Kenji Lopez-Alt is my go-to guy for all things hamburger. In his A Hamburger Today column on Serious Eats, he explores every aspect of burgers, from a survey of hamburger styles (pub, fast food, slider, extreme, stacked, steakhouse, and more), to a compilation of recipes on the ground meat theme, to investigations of facts and rumors surrounding America’s most popular sandwich.
When Kenji posted on sous-vide burgers last summer, I vowed to take his guidelines and adapt them to our style. And after a dreary couple of rainy and cold months, with the barbeque a sad, neglected thing as a result, now seems like the time.
Pam and I got together on yet another drizzly day and went to work. We decided to forego grinding our own meat or buying special burger blends. Instead, we opted for a taste test comparing ground grass-fed bison (buffalo) and higher-fat beef chuck in a chili grind. (We can usually buy the latter out of the meat case at our local Whole Foods, but most butchers will grind it for you; it’s coarser than standard ground beef.)
Other variations would be hand seal vs machine seal of the cooking pouches, skillet-searing vs propane torch for finishing, and rare vs medium rare for doneness.
The winners? Well, the beef got the most votes for flavor, although Pam, who’s a fan of bison, said these were the juiciest buffalo burgers she’d tasted. But there’s something about the mouth feel of the beef that we all preferred — although that may be the result of a lifetime of beef burgers as much as anything.
Hand sealing the food bags using the water displacement method resulted in an airier, more evenly shaped patty; the vacuum sealer compacted the meat and sort of flattened it.
The biggest surprise was the browning method. I assumed that using a propane torch would cook the meat less than searing it in a cast-iron pan, but the latter was much more successful. About 45 seconds per side in a super-hot skillet did the trick. And it’s the only way to go if you want cheese on your burger (or, at least cheese that’s not ice cold).
Finally, we all thought the rare burgers were far superior to the medium-rare versions. Visually there’s not a huge difference between the two, but in terms of juiciness, there was no comparison. The meat was so tasty, most of us skipped our usual condiments and just garnished the burgers with a little mayo.
So, here’s our take on the perfect sous vide hamburger, with many thanks to Kenji for showing us the way. It couldn’t be simpler, and the results are delicious. If it’s not quite barbeque weather yet where you live, give ‘em a try!
- Preheat the water bath to 124°F (51°C) for rare, 131°F (55°C) for medium rare. (Note: Undercooked ground beef should not be served to susceptible or immune-compromised people. Minimize the time between removing the meat from refrigeration and serving to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination.)
- Divide the meat into four 8-ounce portions and shape into patties about 4¼ inches wide by 1 inch thick, handling as little as possible. Season with salt. Place each patty into a separate quart-size zip-lock freezer bag and seal using the water displacement method.
- Cook for 30 minutes.
- Carefully remove patties from the bags and pat dry with paper towels. Place a large cast-iron skillet over high heat until very hot, about 5 minutes. Add a tablespoon of oil, then add the burgers and sear 45 seconds. Turn the patties, adding cheese if desired, and sear the second side for an additional 45 seconds. Transfer to toasted buns, garnish with condiments of your choice, and serve.