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The Science Of Hamburger Buns

"It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun." Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's chain

The hamburger bun deserves more attention than it gets. It serves multiple functions. Here is the job description for the Ultimate Hamburger Bun:

  • Freshly baked
  • Not so strong as to outshine or dull the flavor of the beef
  • Firm enough to hold together when wetness attacks it
  • Soft enough that you don't squeeze out the juices when you bite
  • Large enough to overhang the edges of the patty, usually 4 1/2"
  • Squishy enough to form fit around its payload so things don't fall out

A good grocery store hamburger bun will do if it is fresh, but you can set your burgers apart with something a little better. What you don't want is a bread so hard or crusty that you have to tear it with your teeth, like ciabata or bagels. Let's give props to Mickey D's for popularizing the sesame seed bun with it's interesting texture and flavor. The strangest bun I've seen, and frankly, just the thought of it turns my stomach, is the donut bun. You heard me, some goofballs have decided to place their beef between two glazed donuts. That is simply wrong, man.

One of the best buns I've ever had was at Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, MI. James Beard Award winning Chef Alex Young takes a house-made onion roll and soaks the cut sides with clarified butter. Not a light coat, a lot. It then goes down on a medium hot griddle, and stays there until it is deeply toasted, and I mean deeply. The brown is well beyond the surface, perhaps 1/8" thick. When you bite into this burger the bun makes an audible crunch.

My favorite storebought bun is one a local baker sells. It is eggy and brioche-like. One important step is to warm the buns, or better still, add texture to the sandwich by toasting them. Cold rolls right from the fridge are a turnoff. 20 secs in the microwave will make them warm and soft.

My favorite treatment is to melt two tablespoon of butter per bun, paint it on the cut sides all the way to the edges because the edges tend to burn, and then toast it so it is golden and crunchy. You can toast them in a pan or on a griddle before the meat goes in, on the grill grates, under the broiler, or in your toaster oven. Watch carefully because they can burn quickly. If you are afraid of vampires, mix a little garlic powder in the melted butter. I'm often warding off vampires.

An active member of the Pitmaster Club on AmazingRibs.com is a man named Brian "Breadhead" Foreman who makes marvelous looking breads on his Big Green Egg, a ceramic kamado that is perfect for baking. I told him that I thought a specially formulated broiche would make the perfect hamburger bun and he took the idea and ran with it. Brioche is a light rich, slightly sweet bread with a flaky texture that can be made sweet or savory. In France, where it originated, it is often baked in a cupcake like pan with fluted sides and served warm as a breakfast bread. With feedback from the chef Jacob Burton of the free online culinary school StellaCulinary.com, he created a brioche recipe that answers my job description perfectly.

You can bake this indoors or out. Indoors you have a little better temperature control than outdoors, but if you are the boss of your grill there is no reason why you can't cook it outdoors. Kamados are especially good for this task.

Makes. 6 (4.5") hamburger buns

Takes. Mixing and resting time should be about an hour. Fermentation takes about 12 hours. Shaping and baking takes 45 minutes. You can shape and bake it any time within 48 hours of fermentation.

Special tools. A stand mixer such as the KitchenAid is recommended. You will need a plastic dough scraper, parchment paper or a silpat, and a digital scale. To make the ring molds, you'll need 6' of 18" wide aluminum foil (normal foil is only 12").

Important notes. Baking is a lot different than grilling and smoking. It requires precise measurements and timing. A little extra this and skipping a step can be disastrous. Most bakers use weights not volumes for more accurate measuring. This is especially crucial for flour where three people scooping a cup can end up with three different weights depending on the amount of air in the flour. They also like to use ratios with the amount of flour being 100% and the water and other ingredients being a percentage of the flour. This makes it easier to scale up or down. Breadhead and I highly recommend you use weights not volumetric measurements.

