Monday, 28 April 2014

Recipe: The Manchester Foodies' Big Mac

They don't look that pretty, but they taste damn good

At work the other day, I found myself listening to the dulcet tones of Aaron Lewis, morosely intoning Staind's “smash” hit It's Been Awhile, and I thought: yes it has Aaron, yes it has.

Given that over two months have passed since my last blog post, it's been a while (correct spelling) is a constant refrain in my head. Don’t worry I'm not going to start busy-bragging. As writers of any creed will know, the desire to pen your thoughts inevitably waxes and wanes. It’s just been one of those waning periods.

But here I am. Writing once again. Wax on, as it were.

So, let’s get back to the task in hand.

Burgers. Most of us eat them. Most of like them. But not many of us go to much effort with them. Pre-ground meat from the supermarket or butcher, store-bought buns, the only creative spark reserved firmly for the toppings. For our American supperclub (read Food Geek’s kind review here) I wanted to go a bit further.

The Burger

As always my research started with Serious Eats, Modernist Cuisine and Heston. It would be fair to say that, like some sort of culinary plagiarist, most of my knowledge is culled from these guys. But testing out their processes often leads to new discoveries and slight variations.

Here’s what I learned about burgers:

- If you’re really serious about burger making then you should definitely be making your own mince. Franco Sotgiu was kind enough to donate us a mincer for the supperclub - you can find a good one for around £60 or ask your butcher to do it for you. If you’re not gonna make burgers very often, don’t buy one I guess. But they are useful for making sausages and pasta too.

- The type of cuts you use do matter. You need to find a good balance of fat-content and nicely textured meat. The most common ingredients seem to be chuck, sirloin and rib-eye, which are often augmented by richer, beefier additions: Kenji from Serious Eats uses a bit of oxtail, Modernist Cuisine uses hanger, Heston likes dry-aged shortrib. But no matter what anyone says, I don’t think a burger mince mix should contain expensive, dry-aged meat. Reserve that stuff for steaks and roasts. The cheapest option for a decent burger is to find a well-marbled piece of chuck and dry age it in the fridge for a couple of days. I settled on 50% chuck, 25% sirloin and 25% hanger, but I suggest looking at the Serious Eats guide to the burger blends as a start. We tend to get our meat from Farmer’s Choice, and can vouch for the quality of their steaks in particular. 

Freshly ground mince

- I have made the granulated-style burger a la Heston (laying the strands of mince parallel to each other, shaping into a log, then cutting into patties) but I’m not convinced the mouthfeel is that much better than in loosely hand-formed patties. Using a chefs ring or other type of mould will work fine for shaping, just remember not to work or compress the mix too much.

- Chilling your mincer parts as well as your meat makes the whole process much easier, especially when it comes to grinding the fat. Warm fat plus a warm mincer equals smeared greasy bits that will clog the machine. For the meat, fridge cold is fine but 20 mins in the freezer won’t do it any harm. Put the mincer parts in for as long as you want.

- When it comes to the cooking, Heston is a big advocate of regular flipping. If you have a loosely-formed patty, this can prove difficult. So you’re probably going to have to resort to a few minutes on each side tactics or a normal amount of flips. Sous-vide your burgers to 55 degrees c and pan sear if you’ve got the requisite equipment.

The Bun

New York Cult Recipes Bun

And what about the bun? There’s not time to go into the intricacies of making bread but here’s the upshot of all my googling and recipe testing:

- The three best burger bun recipes I’ve tried so far are Modernist Cuisine’s (which, like Heston’s uses a pre-ferment), the one from New York Cult Recipes, and America’s Test Kitchen’s Potato Burger Buns. The last two are by far the most manageable; Heston overcomplicates things in my view.

- Buns shouldn’t have too much flavour on their own, but like pizza dough should have enough about them to stand up to intense flavours. They need to have sufficient integrity to prevent them falling apart but not enough that they’re dense and chewy. Brioche ticks most of the boxes, and is wonderfully light, but it’s very difficult to work with. Something like a demi-brioche, which will be less rich in flavour, or the above recipes will work well.

- Shaping the buns is the hardest task. Rolling into balls and flattening gives good results but using a ring mould is the best option. Craft your own out of foil for budget-friendly cooking.

- We failed to apply sesame seeds (I know, it's not a real Big Mac without them). To ensure you don't get burnt sesame seeds, apply a little egg white wash to the buns once they've been baked, then sprinkle the seeds atop and grill until set (it won't take very long).

The Sauce

It should look something like this

The Big Mac sauce recipe is no secret: not that long ago, McDonald’s Canada released a load of YouTube videos, designed to answer FAQs. One of these questions was “What is in the sauce that is in the Big Mac”? Dan Coudreaut, McDonald’s Executive Chef, gave viewers and approximation of the restaurant’s sauce, but doesn’t give you the exact ingredients.

