Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.
Friend of The Food Geek Carrie Oliver asks via Twitter:
A few weeks ago, a number of us gathered together for an nearly-impromptu Burger Summit. Fortunately, this was not a competition, but an exposition, and we were able to demonstrate the joys of the hamburger. Of course, knowing how a burger cooks ensures that your can maximize the flavor, so let’s explore the elements:
- Maillard reactions. Though not the only thing going on, this is certainly the biggie. Maillard reactions are a class of reactions that, among other things, cause food to become golden brown and delicious. Fried chicken and bread crust are just two of the many many many examples of the Maillard reactions in food. Sometimes mistakenly called caramelization, the Maillard reactions are relatively low-temperature chemical reactions that cause proteins to combine in interesting and flavorful ways, and are the dark brown crust on the outside of the burger. This is a great deal of the flavor, because it’s the first thing that hits the tongue.
- Collagen melting. Some of the connective tissue that holds the muscle together is made up of collagen, and some of that collagen makes its way into ground beef. Before cooking, collagen is solid and not terribly appetizing. After being properly cooked, it turns into a liquid and imparts a great deal of what people who spend their time trying to describe how food tastes call “mouth feel.” The collagen makes food unctuous, rich, and generally fuller-tasting than food without it, and is one of the reasons that people make sauces out of stock. Collagen, incidentally, is what makes gelatin gel, generally.
- Texture changes. I know, you asked about taste, but texture is really important to taste. As the beef cooks, water is drawn out of the muscle and a lot of it disappears as steam. While this is happening, proteins coagulate and create a much more firm texture. Because you know what raw meat feels like, and you know what cooked meat feels like, the texture provides a great deal of contextual clue that what you’re eating is proper hamburger. Inside your brain, that translates to a change in flavor.
- Melted fat. A good burger is composed of about 20% fat, and a great burger probably a bit more so. Fat carries many of the flavors that we can taste, and along with collagen gives us the feeling that a burger is moist. By allowing the fat to melt, it not only gives the fat more of an opportunity to intermingle with the flavors that are developing in the burger, especially the maillard reaction flavors, but our tongues can taste warmer things more easily than it can taste colder things. Many additional flavors due to differences in breed or diet will especially be brought out by the interaction with fat.
- Aroma. One of the reasons that we taste food better when it’s warm is because very few of our taste receptors are on our tongue. The tongue is responsible for the big, “This will help let you live or die” sorts of flavor (acid, bitterness, sweetness) as well as umami (savory) and spicy. The subtle, “mmm, this is such a unique flavor” sorts of flavors that make up everything else we taste, including those in the maillard reactions, are sensed in our sinus cavity. As we know from our discussions on temperature, the warmer a particle is, the more likely it will go into the air, and consequently, the better chance we’ll have to smell it.
Knowing all of this, I decided to go have some fun. We want to up the fat, spread through some extra flavor, and ensure it’s cooked properly. I started from this recipe that I found on Pinch My Salt for a blue cheese burger. Naturally, I went to the local fancy butcher for the ground chuck, but I kept it with chuck because I wanted the fat content. I decided that it needed a little something extra, even with the blue cheese and ground chuck. I know a lot of people put a pat of butter inside their burger for the extra fat, but what can be done can be over-done, so instead of butter I added bacon grease. Mmmm, bacon.
If you are the sort of person who enjoys blue cheese with their burger, it’s a great burger. If not, and you’re really hoping for more of the bacon to come through, you will find that the blue cheese overpowers a lot of subtle flavors. Carrie, I suspect that this will not be the burger for you, especially if you are showcasing some fantastic breed of beef, but it was fun for a change.