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The Science of a Better Burger

By mahir | June 7, 2011

Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography on flickr

Who doesn’t love a hamburger? A fresh, juicy patty of perfectly-grilled meat sandwiched between two soft buns, preferably with a side of fries is the perfect summertime treat. But can science build a better burger? 

Today the New York Times profiled Nathan Myhrvold’s research on the science of cooking the perfect hamburger. Mr. Myhrvold is a former Microsoft chief technology officer and a contributor to the recently published six-volume cookbook, “Modernist Cuisine”, which offers an unprecedented look at technologically-enhanced cooking.

Both scientific cooks like Mr. Myhrvold and classic chefs like Daniel Boulud maintain that the essential key to a great burger is the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is the chemical process undergone by foods when they turn brown. In the case of a beef patty on a hot grill, heat from the surface of the grill interacts with the sugars and proteins in the meat and browns the burger, binding the meat together and producing molecules that are delicious to most human taste buds.

“The great challenge in a burger is to create the Maillard flavors on the outside while keeping the inside fairly pink. Gray meat is tasteless and tough because you’ve broken down the proteins without breaking down the collagen,” said Mr. Myhrvold.

Here’s how Mr. Myrhvold attains that perfectly juicy, tasty burger: liquid nitrogen. He suggests that the best way to create a burger that’s browned on the outside and pink on the inside is to first cook it sous vide (in a sealed plastic bag immersed in water) for about a half hour, then dip the burger in liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds to freeze the outer surface of the meat. He finishes it off by deep-frying the patty in 450-degree oil.  While this method may attain the perfect Maillard reaction, it’s not really practical for home cooks, yet.

The lesson is: season and sear your burger well! Creating that delicious crust on the outside of the burger is one of the reasons we keep ordering this century-old take on a sandwich again and again.  For a great burger, check out this video for one of my favorite basic recipes. Or, if don’t feel like cooking tonight, explore this list of the Five Best Burgers in NYC!

Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography on flickr

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