The history of the hamburger (and a perfect flame-grilled burger recipe)

Posted by Jan Braai on 18 October 2012

Most of what follows is fact, in that it will get you through a TV quiz show. Should you want to write your PhD thesis on culinary anthropology, however, I’d suggest some further research on the subject. My version of events is based on a fair amount of casual research, as well as site visits to Hamburg in Germany and New York.

The story of the hamburger starts at the height of Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire in the 12th century, when it occupied 16 per cent of Earth’s total land and covered an area stretching from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan. This empire grew and was ruled from horseback. When the army was on the move, the Mongolians didn’t always have time to stop and eat, so they placed pieces of raw meat between the horse and saddle. Here it would be softened, salted and slightly cooked by the movement and heat from the horse.

When the Mongols invaded Russia during the 13th century, the chefs in Moscow adopted this practice of serving and eating raw, spiced, chopped or tenderised meat. It was referred to as steak tartare in reference to the Tartans, one of the tribes in the Mongol army. The dish continued to grow in popularity in Moscow, but it was only a few centuries later that it started to spread westwards, arriving in Germany on Russian ships docking at Hamburg at the start of the 17th century. The Germans, famous for their custom of sticking to the rules, left the recipe pretty much unchanged.

By the 19th century, Hamburg was an important stopover on transatlantic voyages to the so-called New World of North America. It was on one of these ships that the hamburger arrived in New York, where it quickly gained popularity among the global settlers who’d made a home there. The spiced meatball was renamed and called a hamburger steak to distinguish it from a normal steak, which was a solid piece of meat.

From here on in, there are various versions of the truth. It’s unclear who first decided to cook this hamburger steak instead of serving it raw. Most accounts agree it happened in New York somewhere in the 19th century, soon after it arrived in the States. Around the same time and in the same city, someone first ate it between two pieces of bread and so it became known as the hamburger steak sandwich. This either happened at a casino when a gentleman wanted to eat with one hand and gamble with the other, or at an international food fair, or at one of a myriad restaurants that claim to have invented the practice.

Over the years, the words ‘steak’ and ‘sandwich’ were dropped from the name to give us what we know today as the hamburger.

In my experience, the quality of hamburgers in New York is significantly higher than in Hamburg – they’re also more widely available there. This is a shame, but a fact. I never really order steak tartare, so I can’t tell you where this is more widely available or of better quality. However, I can tell you how to serve up the best flame-grilled burger at home.

How to make the perfect flame-grilled burger

Make the patty with 100 per cent pure beef – from a cut such as silverside or thick flank – which has been freshly minced at a butcher you trust. Spice the meat with salt and pepper and braai the patties to your liking (in my opinion, medium-rare or medium is best). The meat should have an internal temperature of between 57 and 63˚ Celsius. Serve on slightly toasted rolls with tomato, lettuce, red onion rings and slices of gherkin – that’s how they do it in New York, after all.

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