Whenever I’m out at a restaurant wondering whether or not to order the cheeseburger that’s inevitably been included on the menu, I follow a simple rule: the classier the joint I’m in, the rule says, the worse the burger will be. It never misses. More-upscale restaurants, especially those aiming to project a certain air of bohemian chic, feel obligated for some reason to overdo things. The result is always ludicrous. Thus at the prototypical Calling-All-Hipsters Modern American Bar & Bistro, your cheeseburger will arrive sitting on an oversized, organic, (and likely stale) multi-grain roll that has an Italian-sounding name, and will be garnished with things like avocado, capers, and slices of hard-boiled egg. The patty itself will almost certainly be too large, too lean, and will be a pain in the neck to pick up. If there is ketchup available, it will be house-made and not nearly as good as Heinz. And don’t even think about asking for American cheese. The entire package will be virtually inedible. So, trust me, stick with the short ribs and couscous.
By telling contrast, every time I’ve had a cheeseburger at a diner or luncheonette anywhere here in the tri-state area, the result has almost always been sensational.
Moral of story: when it comes to making cheeseburgers, stick to the essentials. My pal Curt Townshend commented to me one day awhile back, for instance, that the key to a good burger is the roll it’s served on. He’s right, of course. The roll’s job in the project is to aid in the delivery of the burger to your mouth, and beyond that, stay in the background and not kick up a ruckus. To me (Curt, too), that means it should be fresh and not doughy, with a soft crust rather than a hard one. It should also toast nicely. Which is to say, you could do worse than Pepperidge Farm.
As to the meat, more fat is better than less. You might, I suppose, select a variety of cuts and grind your own beef, the way the cooking magazines are endlessly needling you to do, but that violates the spirit of cooking burgers in the first place. If you’re going to put that much time and effort into a cookout, just throw some sirloins on the grill and be done with it. Cheese? Nothing melts like American. (Oh, stop making that face and be a little broad-minded.) Brie, Monterey jack, and cheddar will also work.
But the real key to serving a truly creditable cheeseburger, in my experience, is the logistics of its construction. It is the closest thing the home-style grillmaster has to putting together a General-Patton-style order of battle. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Indoor Prep.
First, make your patties (4-7 ounces; no exceptions). Ground chuck works best. Put the patties on a large platter. Spread mayonnaise on the inner halves of your hamburger rolls. (Yes, mayo, not butter. Butter burns too easily.) Place the rolls on the platter, too. Count out your cheese slices and put them on the platter, as well. Lay your spatula over everything. If you are feeding very many people at all, this will by now be a very crowded platter. Keeping your wits about you, carefully carry it out to your grill.
Step 2: The Grilling.
First, toast the buns. Over a medium fire, place the buns on the grill mayo-side down and watch them like a hawk. The time it takes to go from an attractive, homey toastiness to total incineration is measured in nanoseconds. As each roll half browns to your taste, put it back on the platter. When they’re all done, stack the bottoms in one pile on the platter and the tops in another.
Now to grilling. Place the patties in the center of your grill. As the burgers cook, quickly arrange the roll bottoms in a row on the platter and roll tops in another alongside, so that they’ll be ready when the time comes. As soon as you see burgers’ juices start to bubble up, flip them. Let cook for 1-2 more minutes, place a slice of cheese (or two) on each burger, and lower the grill’s cover to allow cheese to melt. That should take another minute or so. Don’t be shy about checking. When cheese is melted to your liking, place each burger on a roll’s waiting bottom half and cover with a top.
Not so simple right? As to garnishes, the logic behind the default of lettuce and tomato has always eluded me. All the tomato does is soggify the bun, while the lettuce doesn’t provide near enough crispy contrast. Try pickle slices instead or, if you don’t like pickles, cucumber slices with a few torn basil leaves and a turn of pepper mill. You will be pleased.