In Part 1 of PAT PILCHER’s great burger exposé, top burger chefs reveal their secrets while he fills his face with the best burgers in town.
Burgers. I’d long wondered just why a bought burger so often tasted just that much better than what I could whip up at home. With this on my mind, I embarked on a burger odyssey to track down some of Wellington’s tastiest burgers, to boldly go where no burger addict had gone before and to interview chefs about what goes into a great burger. It turns out that the answer to a great burger isn’t really that complicated.
Gorilla Burger: The Kong
The first burger joint I visit was Gorilla Burgers. They’re a perennial Wellingtonian favourite. I visited their food truck, tucked away in Leeds St (next to Fortune Favours Brewery).
I sampled the ‘Kong’. Its a beast of a burger, consisting of two grass-fed smashed beef patties, smoked beef brisket, gooey melted cheddar, sauce, pickles, onion and Sweet n’ Smoky BBQ sauce. It might sound like an Empire State Building-climbing brute, but the Kong was utterly delicious. While it was packed full, it wasn’t too heavy. The bun to beef ratio meant I wasn’t stodged out by too much bread while the beef/brisket combination was tasty. The hit of acidity I got from the pickles and the sweet and smokey sauces made for a very satisfying eat indeed.
Despite it being a brutally cold and wintry Wellington day, the Gorilla team were flat out with lunchtime business.
Their chef and owner Ollie shared some tips for what he reckons makes a great burger. He says keeping it focused is key: “Just focusing on a few items and making them shine, such as fresh beef, soft buns, good pickles (crucial) and a great sauce (or two)”.
He also reckons there are three flavours to balance: “Salt, fat and acid. Put those three together in the right quantities and you can’t go wrong”.
Not overcooking the patty is key too: “Don’t overwork the beef, just form it enough to hold together. Particularly if you’re doing smashed burgers, overworking the patties will cause it to shrink. I’m not a fan of massive beef patties. A 200g patty is unnecessary, the outside will be overcooked and dry before the centre is where it needs to be, and the longer cooking causes shrinkage, and no one wants that. Just stack smaller, evenly cooked patties on top of each other if you want a bigger burger!”
The other secret he reckons is: “Use good quality beef and treat it like a steak. Season on the grill so the salt doesn’t draw out the moisture”.
Last (but by no means least), is the bun. “The patty to bun ratio is important. You don’t want to get to the last bite and have just a mouthful of bread. A burger should be consistent the whole way through”.
Grill Meats Beer: GMB Classic Beef Burger
One of Wellington’s best known fine dining establishments, Logan Brown, might not be a place you’d equate with burgers, but they’re the driving force behind Grill Meats Beer on Cuba St.
Chef/partner Shaun Clouston says Grill Meats Beer came about because “there were already great bars and great restaurants but at the time not a mix of the two. And GMB was created six years ago.”
Clouston knows a thing or three about great food, and based on the GMB Classic Beef burger I sampled, he also knows what makes a great burger. As well as being one of the owners of Logan Brown/Grill Meats Beer, he has been Logan Brown’s head chef for 20 years.
When I first spoke to him, he said their burgers were tasty. He really wasn’t kidding, it was better than tasty, it was close to perfect. The GMG Classic Beef Burger I sampled was satisfying – but not too heavy. The beef to bun ratio was perfect, every mouthful rewarded. It wasn’t greasy or too dry. It wasn’t messy – no sauces squirted with each bite. Most important of all, it was tasty.
Clouston says that there are a few things that separate an average burger from one that’s spectacular. “It’s pretty simple really. Fresh quality ingredients. Cooked well and served with care. I am sure you have eaten at many places as I have and the offering is average at best. I was once told this is because ‘zero fucks are given!'”
Clouston’s views on what people often get wrong with making their own burgers often comes from “not having all your ingredients prepped in advance”. He says another common burger bungle happens with the cooking. Common mistakes can include “overcooking your pattie to within an inch of its life, not toasting your bun.”
Like Ollie from Gorilla Burgers, Couston places serious emphasis on a good pattie. “The secret to a great meat pattie is the quality meat that goes into it, ground yourself and seasoned with a little salt and pepper. Not too much of a secret”.
The LBQ Burger: Little Beer Quarter
The third and final stop on my Wellington burger odyssey was Little Beer Quarter, which is known as LBQ by locals. It serves a huge range of the many craft beers Wellington has an abundance of, and most important of all, it does wickedly delish burgers.
I tried their trademark LBQ burger, a glorious concoction of chuck and brisket custom blended into a tasty patty, onion rings, lettuce (which adds freshness and crunch), pickles (for a nice acid hit to balance the patty), bacon (salt which balances out the slightly sweet Kansas City-style BBQ sauce), aioli and American cheddar. It was an incredibly satisfying bite.
According to Stacey Walsh, owner of LBQ, “the Little Beer Quarter came about because we found a great spot, 6 Edward Street, with a great history. It was Champerelle’s and Tupelo. We wanted to create something special there for craft beer. LBQ was one of Wellington’s first craft beer bars and remains one of the few true free houses.”
Stacey reckons balance is key to making a great burger, which involves “Creative twists on classic flavour combinations and a good level of seasoning and balance… They need a good amount of sour, sweet and saltiness.” Sauces also play a key role. “A burger needs a couple of good sauces. We aren’t stingy on the sauces, always include a good relish and garlicky aioli or mustard.”
If that’s what the experts reckon makes a great burger, what are the rookie mistakes most home chefs make when crafting their own burgers?
One of the biggest rookie mistakes according to Ollie from Gorilla Burgers is trying to be too clever. “Overcomplicating the patty is always a big one. Adding eggs, breadcrumbs, ketchup to the meat isn’t necessary”.
His sentiments were echoed by Shaun who says use “quality ground mince. A little salt and pepper and gently form into a pattie. If you overwork or mix the patties will become tough and dry.”
Getting the balance right between ingredients or overcooking are the most common rookie mistakes, says Stacey. “The wrong bun to fillings ratio, overcooking the patty so it shrinks. Not creating the right balance of fillings and sauces. “
Part 2 of Pat’s Great Burger Odyssey, where he takes the expert advice to create the ultimate homemade cheeseburger, is right here.