Every time I’d make my annual trip back to the U.S. from Tallinn or wherever I happened to be, my parents would always ask: “What’s the first thing you want to eat?” My answer would always be the same: “A real hamburger.” After all, there’s nothing that tastes more like home than a proper U.S. hamburger, chargrilled in your own backyard. No hamburger I’ve ever tasted in Tallinn – or anywhere else in Estonia for that matter – even comes close.
While I would be perfectly fine with enjoying various local Estonian delicacies while I’m here – everything from sült (jellied meat or meat in aspic) to verivorst (blood sausage), the invasive burger now seems to have become the most ubiquitous culinary offering across Tallinn ever since Nehatu first introduced it back before the country reclaimed its independence. Of course, Nehatu wasn’t really a legitimate burger – although since so many sins have been committed here in the name of the burger (or the burks to use its Estonian nickname), I figured I should at least name check Nehatu for being first. And if you never got the chance to try a Nehatu burger, then don’t worry. You didn’t miss much – and, in any case, you can still find various homages to it around Tallinn. Just look for a burks which is more coleslaw than meat – and then be careful while you eat it as it tends to drip everywhere – especially all over your new sneakers.
What then, you may want to ask, is a real U.S. hamburger? I figure if Estonians are going to engage in the cultural appropriation of America’s de facto national dish, then they might want to try to get it right. To start things off, a proper hamburger is made only out of 100% beef – and therein lies my main problem with the Estonian burks which I’ll address later. So, if you decide to use chicken, pork, fish, tofu, or any kind of vegetable patty in your burks, then technically speaking it is not really a burger. You should probably call it a sandwich or something else along those lines. And yet who am I to fight the “name everything you stick in your mouth with your hands a burks” trend? Even when I was in London, the locals there started calling just about anything between a bun – and sometimes even between two slices of bread – a burger thereby ignoring the true name bestowed upon such creations by the Earl of Sandwich himself. Fortunately, there were a couple of London burger joints that had mastered the fine art of making a real U.S. hamburger and so I didn’t have much of a real beef with them.
O.K. I digress. So, let me tell you the secrets of what makes for a proper U.S. hamburger given that – as the very name implies – the core element of the dish may have originated in Germany. The main U.S. contribution to the evolution of the burger was simply to reinvent the sandwich and place the ground beef patty between two slices of bread (aka the bun). While various local U.S. vendors may have been making something akin to the modern U.S. hamburger back in the late 1800s, the burger burst onto the national U.S. scene at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. And so, let me start my “Five Easy Steps Towards Better Burgers” with the humble bun.
If you want to make a better burger, the first thing you need to do is to start off with a good bun. For those of you who don’t have access to specialty burger buns which can be made out of everything from brioche to potato bread, fear not. Just for you, I tested every commercial burger bun available here in Estonia and decided that Eesti Pagar’s sesame seed buns – their four-pack Burgeri kukkel – come closest to being what a real U.S. burger bun should taste like. But please don’t just stop with buying the right buns. To make the burger bun taste right, you first need to spread some softened butter on the inside slices and then grill both halves. There is something about a grilled and buttered bun which serves as the foundation upon which any legitimate U.S.-style hamburger should be built.
The second thing you need to do is to get your toppings – or fixings if you want to add a Southern twist – right. Maybe it’s just the American in me, but I’m a big believer in freedom of choice. When I serve real U.S. burgers here in Estonia – the only kind I ever serve of course, I let everyone build their own burger. The problem with providing just one standard set of fixings is that you are bound to include something that someone is not crazy about. For example, I’m not wild about pickles or mustard. Too much of one or the other of those two fixings just detracts from the overall flavor of a burger for me. So, letting people choose their own fixings is just another step towards guaranteeing a better burger experience for everyone. Incidentally, one of the many flaws of serving a burks Nehatu-style in a triangular paper bag is that you front-load your fixings rather than distributing them evenly across the burger. Bad move.
So, what are the fixings you need for a real U.S. burger? When I grill my backyard burgers, I always offer all the basics including: lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced pickles, and sliced onions (preferably red or Bermuda). For condiments, there is only one ketchup that will do – Heinz – as everything else is either too sweet or tastes somehow off. I also try to buy some good mayonnaise and a mustard that won’t overwhelm everything else – I usually offer Põltsamaa’s honey mustard. While these are the basic fixings, there is always room for additional improvisation to include such things as: avocado slices, grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, or just about anything else that strikes your fancy. My basic guideline is this: no single fixing should overwhelm the taste of all your other fixings or the meat itself. After all, every fixing needs to work together as a team to build a better burger.
