Much of the food that people buy has been pre-prepared in some way before they buy it. Now, it’s clear that getting the supplier to do some preparatory work is often pretty useful – after all, if you fancy a bacon sandwich, you don’t really want to have to start by heading out to buy a pig. But as more pre-processing takes place, the disconnect between the food we eat and our understanding of how it is made increases dramatically. We no longer clearly know what goes into the food we eat, where those ingredients come from, or how it is made.
We usually buy pre-prepared food as a convenience. We all lead busy lives and there aren’t enough hours in the day to make everything from scratch – we need to fit in work, sleep and all those other things that suck up time too. Now and then, though, I think it’s beneficial to take a little time to make something by starting with just the basics. It’s only by doing this that you begin to really understand how food works, how basic ingredients transform into something more complex. And, of course, the results are invariably vastly superior to the pre-prepared versions.
So, for some of Anya’s challenges, I will be asking her to make something that people would normally buy in a ready-prepared state and make it from scratch. Some of these may be quite complex, but I’ll save those for later. As a gentle introduction, I’m going to start with something very simple: a burger.
All in all, burgers have something of a bad reputation. They are the epitome of fast junk food. It really doesn’t have to be like that though – done properly, burgers can make for a delicious and satisfying meal. If you look on the supermarket shelves, you’ll see both good and bad examples, ranging from small frozen discs with the flavour and texture of cardboard, through to top-quality meat patties made from prime cuts of beef. It goes without saying that the cardboard burgers should be avoided, but some of the better ones can be well worth trying. Today though, we’re going to gloss over those; this challenge is all about making our own.
The first thing to understand about the burger is that you don’t need a vast array of ingredients to make one. If you pick up a ready-made beef burger in the supermarket and look at the packaging, it’s not unusual to see a long ingredients list. For example, here is the list from one of the leading brands of frozen beefburgers:
Ingredients: Beef (77%), Fresh Onion (14%), Beef Fat, Salt, Water, Onion Powder, Yeast Extract, Spices, Rosemary Extract, Rusk (Wheat Flour, Salt).
That’s one of the better ones. Take a look at some of the budget brands if you dare.
For a truly good burger, the ingredients list need only look like this:
Ingredients: Beef (100%)
You’ll note that there’s no seasoning listed there. More on that in a moment.
Now, when most people try making a burger at home, they’ll start with some minced beef. The problem with buying minced beef is that it’s a bit hit and miss. For a start, you don’t know what part of the animal it is from – it’s usually a mixture of various offcuts, and so the flavour is often rather indeterminate. And texture? Well commercial minces are often best described as “mushy”. The resulting burger invariably has a smooth homogenous texture and as a result is fairly uninteresting. None of these are good things if we want to make a quality burger. You can, of course, mince your own beef, but that only makes for a modest improvement. A better way to prepare meat for a burger is to chop it finely with a sharp knife – the resulting burger retains a good texture. There’s an excellent article over on the Serious Eats: A Hamburger Today blog that looks closely at the different ways to prepare your meat. It’s well worth a read.
But what cut of beef should you use? Well, that’s a good question. I often use something like rump steak, but there are many choices and the folk over at Serious Eats have a good piece on explaining the different cuts. In fact, the folk over at Serious Eats have lots of good information on making burgers. It’s well worth checking out their Burger Lab posts. For example, I strongly recommend you read their post on shaping burgers, and remember when I said earlier that we’d talk more about seasoning your burgers? Well, you really need to read what they say about salting your meat.
Make a beef burger. You should start with whole cuts of meat. The only tools you should use in preparation are a sharp knife and chopping board. The burger should be 100% beef.
You are free to serve the burger in whatever manner you choose. The use of buns, condiments and other accompaniments is left to your discretion.