The secrets to the best burgers

Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 10:05pm
By Nicki Pendleton Wood, City Paper correspondent

Perfectly portioned hamburgers at Gabby's. (Photo by Emily Hall for Southcomm)


What becomes a legend in Nashville restaurants?

It’s hard to predict which great dishes we’ll be extolling in a decade, but three burgers have what it takes to be the next iconic Nashville burger.

And what it takes is persistence, inspiration, hard work and a touch of genius to create — and create and create, every day — the kind of dish that becomes a sigh on the lips of Nashvillians for generations.



At Gabby’s, a burger takes a week to create, and they can’t seem to speed it up without making sacrifices. Which owner Doug Havron isn’t willing to do.

It starts with the meat — Josh and Kathy Gunn deliver almost 500 pounds of grass-fed beef each week from their Springfield, Tenn., farm, Gourmet Pasture Beef LLC. Then begins the agonizingly slow thawing of the frozen meat — it takes the better part of a week.

Mario Gooch takes over when the meat is thawed. Gooch originally went to school for fashion design, then music production, then decorated cakes before Gabby’s hired him.

Gooch seasons the quarter-ton of meat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Thursday is “portioning” day, when 5-ounce hunks of meat are shaped and weighed so they’re ready to throw on the flattop and flatten with an ingenious two-spatula maneuver.

He puts on huge headphones for the operation. Gooch’s goal is to portion out enough beef to fill a pan, about 38 hunks, by the end of a 3- to 4-minute song. “It doesn’t always work out that way,” he said, “but that’s what I try to do.”

Gooch has a precise feel for the meat and its moods. Too warm, too cold, frozen spots, moisture pockets — each behaves differently. The critically important thing is to form the meat into a hunk that won’t break when it’s a patty on the grill.

And there are so many ways a patty can break. Squeezing too hard when portioning; starting when the meat is too cold; failing to mix in the seasoning adequately; leaving on rubber gloves too long; leaving pockets of moisture in the meat. Gooch has worked with tons and tons of ground grass-fed beef to learn how it behaves.

A properly handled portion presses into a half-inch patty that cooks to a caramelized exterior and a soft, juicy interior. There are zillions of ways to dress it up. Havron offers a few suggestions on the menu, and a few specialty toppings like Kickin’ Ketchup and wasabi mayo. The Gabby’s staff worked pretty hard to get the burger exactly right; it’s up to you to make it your own.



The lamb burger at Burger Up doesn’t look like a science project, in the sense that there are no trifold poster-boards or baking soda volcanoes. But it is.

The chemistry starts with 80/20 (the appropriate ratio of meat to fat) ground lamb from Niman Ranch. Food writers disagree on whether American lamb like Niman’s is milder or gamier than New Zealand lamb. In truth, the flavor may have more to do with how rather than where the meat is raised. Niman protocols for feeding and care are strict, right down to details governing lamb social groups. Whether its happy life and vegetarian diet get the credit, Niman Ranch lamb is undeniably mild in flavor.

The lamb arrives at Burger Up in 2.5-pound packages, three to a box, two or three times a week. At 5.5 ounces per burger, that’s a maximum of 65 lamb burgers a week, or nine a day. Seriously, people? Only nine of you each day are ordering it?

Burger Up’s lamb burger hits the 300-degree grill for about six minutes. About 60 percent of all burgers ordered at Burger Up — beef, lamb, everything — are ordered cooked medium. Lamb burgers are more likely to be ordered medium-rare or rare, which helps keep the interior soft and juicy. When it has a little “give” — like the tip of your nose — it’s ready, according to chef Simoni Kigweba.

Topping the lamb burger are Boursin cheese, arugula, red onion and honey-mint-Dijon aioli. All contribute some element to offset the rich meat. Boursin is creamy with a slight fermented astringency. Arugula is sharp and peppery. Red onion brings sulfur compounds and sugar to each bite.

The aioli combines classic lamb seasonings, but I became curious about why they’re classic. Some food scholars think strong seasonings with lamb began when mutton, the meat from mature sheep, was more commonly eaten than lamb. Mint partially masked the overpowering mutton flavor.

Other food scholars (Peter Farb, for instance) trace lamb-plus-mint back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Wool merchants didn’t appreciate the English public eating their little profit centers, so a decree was passed that lamb could be eaten only with bitter herbs, a flavor profile that was very unusual and repulsive at the time.

There’s also a chemical explanation for pairing lamb with mint and a vinegary condiment like mustard.

