Our tastes vary with our backgrounds, but Eric Rivera has landed on a mouthwatering combination that just might be universally yummy.
DEFINING THE PERFECT hamburger is never simple, because it depends on who you are and what you ate growing up.
“You go to California and say something bad about In-N-Out Burger, you better run,” says chef Eric Rivera. “Go to New York and say anything other than ‘Shake Shack,’ people destroy you.”
To build a better burger, though, Rivera was the obvious guy to ask. The Olympia-born 34-year-old spent a good chunk of last year developing the burger part of Huxley Wallace’s Great State Burger chain as the company’s director of operations. He was previously director of culinary research operations for the star-studded Grant Achatz restaurants in Chicago, including Alinea. He started out with a biology degree and a mortgage business before giving in to his passion for cooking; culinary school in Seattle led to jobs at Seastar, then Blueacre … then volunteer “stages” at stratospheric locations like Noma in Copenhagen.
The consultant’s creative skills proved as applicable to a family-friendly burger joint as to the finest fine dining, and that’s how he likes it.
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“I don’t want to be the guy that’s just known for one style of cuisine.”
Visiting his home kitchen on Capitol Hill, it’s clear what the best burgers are to him: mouthwatering. They’re seared hard in a cast-iron pan and finished in the oven, offering strong flavors, simple seasoning and contrasting textures.
“The meat stands out before anything else,” he says, swiftly dividing 90-gram portions of the Black Angus meat he buys from Zillah-based Anderson All-Natural Beef at area farmers markets. He likes how farmer Kelly Anderson grinds the meat coarsely rather than processing it to pate-like smoothness. Don’t bother adding onion powder or other typical seasonings, he says, lest “it becomes a meatloaf, not just a burger.”
The formed meat stays chilled in the refrigerator until it’s ready to cook, pieces carefully sized so they don’t spill out past the bun or shrink to sliders when cooked. (For Great State’s testing, he measured with a digital caliper; at home he’s content to eyeball the 4½-inch ideal width.)
Rivera heats clarified butter in the pan, cutting it a bit with neutral oils — beef fat is even better, he says, but hard to get in home-cook quantities.
He flattens the meat to a quarter-inch thick, seasons it with kosher salt and black pepper ground roughly enough that some grains crunch. Next comes searing it with a satisfying sizzle until the caramelized crust creeps up from the bottom of the burger to the sides. (It’ll be cooked through when done, not the medium-rare of fatter bistro burgers.)
He flips it, adds cheese (any kind, from American to Beecher’s, so long as it gets melty), then moves the pan to a preheated 325-degree oven, resting on top of a baking steel. He leaves it about 30 seconds, until the edge of the cheese crisps to a frico-like crunch, simultaneously brushing Franz hamburger buns with clarified butter and toasting them on the steel for two to three minutes. Pulling them out, he slathers sauce on the buns — ketchup works, but he prefers a bright, tangy mixture of mayo, ketchup, pickle juice and fish sauce. He adds a cold, crisp cross-section of chiffonaded lettuce. Tomato slices make the cut only if they’re full of flavor.
“Don’t just put a slice of tomato on to have a slice of tomato on it,” he says. “That defeats the purpose of everything else.”
Other toppings could work, too — caramelized onions? Go in your pantry, he says, asking what you have and what qualities it brings. “And then you have your discovery moment of — that works! And you have another recipe.”
Biting into his sample burger is a punch to the palate — so good it’s hard to believe it didn’t come from a grillmaster at a competition or a fancy kitchen. Crunch, chew, mmmmm.
“I like different textures … it’s a discovery in a bite, going through the burger,” Rivera says. And he warns diners to eat fast. This burger can’t be held over or rewarmed.
“That’s what I like about it the most; there’s no faking this one,” he says.
Is it the best burger ever?
“For me, sure,” he says. “It’s right up there. Is it the end-all, says-all? … I don’t think we’ll ever get there, and that’s OK.”