How to build a better burger

How to build a better burger

When chef Jeff Klucas created Studio’s Restaurant & Pub’s first menu this year, he wanted to anchor the sandwich section with a cheeseburger guests would identify exclusively with the New Albany, Ind., eatery. After a few experiments, the result was a burger tangled up in blue and bacon.

McDonald’s [3] has it’s Big Mac, so we decided the Stuffed Blue Burger would be ours,” Klucas says of the $7.75 sandwich.

Of the 8-ounce patty’s heft, three ounces come from blue cheese and bacon.

“Most places just stuff it in the middle, like a jelly donut,” he says. “But in ours, you’re going to get some cheese and bacon in every bite.”

The fact that Klucas would select a cheese-laden burger as his signature comes as no surprise to George Motz, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based filmmaker who produced the documentary, “Hamburger America,” in 2005 after years of researching the quintessential American sandwich.

From chef Daniel [4] Boulud’s truffle-and-foie-gras-laden burger topped with toasted Parmesan to far more pedestrian burger creations, chefs are pushing the envelope with burger toppings—and cheeses of all kinds continually rise to the top of the list.

“It’s clearly the trend to go crazy with burgers, to do the weirdest thing,” says Motz, who followed his film with a book by the same name in 2008. “But there’s no doubt people are having a lot of fun with cheeses. That’s where you see a lot of experiments.”

Like Klucas, Michael Napoli also works cheese directly into the meat for burgers he serves as chef-owner of Gourmet Burger Bistro [5] in Port Jefferson, N.Y.

“When you do that, that cheese permeates the burger and gives it another depth of flavor,” Napoli says.

The restaurant’s Stuffed Blue Cheese Burger, $10.55, also is marinated in Peter Luger steak sauce before grilling. Meat for its Tuscan Burger, $10.95, is blended with Gorgonzola, parsley and onion that, after grilling, is finished with prosciutto and fontina.

“That’s what we do: make premium burgers,” Napoli says. “We’re bringing burgers to a whole new level.”

Top topping choice

Using cheese to elevate the classic burger, however, may be a relatively new development in the century-or-so life of the hamburger. Historian Motz believes the addition of cheese to the sandwich largely is a product of the 1970s. Before that time, when people ordered a hamburger, they expected meat, bread and minimal accoutrements. But today, “even if people ask for a hamburger, they expect cheese to be on there,” he says. “I’ve watched a lot of people eat burgers, and the old-timers almost never order cheese.”

The testimonies of multiple restaurateurs back his “cheese, please” claim. On average, operators interviewed said around 90 percent of all their hamburgers sold are cloaked in cheese. Susan Lintonsmith, chief marketing officer for Greenwood Village [6], Colo.-based Red Robin Gourmet Burgers [7], says 83 percent of the chain’s burger creations use cheese in their ingredient lineup, though customers often add more.

“Easily 98 percent of the burgers we sell have cheese,” Napoli says.

Ken Brown, executive chef at The Counter [8] in Santa Monica, Calif., set the average at 90 percent.

“We will go through almost 120,000 pounds of cheese this year,” Brown says. “That’s a lot of cheese for eight restaurants.”

And that’s no ordinary cheese, Brown says. Despite the chain’s relatively tame but most popular cheese choice of Cheddar, The Counter sells a lot of Gruyère, blue and even horseradish-spiked Cheddar. To stand out among the many cheeseburger options offered by competitors, cheese choices can’t be mundane, adds Frank Scibelli, owner of Big Daddy’s Burger Bar [9] in Charlotte, N.C.

“I’m an ingredient freak, so I wanted to find the best cheeses I could for our burgers,” Scibelli says.

The average cost of a Big Daddy cheeseburger is around $9.

“I could not find what I thought was the best American cheese,” he says, “so I settled on a white Cheddar—not a tasting Cheddar, but a melting Cheddar.”

He also searched for a blue cheese to use, but found most “are too strong for a burger.” Other cheeses he settled on included Swiss, feta and habanero Jack.

Scibelli says he also tried stuffing his burgers with cheeses, but operational challenges nixed that. Long cook times were a problem with stuffed burgers, and blended ones tended to scorch on the flat-top grill.

“We use a really hot temperature so we can form a crust on the burger, so when the cheese was blended with the meat, it tended to scorch.”

Studio’s Klucas says his flame charbroiler doesn’t have that problem because the high heat achieves the crust required to retain the cheese within.

Cheese, this is expensive

Despite record dairy prices, operators keen on cutting cheeseburger costs are reluctant to cut corners on their cheese choices. Brown says prices for The Counter’s Gruyère of choice have doubled over last year, but customers’ love for it will keep it on the menu. Customers also are allowed one cheese choice within the base price of every burger, dinging food costs again. So to absorb the increase, some Counters “took a small price increase.” The average cost of a cheeseburger at The Counter is $8.50.

The $10 average burger price at Gourmet Burger Bistro offers Napoli a wide profit margin. Also, David Malthaner, executive chef at Napa River Grill in Louisville, Ky., says when the restaurant moved to new digs in June, sales of its $12.95 burger—cheese choices range from blue, aged white Cheddar, baby mozzarella and goat cheese—shot up inexplicably. A high number of requests for blue cheese as opposed to milder options “kind of surprises me,” Malthaner says.

American’s No. 1, usually

Motz chuckles when telling stories about watching others choose “gourmet” cheeses for burgers bought at nicer restaurants, when he believes they want American.

“It’s verboten to have American cheese on your burger in a nice place,” he says, “though everyone likes it on their burgers.”

That includes Motz, as well as the customers at Red Robin, where Lintonsmith says American is the top choice.

The Counter’s Brown believes an optimal cheeseburger cheese contains enough fat to melt smoothly and in a way that’s appealing both to the mouth and the eye. Since few cheeses melt alike, coaxing flow from form takes some experimentation. Provolone and Cheddar need only the burger’s heat to relax, while others require the assistance of the salamander or an oven, he says.

“Feta is never going to melt the same way provolone will,” Brown says. “It’s not going to have legs running down the outside of the burger. Our horseradish Cheddar keeps its shape a little bit, but the blue cheese doesn’t melt. You’ve got to find the right heat that allows the cheese to hold its shape enough to where when you bite into it, it’s still soft and creamy.”