People have been cooking meat with onions for no less than so long as recipes have been recorded, however I’d argue that the mixture was simplified to its primal core in the course of the Nice Despair, when Homer Davis and his son Ross invented what they known as the Despair burger on the Hamburger Inn in El Reno, Okla.
By smashing shaved onion — a half-onion’s price per burger — into a couple of ounces of floor beef, they not solely provided his clients a greater worth of their five-cent hamburger. Additionally they inadvertently created a sandwich that, like pizza margherita or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I contemplate a culinary endpoint: a creation so good in its simplicity that it can’t be improved upon, solely tweaked.
“De Re Coquinaria,” the oldest identified cookbook, contains quite a few dishes for meat stewed or simmered with onions and spices. Likewise, onions have been part of hamburgers since earlier than the trendy hamburger as we all know it — a patty of beef sandwiched in a smooth bun — was invented. Recipes for proto-hamburgers, just like the Hamburg steak listed on an 1837 menu from Delmonico’s restaurant in New York, included onions or garlic blended into the meat patties. In his ebook “The Hamburger: A History,” Josh Ozersky credit Walter Anderson, a founding father of White Citadel, the world’s oldest fast-food hamburger chain, with first considering to position onions straight on the griddle with the meat to “bathe in the juices of the still-cooking meat.” These sliders are nonetheless cooked on a mattress of onions immediately.
However what makes the Oklahoma onion burger (because the Despair burger has come to be known as) totally different? The amount of onions is definitely a part of the equation, but it surely’s additionally how they’re cooked.
Even in El Reno, the precise cooking course of varies from diner to diner, however the fundamentals are the identical: A small ball of floor beef is positioned atop a griddle, then topped with a confusingly massive haystack of very thinly sliced onions. The cook dinner then aggressively smashes the meat into the griddle, spreading it right into a tough patty massive sufficient to overhang the perimeters of a bun, whereas concurrently embedding the onions into the meat. When juices begin to acquire on prime of the patty, it’s scraped up and flipped, onion facet down, and seasoned with salt and pepper.
It’s topped with a slice of cheese, if requested, adopted by a smooth, untoasted bun — heel stacked on crown stacked on burger — which warms and softens within the onion-scented vapors rising by the meat. A number of moments later, your entire stack is lifted with the spatula, the heel of the bun is faraway from the highest and positioned beneath. Then, with a lightweight squeeze and pull, the spatula is eliminated, and the burger is positioned on a plate.
The onion burger has reached newfound reputation lately, largely because of George Motz, writer of “Hamburger America” and host of First We Feast’s “Burger Scholar Sessions” sequence on YouTube. (In truth, the primary time I had a burger particularly known as an Oklahoma onion burger was in 2009, when Mr. Motz and Mr. Ozersky hosted small bimonthly gatherings at R.U.B. Barbecue in New York, the place the chef Scott Smith recreated an array of regional burger types from Mr. Motz’s ebook.) In the course of the pandemic, Mr. Motz delivered onion burgers through a “burger slide,” a chute that disbursed burgers from a kitchen window in Brooklyn to hungry socially distanced clients on the road under. He has since wrapped up a Northern European tour, serving onion burgers to sold-out crowds. His YouTube movies on onion burgers have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.
I talked to Mr. Motz on the telephone about what makes the onion burger work so effectively. In keeping with him, the reply is twofold. First, it’s how, in a well-prepared onion burger, you obtain a number of onion flavors in the identical sandwich: the sweetly caramelized ones in direct contact with the griddle, the smooth steamed rings pressed into the meat and gnarled, almost burned shreds that frizzle out of the burger’s edges the best way my daughter attracts hair with crayons. Past that, there’s the onion vapor that permeates the smooth bun. These textures and flavors yield a exceptional depth that varies from chew to chew. However much more essential is the amplifying impact that onions have on the meat taste.
“The science of onions cooking in rendered beef fat is perfection,” Mr. Motz mentioned. He’s not flawed.
Whereas the majority onion aroma comes from a category of chemical compounds known as thiosulfinates, a 2000 study printed in The Journal of Agricultural and Meals Chemistry discovered that, when remoted, a specific odor molecule (3-Mercapto-2-methylpentan-1-ol or MMP) had the aroma of meat broth. A subsequent 2004 study discovered that the focus of this compound could be elevated by as much as almost eightfold by slicing and cooking onions. Including sliced and cooked onions to meat truly makes meat style extra meaty.
Furthermore, each thiosulfinates and MMP are compounds created through enzymatic reactions solely after an onion is sliced open and its cells spill out their contents. For that reason, when making onion burgers, it’s essential to rupture as many onion cells as potential. Slicing the onions paper skinny — a activity greatest completed with a mandolin-style slicer or a meals processor with a really skinny slicing blade — is important. Particular person onion cells are additionally longer alongside the root-to-stem orientation (do you bear in mind onion cells beneath your first microscope?), which implies that slicing them perpendicular to this orientation — into rings parallel to the onion’s equator — will rupture extra cells and thus launch extra meat-enhancing compounds.
My course of for cooking onion burgers at dwelling adheres carefully to the unique technique. My primary tweak is within the temperature of my griddle. The diners in El Reno keep their griddles at a average temperature (round 380 levels Fahrenheit, Mr. Motz says). That is by necessity: Any hotter and the pancakes, eggs and different diner staples which can be cooked alongside the burgers would burn.
Once I make onion burgers at dwelling, I preheat my griddle the best way I might for smash burgers, getting it smoking scorching. As I place the patties of beef and onions on an ungreased metal griddle, I smash them with a stiff spatula, concentrating on the perimeters, and spreading them out in order that they cook dinner up lacy skinny and deeply browned. Utilizing an ungreased griddle or heavy carbon-steel or cast-iron pan is essential — you need the meat to stay with a view to brown effectively.
To scrape them up, I flip over my spatula for extra leverage (or, once I really feel like pulling out an additional software, I’ll use a razor-blade wallpaper scraper to extract each little bit of brown crust from the new metallic). After flipping the patties and topping them with the buns, I cowl the stacked burgers with a folded dish towel, a way I picked up from Telway Hamburgers, a small chain of slider joints in Detroit. The towel (which I name the Onion Towel, because it now eternally smells like onions, regardless of a number of washes) traps onion-scented steam straight towards the buns, making them extra-soft and oniony. The result’s a burger that has the hallmark aroma of the traditional, however with a bit of additional browned taste and texture from the onerous sear and an particularly intense onion scent.
There’s a draw back to cooking onion burgers at dwelling: Even with one of the best air flow, the identical onion vapor that permeates the bun and towel will permeate each porous floor of your own home, together with garments, pets and youngsters. When you’ve got out of doors area, it is a easy challenge to resolve: Mr. Motz suggests inserting your griddle or skillet straight on an out of doors grill, cooking and serving al fresco. (This additionally affords you the chance of including some chargrilled taste on to the meat for a scrumptious variation.)
For those who, nevertheless, are apartment-bound, open all of the home windows, discover the strongest fan you possibly can, and ensure all residents are in the home once you begin cooking — you don’t wish to be the one one smelling like onions all week.
Recipe: Oklahoma Onion Burgers