The credit munch: The history of the hamburger

In these straitened times, the burger business is booming – not surprising, perhaps, for a food stuff made famous by America's Great Depression. Christopher Hirst reveals its history and searches for the perfect patty
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Eating a hamburger every day for two weeks produces strange effects. I don't mean the physical deterioration graphically recorded in Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me about the effects of consuming Big Macs and fries for 30 days on the trot (he put on 11.1 kilos). It is possible to be spared such ballooning by downsizing the portions, though you are never actually going to lose weight by eating burgers. As a consequence of our diet (displaying a sad lack of chivalry, I co-opted my wife in the task), an outside observer would have seen a household displaying an outlandish, even bizarre eccentricity. We took to keeping the food mincer in the refrigerator. We grilled food containing ice-cubes. We acquired a slab of beef costing £174.95 per kilo.

Our long grind of burgers was prompted by an inappropriately slender work called Hamburger: A Global History by Andrew F Smith (Reaktion Books). As its name suggests, the dish is German in origin, though one of the first printed recipes for "Hamburgh sausages" appeared in a cookbook of 1758 by the English cook Hannah Glasse. The Hamburg steak of minced beef was "a common dish" in American restaurants by 1900, but Smith points out that it was "almost two decades before the sandwich met the steak". The first large-scale commercial burger operation was the White Castle chain launched in the Twenties, which provided a standard product at low cost from distinctive outlets endowed with tiny turrets.

White Castle never crossed the Atlantic, unlike the Wimpy chain (named after a character in the Popeye cartoon strip), which has died in the US but continues to trade here. From 1940, the California-based McDonald brothers streamlined fast food by adopting industrial assembly techniques and an ambitious franchising operation. This model was further refined by the entrepreneur Ray Kroc, who bought the business for $2.7m in 1961. Spotting the potency of "pester power", he targeted children and then the rest of the world. Today, McDonald's is not only the largest purchaser of beef in the world but also the world's largest toy distributor.

Though packed with nutritious information, Smith's book is more to do with business than eating. I suspect I am not alone in being baffled by the success of hamburger chains. I doubt if I've had more than three or four transient nibbles from such outlets in my entire life (and they were not memorable). My disdain, I must admit, is not widely shared. McDonald's has displayed enviable buoyancy in the downturn that has afflicted virtually every other part of the British economy. The company recently revealed that its UK operation is serving an extra two million customers per month compared with last year. As a result, it is taking on another 4,000 staff. Similarly, Burger King reported a 10.2 per cent increase in sales for the first three months of this year. "We are not recession resistant," explained a Burger King executive, "but we are recession resilient." It is surely no coincidence that hamburger chains first boomed in the US during the depression years.

Personally, I see the stingily proportioned, weirdly sweetened "patty" served up in fast-food chains as being no bargain. As we shall see, you can make excellent hamburgers from cheap cuts of beef (and, for that matter, from the world's most costly meat). For much the same price as a family would pay at McDonald's or Burger King, you can eat something that is immeasurably superior. A good burger is one of the great dishes of the world. Particularly on visits to Middle America, where the restaurant meals tend to be as mundane as they are vast, the burger can be a life-saver. I have eaten superb examples in ordinary bars from Providence, Rhode Island, to Carmel, California. One of the best burgers – and certainly the most surprising burger joint – was in the posh Manhattan hotel Le Parker Meridien, which has installed the grungy tables and booths from a demolished dump in The Bowery. It takes some finding among the mirrors and the large Damien Hirst hanging in the glitzy lobby, but the tempting whiff gives a strong hint.

The classic American burger that I aimed to emulate is a plump disc of minced, mature beef carefully grilled so it has a gently charred crust and a juicy interior. Tender and tasty, this quintessence of beefiness is more satisfying than most steaks you are liable to encounter. But in this country, even those who eschew the depressing products sold by fast-food chains seem curiously indifferent about the quality of the hamburgers they cook at home. Bunging virtually any plump burger on the barbie is believed to produce excellent results. I was like that myself. But when I bought nice-looking burgers from posh supermarket and upmarket butchers – surely, I thought, the ne plus ultra of this world-beating snack – they often turned out to be lacking in flavour.

