The best burger I have ever eaten was at a restaurant called Island Dairy Freeze, in McLean county western Kentucky. Island is wonderful. It is cheap, never changing and totally unselfconscious. It sells burgers and fries with just the right amount of grease. I am not saying that this is the best burger in the world, because of course, there is no such thing. But like most memorable food experiences it is those intangible factors that contribute so much to our pleasure. To a visitor, Island doesn’t just sell burgers, it provides that classic American burger experience that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
Island is a relic from the past. It has been around since the 1950’s and thankfully hasn’t changed one single bit. There is nowhere to sit inside. You have to go up to the little window to order. In summer people sit outside on the blue plastic picnic tables. In winter you eat in your car, in the parking lot. I love the way they ask if you want your burger ‘dressed’; meaning do you want it with lettuce, onion and tomato. I had never heard that term.
Some people go there just for the ice. A testament to Americans’ obsession with the stuff. Island ice comes shaved, rather than in cubes, and hardly any other places do this. Note that shaved ice is in a distinct category of its own, and very different to crushed ice. Island is also famous for a thing called the pizza burger, which really is an abomination that only children can get away with asking for. However, I suspect plenty of adults still order a pizza burger, pretending it is for their child.
The burgers at Island are good because they aren’t trying too hard to be perfect, they are simple, and cheap and tasty. For me, this is the attraction of burgers.The one thing a hamburger should not be is expensive. At the end of the day, it’s just a sandwich. Albeit a really good one.
This style of hamburger requires the cheap factory made buns that are impossibly soft and fluffy. After dreaming about Island I went in search of making my own. It turns out you can only really make this style of bun in a factory with special machinery and a chemical loaded dough. The recipe below is the closest I have got, after lots of experimentation. It makes eight incredibly soft buns, perfect for homemade hamburgers. In Kentucky if you are cooking hamburgers at home, the pan of choice would be a lodge skillet. A bomb proof cast iron wonder that if looked after, will far outlive you. You need to have it white hot so the outside of the burger forms that wonderful dark brown crust. Then you can fry these buns in the leftover fat. The surface of the cut side turns slightly charred and crunchy, while the inside becomes even softer and fluffier. I reckon this is the secret to a really good burger. It is so much fun making something that looks like it comes from a factory, when in fact these are so much better. I like my burger ‘dressed’ in the old fashioned way, plus a little mayonnaise. Some French’s mustard and some pickles are also excellent additions. Have a look at my recipe for bread and butter pickles.
300g strong white bread flour
150g all purpose plain flour
200g lukewarm water
70g whole milk
75g unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
For the glaze: 1 whole egg, plus a good pinch of salt
sesame seeds for decoration
Take a large bowl and add the milk, melted butter, sugar, egg and salt. Gradually stir in the flour. The dough will be quite wet but it comes together after a short kneading and after proving. Transfer the dough to the work surface and knead for 3 – 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and slightly elastic.
The method I use for kneading is Richard Bertinet’s excellent method. The process is very quick and easy. You lift the dough up from the work surface and slap it down. The part still in your hands is then stretched up and folded over the part still on the work surface. You then pick it up and repeat this process.This repetitive motion traps air into the dough making it lighter, as opposed to pummelling it with the heel of your hand.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a little oil too. Cover the bowl with clingfilm or a damp tea towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Now divide the dough into 8 pieces. Use a scale to do this so they are even. Preheat the oven to 200˚C.
The dough can be quite sticky. Just a little flour on your hands helps. Try to use as little flour as possible. If the dough seems too difficult to work, refrigerating it for a while helps as well. To form the bun shape lightly flatten out each piece. Bring a corner into the middle, and subsequently bring in all the sides to the middle to form a tight ball. Turn it over to hide the pleats and to show the smooth side. Roll this under the palm of your hand in a circular motion to help form the ball shape. Do the same with the rest of the dough, transferring them to a baking tray lined with baking paper. Leave plenty of room in between. Do this with rest of the dough. Leave to rest in a warm place for 30 minutes or until doubled in size.
To make the glaze, whisk the egg with the salt. The salt makes the glaze even more shiny.
Paint this over the buns. Don’t put too much on the brush at one time otherwise it drips down onto the baking sheet and looks messy. Sprinkle with some sesame seeds.
Bake in the oven for 12 – 15 minutes or until deep golden brown.