asking what they ground at the Union Square Cafe in New York, and at Zuni in San Francisco. From Taylor's Refreshers in St. Helena, she learned the importance of the right bun.

It has to be a classic, soft hamburger bun, she said, not sourdough, rustic roll or, perish the thought, pita bread. The important thing is the proportion of burger to bun. "It should be 50-50," she said, just right for absorbing juice and toppings.

Accept no substitutes

Silverton is a speedy, teach-as-she-cooks type. "The beauty of the burger for parties at home is choice," she said as she began splitting pickles. "Everybody gets to personalize their burger. Everyone gets to participate."

The toppings should be traditional, not wacky or fancy. "I'm not a foie gras-on-burger person," she said. But given the chance, she will go the extra mile to get deli pickles from Gus's in New York.

To her mind, every traditional topping must be represented, and the shopper should accept no substitutes. "Ketchup should be Heinz. Mayonnaise should be Best Foods in the West, Hellmann's in the East." The mayonnaise she likes to serve three ways: plain, souped up with chiles and another with garlic and tapenade. The recipes are part of her upcoming Knopf book in praise of cooking from cans, "Twist of the Wrist."

There should also be Tuscan Pepperoncini (she likes Mezzetta brand) and two types of mustard, both Dijon, one whole grain, one smooth. The lettuce must be iceberg, one crisp cupped leaf per burger. Sliced red onion -- one full slice per person. (Silverton salts and peppers the onions.)

Tomatoes: Right now, there should be thick slices of bun-size heirloom tomatoes. Brandywines, Russians, Beefsteak. There should be avocados, bought a week early to control the ripening. These should be sliced thickly, or they will turn to mush: in quarters or, at the smallest, in sixths. A light dressing of lemon will help prevent them from browning in the dish, but too much lemon will make them taste citric, so she recommends tossing in some chives to disguise inevitable blemishing.

There should be bacon (applewood-smoked), cooked short of crispness so it doesn't shatter in the mouth. Because people will pilfer from the toppings, you should cook two strips per guest.

No point in spoiling good meat with bad cheese. There should be a choice of three cheeses, she said: blue, cheddar and Gruyere. She had Point Reyes blue, Grafton cheddar and cave-aged Gruyere. Nicolas Beckman, who oversees the cheese counter at La Brea Bakery shop, also recommends Fiscalini or Straus cheddar.

"The blue and cheddar should be crumbled," said Silverton, holding out dishes brimming with broken cheese, "so they can be sprinkled on. That way you get to watch it melt. The Gruyere, this has to be served in slices."

And so to the meat. The morning of her burger party, Silverton sent me to her butcher, Huntington Meats at the Los Angeles Farmers Market. As I read from the order that she prepared, I asked for whole prime chuck, which already has 10% to 15% fat, to be ground with 13% sirloin fat added by weight.

The butcher smiled. "Nancy Silverton sent you, didn't she?" he asked.

It turned out that Huntington's lean mix has 5% fat, its standard mix 10% to 15%, but what they fondly called "Nancy's blend" has more like 20% to 28%.

"That's what gives the flavor," said the butcher. "Coarse ground, right?"

The difference, not just in flavor but also in texture, and pure out-of-this-world pleasure, would only become clear when I got the meat back to Silverton.

The patty, just so

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