“There is no ‘perfect,’ but there is bad. Bad should be avoided if possible.”
This sentiment could be applied to just about anything — penmanship, karaoke performances and presidents are three that come to mind — but in this instance, the quote comes from chef Chris Kronner, who writes about his obsession, the hamburger, in his new cookbook A Burger to Believe In (Ten Speed Press). The book was released this spring, at a seemingly untimely, but perhaps fortuitous time, just as Kronner decided to pull the plug on his three-year-old burger joint Kronnerburger on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The restaurant had closed in February from an overnight kitchen fire; in May, Kronner decided to permanently shut down the operation.
Fans of the restaurant who find themselves missing Kronner’s eponymous, shockingly rare signature sandwich may find solace in A Burger to Believe In, especially those with patience and cooking skills. But even accomplished home cooks will want to keep the above quote in mind if they try, like I did, to recreate the Kronnerburger at home — from baking pain de mie buns and whipping up cheddar-laced mayonnaise, to quick-pickling cucumbers and grinding dry-aged beef as outlined in the book.
Creating a perfect replica of the Kronnerburger is hard, not because the resulting burger will be bad, but because a home chef in a home kitchen can’t quite compete with a culinary professional whose career has spanned years and venues honing the ideal burger (before Kronnerburger, Kronner cooked at Bar Tartine and the Slow Club, which also had excellent burgers).
And, comparing your outcome to a burger that you can only eat in your memory is an even more difficult challenge.
But, if you can get over the fact that your burger won’t be a Kronnerburger to a T, the attempt is still a worthy and delicious exercise that all cooks who love burgers should try. Before you do, let me share a few things that may help you on your way:
Making homemade pickles is easy
Although the recipe says Kronner’s dill pickles can be eaten immediately after making, I decided to make a small batch about two weeks before cooking the burgers. Mostly, so I wouldn’t be making all the components of the Kronnerburger in one day, but also, to give myself a chance to try again if my brined cukes didn’t come out well. Fortunately, the first time was a charm. The recipe is really simple, and very good, too. And best yet, it makes a lot of pickles (even when you cut the recipe in half) and they keep indefinitely in the fridge.
A step in the pickle recipe calls for trimming off and discarding the ends of the cucumbers. For thrifty chefs who might balk at this idea, there’s actually a good reason to follow these steps, which I admit, I learned from a recent episode of America’s Test Kitchen. The butt of the cucumber, what is more daintily known as the blossom end, contains an enzyme that will make your pickles mushy. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends removing a 1/16-inch slice from the end of the cucumber to avoid pickle mush. Why take off both sides if it’s just the butt that’s the problem? Because some store-bought cucumbers are stemless so differentiating the sides may not be so easy. Also, for burgers and other sandwiches, it’s better to have a pickle chip with a flat surface on both sides.
Another tip: Before starting, read the entire recipe to take inventory of the supplies you’ll need. Although I had scanned the list of ingredients and had the foresight to have an appropriate jar, I had to run out the door when I got to step five and realized I needed a foot-long square of cheesecloth that I didn’t have. (I got mine at Preserved on Telegraph, but many markets sell them.) I also had to dig around my cupboards for a container to create an ice bath to cool the pickles.
Making homemade buns is hard
Kronner gives lazy cooks an easy way out when it comes to buns: he suggests cheap white bread burger buns as the best alternative to baking your own. But Kronnerburger pain de mie buns are less airy and much more flavorful than any store-bought buns. And anyway, I wasn’t going to let myself off that easily.
As with the pickles, I gave myself a couple weeks lead time to experiment with the pain de mie recipe. Baking requires anal-retentive accuracy, which has never been my strong suit in cooking, so I was most nervous about this component. I followed Kronner’s advice to use a digital scale to ensure my measurements were on the nose.
A few ingredients give Kronner’s buns a complex flavor and better texture: nutritional yeast, milk powder and potato flour. I had never worked with potato flour before, which gives the bread a soft texture and a moist crumb, a bit of color and a little potato-ey flavor. And no, potato flour (made from dried and ground whole peeled potatoes) is not the same as potato starch (the fine starch that’s released from the cells of crushed potatoes). If you have difficulty finding potato flour (psst, they don’t have it in the bulk bins at either Berkeley Bowl location), you can use instant mashed potatoes as a substitute, which is what I did.
In the end, I baked four batches of the buns before I got a result that I liked and, even then, the final buns, which I baked a day before cooking the burgers, weren’t as perfectly golden or textured as the ones I recall at Kronnerburger. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, but I’m going to chalk up these slight imperfections to an uneven home oven.
Another thing to note: the recipe calls for using a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, but does not include amended instructions for those without this luxury. I tried making the recipe without a stand mixer, hand-kneading instead, and failed twice. I realized why after the second time — the electric mixer adds the necessary heat to activate the yeast, which is added directly to the dry ingredients in Kronner’s recipe. After conferring with Kronner via email, he suggested these slight tweaks for hand-kneaded buns: use instant yeast instead of active dry, or proof the active dry yeast in warm water first.
Mayo: Better with cheddar?
This will not be a popular opinion, but the one Kronnerburger ingredient of which I’ve always been skeptical is the cheddar mayonnaise. For me, good ol’ processed American cheese melted atop a patty is the way to go. Kronner claims his cheddar mayo “references the sauciness of melted American cheese,” but I beg to differ.
