Welcome to a new frontier: a Bang for your Burger Buck recipe. I had been mulling over how to jump into the recipe game without going all Smitten Kitchen on you for more than a minute. I would say the timing was perfect when OK! Magazine reached out to me for a recipe. It just so happened that I was working on my soon to be posted Shake Shack edition and had come across their excellent bacon cheeseburger, the SmokeShack. If you know this blog you know that I usually lambast the addition of bacon as a misallocation of precious burger funds. Why not spend that money on more beef? Well in the case of Shake Shack, we find a truly delicious exception to the rule. The bacon is perfectly cooked and is of a complimentary quality to the special proprietary beef blend Shake Shack uses, in other words it ain’t Hormel. But what really gets my noggin spinning is the spicy pickled cherry pepper spread. It provides a remarkable counterbalance to the overall richness of the bacon, beef and cheese. Now I love spicy pickled things. It doesn’t take a Stephen Hawking to tell you that it’s part of my Indian DNA, hell it might read giardiniera as some sort of chutney. And pickled cherry peppers are no strangers to the chambers in my fridge. Weeks earlier I happened to be toying with an aioli spiked with spicy pickled cherry peppers and well, timing right? So now you know how we got here, let’s talk about what we are going to make.
Cherry Pepper Aioli
I’m going to assume that your life is as hectic as mine with a 4 year old kid, a 9 year old newly adopted dog, a wife who wakes up at 5am and works till 5pm every day and a guy who just launched a new series for the Cooking Channel. So let’s start with that Cherry Pepper aioli because it can easily be made in advance.
For the record, aioli is mayonnaise spiked with garlic. The fast and simple method of preparation is to use store bought mayonnaise, as I have done here. Making your own mayonnaise using a raw egg(or pasteurized) is definitely a next level move, on effort and satisfaction. I’d like to do it more but I often settle for elevating my store bought mayo with a nice olive oil. I use a Spanish Extra Virgin from Costco that costs $9 for a liter – that’s about as cheap as it gets without dipping below extra virgin all together. In addition to the cherry peppers you see, I also add a tablespoon of the pickling liquid from the jar in lieu of vinegar(as is the protocol in other aioli recipes).
I start with the solids and the olive oil and pulse till I see a rough chop. Some of my favorite sauces EVER are made in a food processor or blender like chimichurri, Italian Salsa Verde and of course aioli but it is so easy to over emulsify. Remember that you are going to add mayonnaise in and that will require additional mixing. This is post mayonnaise after no more than 10 hits on the pulse button:
To each their own but I love seeing the semi intact pieces of pepper in the aioli, it makes for some bites with character. Oh and so you know – this sauce is EPIC on a roast beef or steak sandwich.
As I noted above, Shake Shack’s bacon cheeseburger is a win because the bacon is well cooked and of good quality. On the topic of cookery, let me first share the pro hint I picked up on at Shake Shack: they cook their bacon in advance. Bacon does not have to be piping hot when served on a burger – the beef and cheese will warm that swine right up. But it does have to be crisp. Now that doesn’t mean burnt either. My latest technique is a constant flip on medium/medium low heat. And I always place my bacon on a paper towel lined plate when 90% done because they will continue to cook after they have departed the pan. Speaking of pans, yeah, my call is always the cast iron skillet and that goes with burgers too. On the topic of bacon quality, that starts with a good thick cut. You can go get a nitrate free/organic/ second coming from Niman Ranch, but if it’s thin, it will burn too easily and provide little substance in a burger with thick patties. Oh and speaking of those . . .
Great homemade burgers start with good ground beef. Avoid those prepackaged packets of ground beef that are compressed by plastic wrap, it’s a texture killer. Shelling out for ground sirloin ain’t the move either as it is too lean and will dry out faster on a grill than you can say “where’s the lighter fluid?”. In a perfect world I would grind my own beef but I clean enough dishes, and scrubbing beef fat off a food processor blade is about as fun as getting audited by the IRS. This is your best case ground beef scenario: pick up some ground chuck from the butcher’s case at the supermarket. That beef hasn’t been compressed like the pink loaves over in the do it yourself bin, and it’s the same price too.
Now your standard ground chuck is a meat to fat ratio of 80 to 20. This means there is a fair amount of fat, and fat is your friend when it comes to burgers. If you’re looking for a healthy burger, do me a favor and don’t sacrifice flavor; limit the beef and turkey and try tuna – but hey, that’s a recipe for another time. Now because there is a good amount of fat, you must keep in mind that these burgers will shrink a bit – especially if you cook them to 160 degrees(medium well). This was a little over 2lbs of beef that yielded 4 hamburger patties. Over half a pound sounds huge for a burger, and these finished nice and thick, but keep in mind that unlike you, the burgers will lose weight over the course of the next 30 minutes. Seasoning is as simple as it gets: Kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper. And as far has handling the beef, less is more: over worked beef gives a burger a meatloaf feel. You may have noticed the small indentation in the middle of the patties; this is to prevent the burger from contracting. Nothing is worse than making a burger patty perfectly proportioned to your pricey but worth it hamburger bun and have the burger shrink at the edges. Now about those pricey hamburger buns . . .
I feel pretentious as hell typing this, but the buns I chose are called Pain Au Lait. They come with a fancy French baking pedigree, which means they destroy the standard 8 pack of buns you see at backyard BBQs, but they are just a little less rich than Brioche; those burger buns that practically drip with butter. For the record, I got no problem with Brioche, or anything else dripping with butter. But when you are trying to bookend a bacon cheeseburger, less is more. The best rule of thumb in choosing your hamburger bun is head to a bakery, even the one at the supermarket, and score something that was made day of, if possible. It’s easy to sleep on bread when making any sandwich at home, but don’t – the best burger joints take the bun as serious as the beef and so should you.
My all time favorite green is arugula but spicy and herbaceous didn’t strike me as the right flavor profile for a bacon cheeseburger. Iceberg, a more neutral flavor and the most commonly used lettuce on a burger, has far too much stem, and frankly a perfect burger bite should not share the same sensation as chomping into raw celery. Shake Shack uses green leaf lettuce, which is a fine call on the stem issue but the stuff I came across at my supermarket was just not looking up to snuff. The baby romaines were looking up to snuff and much like the above stated bun mantra: go with the best greens you can get your hands on. It’s also a reminder of how important it is to try and make it out to a Farmer’s Market, because like buns, pro burger spots don’t skimp on produce and neither should you.
This is the Smoke Shack from Shake Shack in all her glory, and my source of inspiration.
One could certainly go thinner with the burger patty but this version was built around the bun I was able to procure, and my love of burgers served medium rare. Whether you choose a thinner scenario or not, you will find that the spice, vinegar and garlic from the aioli makes for a dynamic bacon cheeseburger experience. Happy cooking and be sure to serve with plenty of napkins at the ready!!