Ask Chef Emily: Cold Burger


Before you bite into this, save one half for the next day. Eat cold in front of sink. • photo by Doug Young

What is “cold burger”?  –Emmanuel, my server at lunch yesterday

There are many chef “hacks” that make life and work in the kitchen more efficient and more enjoyable. Holding your knife properly, and not dropping it into a sink of soapy water, wrapping chives in a wet paper towel before mincing, labeling everything before it goes into the fridge; things we do that become ingrained in our routines. So much so that when I say, “Can I take this home for cold burger?” in a restaurant, I forget that the server or my dining companion my have no idea what I’m talking about.

Cold burger, my friends, is one of life’s pure joys. I’ve written on the topic before and from the woodwork of the internet come whispers of “I love cold burger too!” Like any recipe, it lives and breathes because it is shared.

At its most basic, cold burger is half of yesterday’s burger, straight from the fridge. But like good omelets, salads or any other dish relying on simplicity, the component parts require prime consideration and quality. A fast food burger will not suffice, so do not bother. Consume it in one sitting as the scientists who designed it intended. A turkey or chicken burger doesn’t have sufficient fat content and the result will be grainy. Real, good, thick, mid-rare beef burgers from a good local restaurant or your home grill are what you want. I prefer the grind of meat coarse and seasoned only on the outside just prior to grilling with kosher salt and fine black pepper.

Doneness is a personal preference, but the longer the burger is on the grill, the more of the juiciness is cooked away and lost to the flames, seen in backyards as flareups. (You can manage these by adding a hardware store spray bottle filled with water to your arsenal of grilling implements. Spray the base of the flame, not the food.) Great restaurants, ones who get their meat for reputable purveyors who take pride in the work, can serve you steak tartar, but the law requires ground meat to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165º rendering the potentially transcendent burger lifeless. In your backyard you can control the doneness of your burger (I like mine done at 145º measured with an instant-read thermometer. No poking of palms voodoo for me.)

Topping a burger is another personal matter but for the purposes of the topic at hand, go classic first. (Picasso was a realist before he was a cubist.) A melting cheese is a good place to start. I like raw onion, but not too much. Lettuce is key. A crisp leaf of bone-in romaine or a few nestled petals of Bibb are my favorite. Add a few vinegary pickle slices and you are done. What? No tomato? Nope. Not in June. I’m a tomato snob and only want them on a burger fresh and in season, but that’s a topic for another post.

The vessel in which you eat cold burger must be soft. A potato roll, brioche, an English muffin are all excellent choices. Nothing with a crisp or jagged crust will survive a night in the fridge. I prefer mine toasted and the top half slathered with ketchup and mustard.

So, we’ve assembled a beautiful, perfect burger in prime grilling season and now, cut it in half. The meat will have rested while you decorated it (ideally half the total cooking time) and the remaining juice has reorganized itself to be evenly distributed through the patty. Admire your perfect medium rare cooking temperature! Give yourself a high five! Now, put half of the burger away in the fridge, either in the restaurant to-go container you brought it home in, or let your homeade version cool while you eat the other half, then wrap snugly in plastic wrap and wait until morning.

Overnight a magical alchemy will happen. The bottom half of the bun will absorb the liquids as they slowly solidify and gravity does its job. The burger itself concentrates in beefy flavor and dehydrates ever so slightly in thanks to the exterior treatment of salt. The pickles stay acidic and crisp as does the right choice of lettuce. The top bun distributes the ketchup in a bready ombre of red bliss.

In the morning, after coffee, after kiddo is dropped off at preschool and my husband has gone to work, after I’ve had a bowl of cereal as “real” breakfast, I wait for the first pangs of elevenses to roll in, reliable as the tide. Because I prepared and because I sacrificed, I have cold burger as my reward. I almost always consume my cold burger standing at the kitchen counter where the sun comes in before noon, though I have taken cold burger outside to sit on the deck in the sun if the weather is right. Fresh ketchup straight from the squirt bottle and a little finger bowl of kosher salt. I seriously cannot think of a better solitary brunch.

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