SAN JOSE, Calif. -- There are burgers - and then there are burgers.
The ones that make you channel a steamy Kate Upton cheeseburger commercial, moaning with every bite as juices and condiments run down your arms and some wiseacre at the next table says, "I'll have what she's having."
But burgers at home rarely attain those ecstatic heights - or rather, they don't if you've peeled a preformed patty off a frozen chub and then slammed the spatula-squelched meat between supermarket buns.
So we turned to experts, chefs known for their burger prowess - including Hubert Keller from Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar, Adam Fleischman from Umami Burger, Amy Murray from Revival Bar+Kitchen and Elena Duggan, whose Original Joe's burgers have used the same foolproof recipe since 1937.
Lest you fret that we're about to share tips on grilling some precious creation made from foie gras and gently massaged buffalo flesh from Saturn, rest assured, we asked some experts for help in crafting the perfect classic burger with the following guidelines: No esoteric meats. No wild yeast buns or molecular gastronimified anything. And no time-killers remotely resembling British chef Heston Blumenthal's recipe for the "perfect burger," which takes 30 hours and 4 minutes.
Relax, they said. It's ridiculously easy, but you'll need to leave those prefabbed patties behind.
A burger is only as good as the meat, said Fleischman, owner of Umami Burger, the wildly popular Los Angeles burger chain that opened a branch in San Francisco earlier this year and is due to add an Oakland, Calif., outpost by the end of 2012.
The pros spend a lot of time sourcing high-quality meat - both Murray and Hugh Groman, of Berkeley's Phil's Sliders, are partial to Marin Sun Farms' grass-fed beef, for example - but the grinding and shaping determine whether you're going to serve a beautifully textured burger or a hockey puck.
Go light on the seasoning, Fleischman said, "Put stuff on them after they're cooked, not before." And don't abuse the poor things. Flip them once for "better sear and caramelization."
It's a mantra echoed by every chef we talked to: freshly ground, good quality meat with enough fat - 20-30 percent - to keep it juicy. And be gentle.
"Give it the same attention and respect as you would a nice rib-eye or New York steak," Keller said. "At $20, $30 a pound, you are taking care of it, making sure everything is right. We should have the same approach. I treat it like my baby."
Despite what you've seen in the supermarket freezer aisle, real burgers are not made from hard-packed meat, Murray said. Freshly ground meat is light and fluffy, and you can't retain that texture by unleashing your inner caveman while shaping the patties.
"Act like you're a 90-year-old grandmother - delicate, quiet, shhh," she said. "Don't pack it, smack it, push it, threaten it. You see people flip-flip-smash-smash and you see all that good juice running to the side of the pan."
In Keller's words: "With the spatula you kill it twice."
Don't flip the meat a million times, either. In fact, just once is good. Groman suspects people get bored waiting for the meat to cook and just start aimlessly flipping. Leave the meat alone, he said. Think about something else - like the beauty of fries. Once the meat is done, let it rest off the grill for a few minutes "and the juices start being distributed evenly," Keller said.
Use that time to toast the beautiful buns you picked up, too - the ones that came from an actual bakery, not a polka-dotted plastic bag on a supermarket shelf - and get your condiments ready.
For Groman, whose little sliders were inspired by both In-N-Out and the burgers at Berkeley's Cafe Rouge, his secret sauce owes a passing nod to, yes, McDonald's. Except the Phil's Sliders' sauce uses fresh tomatoes, caramelized onions, pickle relish, mayonnaise and, Groman confides, "a little chipotle for spice."
"I wanted something that really evoked the classic burger taste - something organic," he said.
As for those moans and ecstatic sighs, Rodney Worth hears them every day at Alamo's Peasant's Courtyard, home to The Rodzilla.
It's a towering creation of an Angus burger, fine-ground as if for meatballs, gently hand-shaped, grilled and encased in a soft pillowy bun. It's festooned with crispy fried onions and drizzled with a cabernet barbecue sauce. And with all those layers, all that moisture and juiciness, it should be a big, soggy mess.
Ah, it's all about the layering, says the man who loves burgers so much, he snaps photos of them and keeps them in his iPhone.
First the toasty bottom of the bun, then the lettuce to protect the bread. Tomato slices go next, to protect the lettuce from the hot patty - which has rested after coming off the grill - then the meat, the onions and everything else.
"A burger," he said, "is a piece of art."
We'll have what he's having.
The Perfect Burger
1. Using good quality meat with a high fat ratio, 20-30 percent, form thick patties, using a gentle hand.
2. Heat the grill (or cast iron pan or griddle) until very hot. Season the patties with salt and pepper, and place them on the grill. Do not press them with a spatula or touch them for 3-4 minutes.
3. Flip the patties. (If they don’t want to loosen from the grill, they’re not ready to be flipped. Let them cook another minute and try again.) Let them cook another 3-4 minutes, undisturbed.
4. Add cheese and let it melt a little. Then remove the patties to a plate, tent with foil and let them rest for 2-3 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, toast the buns.
6. Build your burger: Place the bottom half of the bun on a plate, top with lettuce, then tomatoes and then the patty. Add any additional condiments or special sauce, and top with the upper bun half.
DIY ground beef
The best restaurants and burger joints grind their own meat fresh daily. But there are ways to do it yourself, and, as Hubert Keller points out, “It’s nice to know what’s really in that meat.”
Keller suggests simply going to a butcher shop or the butcher counter at Whole Foods, for example. Choose a piece of chuck and ask them to grind it while you wait.
Umami Burger’s Adam Fleischman suggests buying steaks from Costco and using a food processor to grind your own. You can also use a KitchenAid mixer with a grinding attachment.
“For this DIY economy, I think it’s a fun thing to do,” Amy Murray said. “Go to the farmers market, buy some nice fresh meat - sirloin and the fattiest piece of chuck – and cut it into cubes. Refrigerate it so it will grind better.”