The number three thing you will probably need for your burger is an umami kick. While this can be optional – especially in the unlikely event that you’ve found some really amazing tasting beef here, you may well decide that you need that extra flavorful umami overdrive which comes from adding good cheese and/or bacon to your burger. If you are going to use bacon, please – please – make sure that it’s fried crisply before being added to the burger along with the other fixings. Limp bacon is a burger killer – at least if what you are trying to do is produce a real U.S. burger. As for cheese, whatever you do, do not – and I repeat DO NOT – use any so-called “American cheese” or any other pre-sliced (or liquid) flavorless cheese as that is a yet another burger killer. Instead, look for a cheese which will compliment the flavor of your meat and your palette. Usually, a sharp or mature cheddar will do the trick. And if you have problems with your cheese melting and sliding off your burger as it cooks, then try doing what one of America’s great chefs – James Beard – recommends: form the burger patty around your cheese. The cheese will then help you keep your meat juicy as it melts on the inside.
Step number four is so simple that it’s hard to believe that so many people forget it: charcoal grill your burger patties over an open flame. For meat lovers, nothing tastes better than meat cooked over charcoal’s open flame. Both the smell – which whets the appetite – and the taste – which fills it – serve to remind you why man discovered fire. The goal is to sear the outside of the meat in order to lock all the flavor within. Ideally, you will have the kind of backyard grill that can be covered so that you can also smoke your burger and melt your cheese just by closing the lid. While you can always try to cook your burger on a griddle or in a pan, the chances that you will be able to produce a proper U.S.-style burger are slim. And, after all, what beats the fun of having a backyard burger grill with your friends?
The fifth and most important part of any hamburger is the patty – i.e., the meat itself. The sad truth I must now share with you is that most Estonian beef – most of which comes not from beef cattle but from young male cows who unlike their sisters will never give milk – just does not make the burger cut. Estonian ground beef inevitably ends up tasting far too gritty and far too dry once it is cooked. As a result, it fails to achieve the optimal taste required to make a truly legitimate U.S.-style burger. One of the main problems with Estonian beef is that its fat content is all wrong as the meat does not come from beef cattle – cattle raised for its marbled meat. While Estonia does have a few herds of beef cattle, their meat is often very hard to find. And while you can always buy imported U.S. beef, the price can be far too expensive for making just a simple burger which, after all, was never meant to be made from the finest cuts of beef.
Again, fear not, as there is a tried-and-true beef hack which works and that I’ve been using in this part of the world for years. While you really need to grind your own beef if you are serious about making good burgers, whether you actually do or not, the solution to the Estonian beef problem is the same: you need to add more fat to the meat. The fat content of a proper U.S. burger should be over 20% before it goes on the grill. Most of that fat will then drip down onto the charcoal, basting and flavoring the beef as it cooks while also keeping the meat moist and tender inside. As beef fat is hard to find here in Tallinn, I often just add some pork fat instead (searasv will do although soolapekk – minus the outer skin – is even better). As it happens, pork fat works just fine when it is ground together with the beef. Just remember this simple equation: fat = flavor. In addition to adding some salt and some freshly ground black pepper to my meat, I also add some garlic and/or onion powder when I can find it. And if the meat still lacks taste, Worcestershire Sauce will often do the trick. Just make sure that you don’t manhandle your beef too much while you are making your patties or the meat will punish you by toughening up as it cooks.
So, where do I go when I want to eat a real U.S.-style burger here in Estonia? The answer is simple: my backyard. And if you follow my “Five Easy Steps Towards Better Burgers,” then you can impress your friends – just like I do mine – by grilling up a proper U.S. burger that tastes better than anything else they’ve ever tried anywhere else in Estonia! Or, if you can’t be bothered to grill up your own backyard burgers, then please share these “Five Easy Steps Towards Better Burgers” with your favorite Estonian burks stand or joint so that they can up their burger game. Believe me, you haven’t really tasted a proper burks until you’ve tried the real U.S. version.
Image: A modern copy of a Trypillian votive cow offering (potter unknown).