Monday, June 8, 2009

Hamburger You

Everybody has heard of Hamburger University by now. This is the training site of McDonalds, and more important, it's where several test labs are located to research the intricacies of flavors and taste experiences. In other words, they have a huge database of research reporting what people think tastes good. By this advanced research, they construct their signature hamburgers based on their findings. The exact manner in which they build each burger is to remain exactly the same, because different taste buds are activated, and flavors develop, in the right sequences to satisfy the maximum number of people.

I am pretty sure the other big chains such as Burger King, Wendy's, and others have done some of the same testing.

Also, the results of this testing are different for countries outside the U.S. Australia and England, etc., get their menus tweaked differently than here in the States. Look at the variants of the Whopper.

I don't eat many fast food burgers or fast food in general, so I'm not up-to-date on their entire menu and new items. But I know how to analyze what's put right in front of me. (I thought!) So let's take a technical look at what specialists have determined. It may lead us, after all, to some insights in constructing and assembling our own delicious homemade burgers.

I've had two insights already, before beginning this article: most of my life I had the unconsciously acquired idea that ketchup and pickles should be separated. On analyzing the fast food burger, I realized a few years ago I was wrong. The second insight more recently is that mustard on the cheese is not only not a no-no, it's good.

At McDonalds I acquired a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese. Starting at the bottom, and moving up, here is what I found and the order in which they placed each item:

Big Mac: bottom of bun; mayo sauce with onion and shredded lettuce; cheese; meat; center section of bun; mayo sauce ("special sauce") with pickle and shredded lettuce; meat; top of sesame seed bun. Supposedly 1.6 oz (uncooked) meat per patty. The mayo sauce is rumored to be similar to thousand island dressing but it wasn't very pink looking. Or pink tasting. Note especially that this is the only mass-market burger with any condiment on top of the bottom bun.
Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese: bottom of bun; cheese; meat; cheese; mustard; pickle; onion; ketchup; top of sesame seed bun. Supposedly 4 oz. (uncooked) patty.

New to this rigorous analysis, I didn't note the exact amount of light toasting on the insides of the buns. They don't have a toasty mouth-feel. I also paid little attention to the sesame seeds, because they are so lightly toasted I can never discern the taste of them. Okay, after making some initial notes and taking some photos which didn't show all the details, I admit I scarfed those babies down before I realized my analytical shortcomings. I won't repeat this mistake.

I did notice some unorthodox cheese placement, and that there are the blank areas of bun with none of the ketchup, mustard, or mayo/sauce. This is unlike what the home burger maker often does, and is counterintuitive to many burger ideas, I believe. Yet they must have found people report this as tasting best. Note also that neither of McDonalds's signature burgers has tomato on it by default. Interesting.

Next, Burger King's Whopper and Whopper Jr., which turns out to be exactly the same burger except for size. Starting from the bottom, it's lightly toasted bun; patty; ketchup; pickle,onion, and pickle (three pickle slices and about a square inch of onion - and it looks like the onion is deliberately enclosed in a "pickle sandwich" with pickle above and below the onion); tomato, lettuce, mayo, and the sesame seed bun on top.

Notable here are two things: tomato slice, and no mustard on the "standard" edition. And again we see the bottom of the bun has no mustard, mayo, ketchup: the meat patty sits right on the unadorned bread, which was lightly toasted but had no real toasty texture to it, similar to McDonalds's offerings. It's become obvious the "toasting" is a purely cosmetic procedure.

Last up for now is the Wendy's basic cheeseburger. Here we have a plain bun with no sesame seeds, untoasted. Stacked from the bottom, again the meat is directly on the bun, and cheese on top of the burger of course. The basic Wendy's burger then was adorned with a large crunchy lettuce leaf, tomato, four pickle slices, a wee onion slice, and ketchup, with a larger area of mayo under the top of the bun. Adequate, no frills; a decent enough burger.

On the Fourth of July, I made some cheeseburgers and I was very conscious of this research while assembling the burgers. I made sure to leave the bottom bun "blank." I did pre-toast the sesame seed buns, tops, bottoms, and inside surfaces, in the toaster-oven enough to brown the seeds and they emitted that wonderful fragrance that they should. I also had some homemade ketchup I used instead of store-bought, and used no mayo nor mustard this time around. I placed the cheeseburger, then onion, pickle, and ketchup, and put shredded lettuce and tomato slices right under the top part of the bun. This burger was quite tasty; a cut above my regular burgers. This research has improved my overall burger technique, I believe.

I will point out that Wikipedia and YouTube have various information about hamburgers, McDonald's, etc. The most important is how to pronounce "hamburger."

Here's "How to Clone a Big Mac."