My hamburger research was assisted by another new book on the topic. The documentary-maker George Motz spent seven years touring and chewing to produce Hamburger America (Running Press), described as a "State-By-State Guide to 100 Great Burger Joints". Among the phenomenal platefuls Motz took onboard were: the "Famous Hubcap Burger" served at Cotham's Mercantile of Scott, Arizona ("17 ounces of fresh ground beef ... served on a bun that resembles a small throw cushion"); the "Thurman Burger" of Columbus, Ohio, whose successive strata consist of a 12-ounce beef patty, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, sautéed mushrooms, pickle, mayonnaise, half a pound of sliced ham, grilled mozzarella and American cheese; the oleaginous offering from Dyer's Burgers of Memphis, Tennessee, deep-fried in beef dripping that has "never been changed since the restaurant opened almost 100 years ago" ("If you are watching your health, I'd recommend going next door," advised a former owner); the "Seismic Burger" sold in Meers, Oklahoma, with "one pound of ground longhorn beef topped with cheese, bacon, jalapeño slices..." but maybe that's enough about the true whoppers of the burger world. Surprisingly, photographs of Motz reveal a man of average dimensions. In his introduction, he warns would-be emulators: "Embrace moderation".

In our hamburger experimentation, we aimed for a much pared-down version of these gut-busters. It would, we agreed, be gratifying to survive the experience. We determined not only to limit the quantity of beef to 5-7 ounces (140-200 grams) per burger but also to diminish the astonishing quantity of relish, pickles and salad that often find their way between the top and bottom buns. When Heston Blumenthal, wunderkind of the Fat Duck at Bray, attempted to produce the ultimate hamburger for his BBC series Further Adventures in Search of Perfection, the result was a towering stack of iceberg lettuce, tomato, grilled cheese and pickle with the painstakingly researched Hestonburger all but lost somewhere in the middle. With good reason, such efforts are referred to in the US as "five-napkin" burgers.

The point of a hamburger is meat and we had to get that sorted out. All authorities agree that you should mince your own beef. Aside from health reasons, it is important to know exactly what meat you're cooking. Slightly counterintuitively, this should not be the best steak cuts. Fillet, rib-eye, even rump are considered too lean. You want a good bit of fat in the mix to provide succulent juiciness and flavour. Most recipes specify chuck beef. Chuck is a term for shoulder beef, also known in the UK as blade. It contains around 18-25 per cent fat, which is deemed more or less perfect for hamburgers. But there are other options. Blumenthal and his Fat Duck team developed a mix of 50 per cent short-rib meat (rich in both fat and flavour, this is a tender cut that lies on top of the big ribs in an area at the centre of each side of the rib cage), 25 per cent chuck and 25 per cent brisket (a fatty, rolled breast joint).

Before you start mincing, the meat has to be trimmed of connective tissue. "This is it," said my wife, pointing out some white stringy strips in the meat with the tip of her Sabatier knife. "It's tough, non-fatty stuff that holds the muscle fibres of the meat. If you don't get it out, it wraps itself round the spindle of your mincer."

Its connective tissue safely removed, our meat went into the deep freeze for an hour to chill thoroughly. This is to ensure that the fat stays hard while being minced. Otherwise, the blade gets covered in fatty gunge and a pink mousse emerges instead of mince speckled with discrete bits of red and white. The advice of Judy Rogers in The Zuni Café Cookbook goes further still: "Refrigerate the grinder to chill thoroughly. A warm grinder can warm the meat." Rogers, an acclaimed San Franciscan chef, also recommends adding a small amount of salt ("1 scant teaspoon" for 1lbs of chuck) for 18-24 hours before mincing. This runs against accepted wisdom concerning hamburgers, since salt has the effect of drying out meat. Rogers maintains that "this brief curing makes the meat retain moisture better and enhances the texture." Heston Blumenthal similarly pre-salts the chuck element of his mix for six hours.

For mincing we used a KitchenAid mixer with (pre-chilled) mincing attachment, though a hand-turned mincer works OK. Certain chefs only use a sharp knife. Some say the mixture should be minced twice or even three times to ensure the fat is thoroughly amalgamated. Most authorities insist that nothing should be added to the chilled mince, though the great American chef James Beard advocated the addition of a small amount of cream. Alternatively, he suggested that the insertion of an ice-cube at the heart of each burger – should it be called The Iceburger? – ensures a moistness and rare interior. At the end of protracted research, Jeffrey Steingarten discovered the secret of a juicy burger in the US Journal of Food Science. Researchers discovered that the addition of 10 per cent water (slightly more than a tablespoon per burger) to the mix "resulted in higher juiciness, tenderness and over-all palatability".