You can watch Chef Burton make this recipe here:

https://vimeo.com/stellaculinary/review/125966298/38004677a6

Ingredients

500 grams (3 1/3 cups) bread flour, sifted = 100%

300 grams (2 1/4 cups) whole milk = 60%

100 grams (2 large) eggs = 20%

150 grams (7 tablespoons) butter = 30%

15 grams (1 heaping tablespoon) sugar, heaping = 3%

8 grams (1 teaspoon) kosher salt = 1.6%

7 grams (1 packet) instant dry yeast = 1.4%

Spray oil

1 large egg for a glaze on top

Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried onion flakes, coarse salt, or fresh herbs for a topping

About the milk. You must use whole milk.

About the butter. You absolutely must use real butter and not a butter substitute.

Method

1) Take the cold butter and cut it into slices about tablespoon each and let them warm to room temperature. Crack 2 of the 3 eggs and put them in the bowl of the mixer. Add the milk and mix them together on low speed with the whisk attachment. Then add the flour one heaping tablespoon at a time. This will take about 4 to 5 minutes.

2) Once all the liquids are absorbed by the flour turn the mixer up to speed 4 (medium) and let it mix the dough for 3 or 4 minutes. Turn the mixer off and take a break. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes. Bakers call this step the autolyse step, and it is crucial for hydration of the flour and formation of gluten which is an elastic protein.

3) While the dough is resting, put the yeast into a coffee cup and add about 1 ounce of room temperature water. This lets the yeast activate, called blooming.

4) Add the sugar, salt, and yeast and mix for 1 minute on low. Now add the butter one pat at a time. Mix on slow speeds until the butter gets absorbed into the dough. This will take about 3 to 5 minutes.

5) Once your butter is absorbed into the dough turn the mixer up to speed 4 (medium) and let it knead your dough for 15 minutes. Your dough will look more like a thick batter than a bulky bread dough when you are done mixing.

6) Spray a light coat of oil on your work surface, pull the stretchy and sticky dough out of the bowl with a dough scraper, fold it in half, stretch, fold it in half again, and one more time. If it sticks to the surface, use your scraper to get it off. Put it in a large bowl for fermenting (called proofing), and cover with plastic wrap. Proof the dough at room temperature for 1 hour. Then put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight or for about 12 hours. The extended fermentation in the refrigerator makes a huge difference. A really great hamburger bun takes the same amount of time as a great pork butt or brisket, mostly waiting.

7) When you are ready to bake, prepare a sheet pan by lining it with parchment paper or a silpat. This material is non-stick. Put 4 1/2" tart rings on the sheet pan and spray the inside of them with spray oil. If you don't have tart rings, you can make ring molds with aluminum foil. You'll need extra wide foil, 18" wide. Just tear off 6 sheets about 1' long. Turn it so the 18" edge is facing you and fold it into a strip about 1" high. Now bend it into a ring that is 4.5" in diameter and staple it.

8) Take the dough out of the refrigerator. It will be cold and firm. Spray your work surface with oil. Weigh it and cut it into 6 equal portions. With the palm of your hand, press each portion of dough into a small square. Fold each corner into the center of the square. Pinch the seams together and you will have a sort of ball. Place each ball on your work surface seam side down. Roll it around with your open hand to make a nice ball, smooth and taught on all sides.

9) Place each ball into a ring mold and spray with oil so it doesn't stick to your hands. Press the dough balls down to make them fill the ring. If your dough won't stretch that far, cover your sheet pan with plastic wrap and let the dough relax for 12 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and press down on the dough again. It will fill the tart ring. Let your dough proof again for about an hour.

10) This is a good time to pre-heat your cooker to 400°F, 375°F for an indoor convection oven. If you are cooking it outdoors you must bake in the indirect zone.

11) Just before it's time to put the dough into the oven crack the extra egg, separate the yolk, add 1 teaspoon of water to the yolk, and stir it with a fork. Paint the tops with the egg yolk and top it with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried onions flakes, coarse salt, or fresh herbs.

12) Place the sheet pan in the oven and let it bake. In an indoor oven or a kamado it will take 22 to 25 minutes, 18 minutes in a convection oven. Halfway through, rotate the sheet pan 180 degrees to make sure they all cook and brown evenly. Pull the buns when the internal temperature is 195 to 200°F.

13) Remove them from the sheet pan and place them on a cooling rack until they come to room temperature before slicing.

This page was revised on

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