I will agree, though, that his mayo, with six ounces of sharp white cheddar blended in, does add a lot of richness to the final product, and making it was easy and fun. The recipe results in three cups of mayonnaise that lasts for one to two weeks in the fridge, so unless you slather this stuff on everything, I’d cut the recipe in half.
There’s a whole chapter in A Burger to Believe In dedicated to the best beef for burgers. For Kronner, at the very least, that means organic beef from cows that are pasture-raised and grass-fed. More specifically, Kronnerburgers are made with Cream Co. Meats, a boutique meat distributor in Oakland that sells “antique beef,” or meat from retired dairy cows, which some chefs claim are beefier and more complex in flavor than typical young cattle. And then he dry-ages that meat for 45 days, turning the older cow’s tougher, leaner beef into tender and even more flavorful cuts.
Kronner includes step-by-step instructions on dry-aging at home, which I considered for about one second until I realized it would require me to buy a brand new refrigerator. Granted, you just need a small dorm-size fridge, but it has to be new, or else the beef may leach odors from foods once stored inside. Yeah, not going to happen.
In lieu of dry-aging my own beef, and because Cream Co. doesn’t sell directly to the public, I asked Kronner for his recommendation of where to get the best dry-aged beef in the East Bay. He suggested Clove & Hoof, which offers dry-aged, pasture-raised beef from Jenner Family Beef.
This is grind-core
Next, I contacted my friend Eric Cabunoc. Eric is one of the most accomplished and ambitious home chefs I know. He’s always cooking up something fun and interesting, and I knew he’d be down to help me with this project. Plus, I knew he’d have a meat grinder.
His meat grinder is an ancient, but fully functional Rival Grind-o-Matic that he scored at a past White Elephant Sale (he says it’s his best find yet). A day before we made the burgers, he dropped off the detachable metal grinder parts, instructing me to place them in my freezer, along with two stainless steel bowls.
On burger making day, I cut the slab of chuck into 1-inch chunks and placed the meat in the freezer for about 20 minutes. All this advanced freezing of the equipment and beef results in a better, cleaner grind. You’re looking for a coarse, but precisely cut ground beef, rather than a mushy, smooth extrusion.
Playing patty cakes
Once ground, the beef is carefully portioned and shaped into loose 5-ounce balls (I used the digital scale, for precision). You don’t want to knead or press the meat too much at this stage, so Kronner suggests using a 4″-diameter ring mold to create the patties. The mold also helps with getting a consistently sized and shaped burger.
I didn’t have a ring mold, but I realized the plastic tops of my Pyrex bowls were exactly 4″ round, so I made do with these and they worked great when lined with plastic wrap.
The importance of a burger station
Knowing that the burgers needed only about three minutes total cooking time, having all the toppings ready in advance was key.
Before Eric even arrived at my house with the grinder, I had prepped all the burger accoutrements. I washed, separated and tore iceberg lettuce leaves (Kronner is specific about lettuce leaves being torn into “patty-size pieces” so they don’t hang too far out of the perimeter of the bun); sliced a tomato and a red onion; and set aside just enough dill pickle chips for our finished burgers. These were all laid out and ready to go for cooking time.
Next, the onion slices were charred and the buns were buttered and toasted.
And finally, it was time to cook the patties.
There will be salt and fat. A lot of it.
You know how people say that restaurant food tastes better because chefs add a lot more fat, oil and salt than you would when cooking at home? You’ll really believe that saying after making a Kronnerburger.
First, each patty is sprinkled with one teaspoon of salt (1/2 teaspoon on each side). Then, just before cooking on a stovetop, each patty is smeared with butter on one side.
The burgers are first cooked for two minutes on the butter side. The butter helps to create a nice caramelized crust of browned beef. Then the patties are flipped and cooked for just one more minute.
Patties ready, I quickly assembled the burgers in this order: bottom bun, patty, pickle slices, charred onion, sliced tomato, lettuce leaves, cheddar mayo, top bun.
Then, I took a big bite. It was juicy, drippy, beefy and oh so good. But it wasn’t a Kronnerburger. Mine didn’t have that funky, beefy flavor I associate with Kronner’s burgers (at Kronnerburger, but even at his new restaurant, Henry’s, in Berkeley). It also wasn’t as rare.
I have a few guesses why my burger didn’t emulate that exact taste:
Cream Co’s Dairy beef is richer, gamier in flavor because dairy cow meat has the funk that younger beef just doesn’t have.
The chuck from Clove & Hoof was dry-aged, but the dry, dark “crust” that forms on the meat during the dry-aging process, which Kronner talks about at length in his book, are trimmed off before the beef is sold. We were told by a staffer at Clove & Hoof that cutting off that dark crust helps the beef cook faster, which may also explain why my beef was less rare. Another difference — the Clove & Hoof chuck is dry aged for 20 to 25 days, about half as long as Kronner dry ages his beef. The longer beef is dry aged, the more concentrated the flavor.
Fat also adds flavor. Kronner starts with a chuck that’s 20% fat, then grinds in additional fat chunks. I didn’t add extra fat to my grind. Nor did I make a side of marrow bones.
I failed to create a perfect replica of the Kronnerburger. I did, however, create a pretty damn good Hanburger, and I’m perfectly OK with that.
For those missing real deal Kronnerburgers, Chris Kronner is popping up at Camino on July 29 for a book signing of A Burger to Believe In with snacks and drinks, followed by a sit-down family-style dinner featuring Kronnerburgers cooked in the Camino fireplace and other dishes from the book. Tickets are $75.