As a way of introduction, I thought this might help you to know where I’m coming from when I’m reviewing a hamburger. These are ten rules that I believe anyone who serves a burger should live by:
1) Thou shall only use high quality beef that has been ground fresh.
Do I even need to elaborate? Grinding quality beef on site results in a tastier burger that can be safely cooked to rare, since you know where the beef is coming from — unlike industrially-produced ground beef, which could come from multiple cows and potentially have been washed with ammonia(!…!!!).
2) Thou shall never serve a frozen, industrially-produced patty.
This seems like such a no-brainer that I shouldn’t even have to include it — yet here we are. I can see if a place like Swiss Chalet serves a frozen burger, because obviously their specialty is chicken, and a hamburger is only present to fill out the menu. I can’t imagine that Swiss Chalet serves more than a burger or two per night (though even then, a fresh hamburger is so easy to prepare that this is barely an acceptable excuse).
But if your establishment has the word “burger” in its name and you’re still serving a frozen burger? Seriously, just pack it in right now. You’re a waste of space. Johnny’s, I’m looking at you.
3) Thou shall not use beef that is too lean.
This is especially important in Toronto, where there is a “law” that hamburgers must be cooked well past medium (whether or not this is a law or merely a guideline is a matter of some debate). A hamburger needs a decent amount of fat (the conventional wisdom is somewhere in the ballpark of 20 percent) for maximum deliciousness and juiciness. There’s nothing worse than biting into what should be a tasty burger only to realize that it’s about as juicy as a stale saltine. A burger with a decent fat content, even when cooked to well done, should remain reasonably juicy. An overcooked, too-lean hamburger is a crime against humanity. It sucks all the moisture out of your mouth and makes you question why you like burgers in the first place.
4) Thou shall not overcook the burger.
This ties in with the above. Nothing can save an overcooked burger. Nothing.
5) Thou shall season your hamburger with salt and pepper — nothing else.
If you’re using good quality beef — and you should be — then all you need is a little salt and pepper to help highlight the beefiness of the patty, and you’re good to go. No other flavours are necessary (aside from condiments, of course). That brings me to…
5) Thou shall not mix onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, and/or any kind of spices into your hamburger.
It is almost absurd how many burger joints in Toronto break this commandment. A hamburger is the definition of simplicity, with only two primary ingredients: beef (seasoned with salt and pepper), and bun. That’s it. Once you start adding aggressive flavours like onion, garlic, and strong spices, you completely overwhelm that primal beefiness that makes a good hamburger so appealing. What you end up with is more akin to a meatloaf sandwich than a real hamburger. Plus, the texture of the burger often winds up disconcertingly sausage-like (probably because, among other spices, salt has been mixed in with the beef — a hamburger no-no)
6) Thou shall not use a bun that is larger in diameter than the patty, nor shall you use a bun that is so large and/or bready that it overwhelms the beef, throwing off the beef-to-bun ratio.
The bun is there to compliment the beef, not vice-versa. No exceptions. A thinner patty can easily be overwhelmed by a too-big bun, which is a sure-fire way to ruin what should otherwise be a delicious hamburger.
7) Thou shall not automatically call any small hamburger a slider.
A slider is not simply a tiny hamburger; it’s actually a very specific way of preparing a hamburger, generally by cooking a very thin patty atop a bed of sauteed onions, allowing the burger and bun to essentially cook by steam. Real sliders are most notably served at American chains like White Castle and Krystal.
Its diminutive size is merely one element of what makes a slider a slider — not its defining characteristic.
9) Thou shall only use beef.
Turkey “burgers.” Buffalo “burgers.” Lamb “burgers.” Tuna “burgers.” All interesting, potentially delicious meals. And all not hamburgers. Calling a sandwich made with buffalo meat a hamburger would be like calling a sandwich made with cashew butter and sliced strawberries a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s similar, sure, but it’s not the same thing. At all.
10) Thou shall serve burgers immediately after cooking, and not allow them to sit out under a heat lamp, or in those weird drawers they have at McDonald’s.
(Allowing, of course, for the patty to rest for a few minutes for the juices to settle.) Again, this is a simple one: fresh food = good, stale food = bad. I would much, much rather wait a few minutes than be served some burger that’s been sitting under a lamp for who-knows-how-long.