When it comes to forming the burgers, the culinary scientist Harold McGee maintains: "The gently gathered ground beef in a good hamburger has a delicate quality quite unlike even a tender steak." The "gentle gathering" is intended to produce a tasty, crumbly burger. Because shop-produced burgers have to survive a certain amount of rough handling, they're always going to be resilient and compacted. When it comes to cooking burgers, what you must not do is what you see all short-order cooks doing in American films. You must not press the burger on the grill with your spatula. Though satisfying in a mysterious way, this has the effect of squeezing out the juices. You get a dry burger.

Up to our ears in advice, we decided to start sizzling. For all our tests, we used our Weber gas barbecue (a ribbed, cast-iron griddle on a gas hob also produces good results). About 4-5 minutes per side proved right for a medium to medium-rare burger. Just to be perverse, we started with a sample of ready-minced beef, though it wasn't any old mince. Costing £7 per kilo, the minced shoulder beef from Galloway cattle is sold by Farmer Sharp at London's Borough Market. It hit the bull's eye with our first shot. The resulting burger was crumbly and profoundly beefy. The "gently gathered" texture sounds wacky, but it really works. Our second burgers made from Harrods chuck (£8.50 per kilo) held together well and had an acceptable flavour. For comparative purposes, we tried chuck from our local butcher (£7.80 per kilo). Despite misgivings about the smell ("It reminds me of school dinners"), my wife thought it was "quite tasty" but "very crumbly". The Zuni Café pre-salted burger also worked well. It wasn't remotely dry, though it was a bit salty. (I may have overdone the "scant teaspoon".) We also tried burgers made from rump (dry and lacking in flavour) and feather steak, also known as hanger (better but still on the dry side).

At this point, we had a break from making hamburgers, but it wasn't much of a change of diet because we went out to sample the products at our local Gourmet Burger Kitchen, where the New Zealand chef Peter Gordon acts as auteur de burger. The British appetite for burgers de luxe has also produced the Fine Burger Company, Real Burger World, Ultimate Burger and Hamburger Union. Gourmet Burger's plainest offering (cooked weight 5.1 ounces) came with an excess of salad, but it was pleasingly juicy. Fulfilling our requested "medium-rare" to a tee, it might have been slightly lacking in favour compared to homemade burgers. The cost of around £11 for two take-away burgers was around three to four times that of a homemade burger.

It's a funny contradiction, but while cheap beef produces a very good hamburger, so does very, very expensive beef. It doesn't come much more pricey than Jack's Creek Wagyu (actually, it's a Wagyu/Black Angus cross) reared in Queensland. Costing £174.95 per kilo from Harrods, it is marbled with up to 30 per cent fat. The meat is ribboned and streaked with what looks like pink butter. Fortunately for one's arteries, the fat is uniquely high in (relatively) healthy unsaturates. Even though it was very cold, the meat felt to be melting the moment you started handling it. Mincing this plutocratic fillet felt like lèse-majesté of a high order, but the resulting burgers were highly acceptable. Very tasty, immaculately moist, each fragment of meat was imbued with gravy-flavoured fat. "This is very, very good," said my wife as she nibbled a final fragment. "You just want a bit more." Our two four-ounce burgers cost around £44.

Finally, we tried Heston Blumenthal's burgers using two parts short rib beef (not always easy to find), from the email-order butchers Donald Russell, to one part brisket and one part shoulder beef, both from Waitrose. In one of the burgers we hid an ice-cube, in the other we added water. We didn't bother salting the chuck. In fact, the burgers didn't need any salt even when cooked. "It has an excellent beefy taste," said my wife. "The combination of meat is very good if you can find short-rib. It produces a pleasing greasiness." The ice-cube trick worked well in producing a rare interior, though commercial operations may get customer complaints concerning the resulting hole. The burger with added water was noticeably juicy. "Hurrah for Heston!" declared my heroic partner as she dabbed a fragment of his creation from her lips. "We'll use his recipe when we have hamburgers again – maybe in two or three years."

Here comes the bun...
Hamburgers by numbers

14 billion

Hamburgers eaten by Americans a year. If you put all those burgers in a line, they would circle the earth more than 32 times


The number of students who attend Hamburger University (a McDonald's corporation) in Elk Grove, Illinois


Number of restaurants McDonald's operates worldwide, employing more than 1.5 million people


Price of Burger King's British-only sandwich, named simply The Burger, launched as a limited edition in June. Japanese wagyu beef is "complemented" by white truffle, onion tempura prepared in Cristal champagne and finest Pata Negra ham

750 million

Customers McDonald's will serve in the UK this year

One third

Number of all Americans to have eaten a hamburger or some form of ground beef in the past 24 hours