Lamb fat is higher in polyunsaturated and conjugated linoleic acids than other red meats, so when the 130-degree burger goes into a 98-degree mouth, the fat begins to congeal. The vinegar in mustard washes away congealed fat, while mint leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

So take your pick — politics, chemistry or muttonry. Back in the kitchen, there’s a lamb burger waiting to be dressed. A Charpier’s Bakery bun offers a lightly sweet pillowy base, but also a bit of tug and substance in each bite. A thick schmear of Boursin on the bottom bun prevents lamb juices from seeping through. A quilt of arugula leaves catches lamb juice and offers a chewy, sharp note.

The burger goes on next. And on top of that, a halo of red onion rings. Pour a little honey-mint-Dijon aioli into the halo and top it with another bun. A future classic is ready for the table.



The duck burger at Table 3 isn’t a thing that invented itself, and it sure as hell isn’t just thrown together.

It starts in the middle of the night, when baker Ursula Canfield drives to Table 3 to start a fresh batch of potato buns every day. Canfield, who brought her potato dough recipe along from a previous baking job in from Vermont, makes 45 to 180 buns every single day, because a soft, fresh bun is one important element of a transcendent duck burger.

There’s also the potent thyme aioli. A couple of tablespoons of thyme leaves are stripped from their stems, then pounded in a mortar and pestle (or sometimes a food processor) with garlic, oil and egg yolks.

The real diva of the dish is ground duck. It’s a combination of duck leg/thigh meat, breast meat, and trimmings. A little beef suet and soft ribeye fat hold it together and keep it moist. You can see them in the uncooked patties — nubs of beef fat stud the burger.

Chef Tom Sommer quotes the formula for salting the meat before it’s shaped. The whole mixture of protein and fat is weighed. That weight is multiplied by .008. That magic number is the amount of salt added to the mixture.

When a Table 3 duck burger hits the 400-degree flat top, the beef fat melts as the duck proteins firm up, basting the leaner duck meat before liquefying into a slick under the sizzling burger. What remains is a moist, light-colored burger with a deep golden sear and a whiff of beef.

Burger, Boursin, thyme aioli and potato bun come together. On a regular day, Table 3 sells 12 to 15 duck burgers. Mondays are slower — between five and 10 customers order the duck burger.

There it is — the secret to three extraordinary Nashville burgers. Which is no secret, just a lot of inspiration and labor, and a touch of madness.




Improving your burger

If you can bring the inspiration and labor, here’s a little madness to help make a great burger at home:

Thyme Aioli

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stems
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons water

Combine the egg, garlic and salt in a blender or food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Add the thyme and turn on the motor. Add the oil in a thin stream, which should take about 2 minutes. Add the water and process. I try to use aioli within 1 week just to be on the safe side.


Homemade Boursin

Burger Up’s lamb burger and Table 3’s duck burger are served with Boursin for both richness and astringency. Boursin also prevents meat juices from sogging the bun. Table 3 plans on making its own version of Boursin soon, and you can too.

  • 16 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 8 ounces whipped butter,
  • at room temperature
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Beat the cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer until well blended. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Chill for a day for flavors to blend. Makes 3 cups.


Table 3 Duck Burger

  • Deboned duck meat
  • Beef suet
  • Salt

Weigh the duck meat. Divide by 2 — that’s how much beef suet you need. Freeze the duck and suet for an hour or so until firm.

Salt the duck meat. To do this with scientific precision, convert the total weight of the duck and fat to grams. (Grams = ounces/0.0352). Multiply that number by .008 — that’s how much salt you need in grams. (Or, hell, just eyeball it — if you’re making a duck burger, this ain’t your first rodeo.)

Grind the duck first, then the suet. Work quickly, and don’t remove duck and suet from the freezer until you’re ready to grind them. Refreeze any meat and fat that become mushy in the grinder.

Shape 6-ounce portions (size of a deck-and-a-half of cards) Griddle at 400 degrees for 7 to 8 minutes per side until the center resists when poked.


Filed under: Lifestyles

4 Comments on this post:

By: PKVol on 5/3/13 at 2:54

I'll take a burger from Brown's or Rotier's anyday over anything else in Nashville.

By: knilob on 5/9/13 at 8:58

Rotier's, yes. Brown's, no. Why does everyone get so up in arms about Brown's?

By: PKVol on 5/9/13 at 10:06

I'm not up in arms, which is a term that means to be upset about something. I just think they have really good burgers, albeit I prefer my lettuce to be in leaf form and not shredded, but the burger is very good, resonably priced and nothing more.

By: tomluzer on 5/13/13 at 2:14

Burger is the best low carb diet. Whether it's veg or non-veg, everyone has it's own significance and importance.