Hamburger Science: Why I Will Probably Never Eat At Another Burger Joint (Unless Starvation Calls For Desperate Measures)

If you were asked to name the ultimate American food or fast food on the game show “Family Feud”, there’s no doubt that hamburgers will probably be the top survey answer. Perhaps to the food amateur, he/she will be looking for the ground “ham” component from the burger patty even though the former is a slab of salt/sugar-cured pork while the latter comes from minced beef chuck. Hamburger was actually a German word coined after the city of Hamburg which served as an important Russian trade center of steak tartare (but that’s another recipe) during the last century of the Holy Roman Empire.

Even before I became a Julia Child fan, I had this curiosity on preparing and cooking hamburger patties. Most people consider the simplicity of its preparation because you just mix ground beef, onions, salt and pepper and fry them on a thin film of oil. Voilà! You have a burger!!! One of my friends gave me an account that her mom used to prepare hamburger patties before but they had a tendency to contract even before cooking that you don’t get your appetite’s worth at all. I had also made several food trips in the Philippines (where I come from) to search for the best burger joint. I even watched an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show just to find out the The Top Ten Best Burgers in the U.S. (If my memory serves me right, the best burger in America comes from a sirloin burger joint somewhere in Chicago)

Aside from simplicity, students like myself take into account the cost of a homemade burger versus a burger ordered from a fast food chain or restaurant. Assuming you don’t have to pay any state tax, service charge or value-added tax from your restaurant bill, the cost will still be at least thrice the price of making your own hamburger sandwich from the convenience of your own home.  But, here comes a big (and all-caps) BUT!!! Advantages of simplicity and cost obviously compromise the ideal flavor, texture and taste. The patties greatly contract even before frying as mentioned above. They dry up by losing their juices upon frying. No matter how iconic the hamburger is to U.S. culture, Americans (no offense) have probably underestimated its simplicity. So where does the problem lie? Lipid/fat biochemistry.

Fat inside the ground beef works two ways. Being hydrophobic or water-fearing, the presence of fat retains the moisture and juices inside the meat, therefore slowing down the dehydration/contraction process. It also adds flavor to the meat during heat-induced hydrolysis and/or oxidative cleavage.  However, if fat degradation takes place at a faster rate before or during cooking, then dehydration will occur quickly too because water is less trapped due to reduced fat levels. To solve this problem, fat content of the meat is increased by adding sour cream, thus, keeping your meat swollen and moist during cooking. This is the scientific basis behind Julia Child’s hamburger recipe from The Way To Cook.

I have a confession to make. I was pretty unsure of what might happen while I was preparing the entire hamburger meat based on Julia Child’s recipe. It turns out the result was awesome. The patty itself was so thick and fat as seen on both pictures. If you ask me about the taste, it was juicy and mouth-watering that I have to fry another patty to satiate my appetite. Honestly (and I don’t mean to brag), the burger was a lot better than the burger joints here in the U.S. or those from the Philippines. Also, if you are cutting costs, hamburger is probably the practical way to go. I finished the entire hamburger meat for 6-7 dinner meals at an estimated total cost of 10 USD. That’s spending around 1.50 USD for one night of fine dining without sipping a glass of red wine.

Now that’s a HAMBURGER!!!

Burger Patty Recipe (taken from “The Way To Cook” by Julia Child)

1 1/2 pounds (681 g) of ground beef
1 egg
2 tablespoons of onion, grated
2 tablespoons of sour cream
1 teaspoon of thyme (fresh or dry) or Italian seasoning
Cooking oil

1. In a large bowl, season the ground beef with egg, grated onion, sour cream, thyme, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
2. Divide them in any way you want to and shape them into round patties.
3. Film the frying pan with cooking oil under moderately high heat.
4. As the pan undergoes heating, lightly dredge each side of patty with flour. Fry each patty two minutes in one side and two minutes on the other.
5. If hamburger is squashy, then it is rare. Once the meat starts to bounce when pressing with a turner or your finger, it is medium rare. The hamburger patty is well done when it doesn’t bounce/spring back.


5 thoughts on “Hamburger Science: Why I Will Probably Never Eat At Another Burger Joint (Unless Starvation Calls For Desperate Measures)

    1. Hi CM!

      Here’s my advice regarding storage.

      You can cover the mixing bowl containing the hamburger meat with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Sometime during storage day 3 and storage day 4, if you take out the hamburger meat, you will find a small amount of “juice” at the bottom of the bowl – I strongly think they are from the water-soluble phase of the sour cream. Not to worry though because it’s not yet spoiled. What you can do is before you shape them into patties, mix them again with the meat. You will have to do this over and over every time you will be having a hamburger. =)

    2. What I usually do for burgers is portion them already. Then roll into spheres and flatten them to your desired thickness. (2cm would be great.)
      Then wrap each one loosely in clingwrap or aluminum foil. You can then freeze these. That way, you only thaw the ones you need when you want to eat them.

    3. Here is also another thing regarding storage of ground meat. I got this when I visited our neighbor/family friend several years ago to watch her make Shanghai-style dumplings. The longer the meat is stored in the refrigerator, the juicier it is when cooked.

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