Flash in the Pan 

Burger tactics

Taiwanese dentists began campaigning last year about the dangers of large hamburgers. Their concerns regard an increase in jaw dislocations that's been attributed to Taiwanese eaters trying to open their mouths wide enough to take super-sized bites of the burgers being served at some of the nation's fast food restaurants.

I can relate. In the passionate pursuit of gastronomic pleasure, I've struggled against my own anatomy to the point of opening my mouth wide enough that I could feel the parts of my jaw joint move past one another to the very point of dislocation. It's a painful predicament in which your mouth is stuck open wide, as if you're screaming.

While the Taiwanese dentists are targeting fast food restaurants, in the U.S. the threat of jaw dislocation by hamburger lurks closer to home. Handmade patties tend to be rounder and thicker than commercial patties. And while fast food buns seem designed to melt away at first bite, the Kaiser roll you bring home from the bakery could add inches to your burger's height. If you then get a creative bug and wish to explore the possibilities of waffles or fried turkey on your burger, you could really be flying into the danger zone.

And then there is the aesthetic appeal, or lack thereof, of a half eaten burger—especially one that was poorly assembled. You may not hear about it much, but burger malfunctions can be a real problem in mixed company. So with July 4 just around the corner, now is a good time to discuss some ways to make your homemade hamburger tasty, pretty, and safe.

Even under the best of circumstances a hamburger, like a new car, drops in value when you drive it off the lot. A crumbling meat patty held together by soggy buns, with tomato slices squeezing out the side and juices dripping into a puddle on the plate, is generally a sight that only appeals to the one who ate the first half. A burger that's busy with fixings may have some amazing flavors going on, but the more you pile on, the more difficult it becomes to hold it all together.

My burger strategy is to serve them in a way that allows the eater to create his or her own bite-sized burgers. These are not to be confused with sliders, which are basically miniature hamburgers. My burger bites are more like whimsical finger foods you might pluck from a tray at a catered reception. To the untrained eye it may not qualify as hamburger, but once you start chewing there's little doubt what's in your mouth.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

I serve hamburger as a deconstructed palette of options. If using cheese, it should be melted on the patty during cooking. The bread is sliced thin and toasted on one side. Jars of condiments crowd the table, including mayo, homemade catsup, hot sauce, and mustard made from vinegar-soaked mustard seeds from the bottom of a jar of pickled peppers. Other fixings could include avocado, tomato slices, bacon, roasted green chiles, sautéed mushrooms, greens, roasted garlic, pickled peppers, and chopped or sliced onions. Everyone has personal preferences and dietary restrictions, of course, so any particular goodie or fixing is optional. Your choice of extras guides the assembly of the burger bite.

Though I'm not typically a bread guy, I love it with burger. Bread holds the sauce, keeps perfect record of the mixing juices, and adds a nice flavor of its own. That said, I don't want bread on both sides of my burger. With small bites, an upper piece of bread doesn't serve any structural function, can complicate getting the thing into your mouth, and take up valuable real estate in your belly.

If you use bread, it should be toasted on one side only. The untoasted side faces away from the burger, helping you avoid the mouth trauma that very crispy bread eaten too quickly can cause. (I fancy the Taiwanese dentists would be impressed with this little trick.) The toasted side faces the burger, where the hardened surface provides a measure of resistance against the sauces, juices, grease, and other agents of sogginess that a burger can harbor.

Sitting down at one of my deconstructed burger spreads, I don't worry about cramming every fixing and goodie I could possibly want onto each small bite. Instead, I think about building a compact, stable structure that I can easily put in my mouth. I'll often press a piece of burger into a mixture of mayo and catsup that I dollop onto a piece of bread, and sprinkle it with chopped onions.

As for the fixings that don't fit onto the burger bite, I simply put them into my mouth separately and chew it all together.

How tricky is that? Instead of trying to figure out, say, how to balance a juicy slice of tomato atop a small bite, I'll just put the tomato in my mouth separately and chew it all together. And then perhaps I'll add a spoonful of chopped, roasted green chile, which I might follow with a nibble of burger patty dipped in mayo and catsup to keep the mouthful going.

It doesn't have to look like a burger to be one, because the real magic happens when you chew it all together. How the various players got there is irrelevant as long as they're in place when your mouth gets to work. Creating one-bite wonders gives you total control of your burger's flavor, keeping the mess in your mouth and not on your chin. If this style of eating ever catches on in Taiwan, some dentists might sleep a little easier.

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