Based on the video and a bit of playing around I came up with this recipe:

- 50g Mayonnaise
- 25g Branston’s Sweet Relish
- 10g American (French’s) mustard
- ½ tsp of sweet paprika, onion powder, and garlic powder
- enough pickling liquid from a jar of gherkins to loosen the mixture and to taste

Add all ingredients, except pickling liquid, to a bowl set on scales. Add liquid until you achieve the desired consistency (slightly looser than the mayonnaise). 

Pickles, Cheese etc.

Giant homemade cheese slice 

After trying a couple of gherkins/dill pickles, we settled on the Beit Hashita brand. They were closest we found to the kind you'll find in an original Big Mac. For the garnishes, finely mince the onion and leave it in the fridge for a few hours or soak in iced water to diminish the pungency, and shred some iceberg lettuce. Keep it in iced-water if you're bothered about crispness; McDonald's wouldn't bother. 

It's not essential but you can make your own melting cheese slice with practically any cheese by using an emuslifying agent like sodium citrate. The Modernist Cuisine method has been reproduced on the Saveur website. We used mostly cheddar and a little emmental for ours, but the McDonald's site lists vegetarian cheddar as the only cheese in its cheese slices. The cheesy goo needs to be formed into one thin layer before being cut into slices

Well that's about it. If you have any questions leave a comment and if you want to see someone more anal than me try to replicate a Big Mac, try Kenji's post at Serious Eats.

Thursday, 28 November 2013


Cap'n Manchester

I'm pretty sure we all know SoLIta by now. So I'll skip the preamble and get down to it.

We were invited by Franco Sotgiu ostensibly to try out the new chicken wings menu, and as such were not asked to pay for any of the below.

Let's talk about the good things first.

Now, I'm a wing aficionado. It's a fact Anna can testify to, having watched me devour them by the hundreds - Chinese-style, Korean-style, Jamaican-style, deep-fried, BBQ-d, Buffalo-d, you name it. When Janelle Monae sings "But we eat waaangs [yeah I know what that sounds like] and throw them bones on the ground", she talking about me and her on a night out. I'd say, without exaggeration, that somewhere in my hypothetical last meal there would be some variation on deep-fried chicken wings. You get the picture.  

Ain't no thing but a PB & J chicken wing
SoLIta's wings are good. The range of 'toppings' is far beyond the usual scope of the spicy (read doused in Frank's Hot Sauce) and the sticky barbecue variant that most establishments limit themselves to. Sure, Solita do those too, but they've also got PBJ (Peanut Butter & Jelly), Kiev, BMW (Bacon & Maple), and the Naga-based 'Cry for Help' amongst others.

Anna went for the PBJ and I for the BMW. The skin of the wings had taken on a lovely, uniform golden-brown hue and a gelatinous quality that I love. The meat pulled away from the bone easily, which is more than can be said for a lot of the fried chicken joints I've visited. Despite most of the sauce pooling at the bottom of the bowl, the flavours were still evident and well executed. It's messy work but that's always been part of the charm for me. The peanut butter and jelly isn't as wacky a wing flavouring as it sounds, coming out tasting like a sweetened satay sauce. The BMW had me thinking of american pancakes. In a good way.

My burger was thoroughly tasty too. I opted for a special, the Captain Manchester, on the basis of the photos I'd seen on Twitter. Two mighty patties, lancashire cheese, and a horseradish and ketchup sauce (so Russian dressing without the mayo). It was a beast. I'd expected to manage it all but could only stomach three-quarters. It comes with a free comic too, and you can't say that about many burgers in town. 

Now for the not so good...

Unevenly cooked and bloody steak
We've had issues with steak here in the past: a hanger that had been quite rudely treated, overcooked and unrested. This time Anna ordered the 10oz Prime Rib on the recommendation of a fellow blogger-diner in the hope of a better experience. The waitress informed us it was quite a thickly-cut steak and was probably better served medium. All fine there. Unfortunately, when it came and Anna cut in, it was evident the steak had seen too much of the grill for its slender frame. To call it medium-well would have been kind. With credit to the staff, when this was pointed out a new one was swiftly ordered. However, the kitchen, in their haste to get another one out, didn't rest the steak, leaving the plate swimming in meat juices. Good for dunking chips in, not so good as a salad dressing.

Now this pains me most not because the steak should be cooked correctly, not even because this might happen to plenty of other customers who might otherwise keep quiet. It pains me because it's wasteful. 

Much like last time, the trip has left us in two minds.

The best conclusion to draw is that they do burgers very well. And wings. Despite the Inka grill - the steaks aren't this joint's USP from our experiences. As good as the grill is, the chefs using it need to get a grip with their steak cooking, if we're to consider dropping £16 pounds on one in the future.

The service was friendly, without any of the aloofness which is rife in this part of town (and that was evidenced in our observation of tables other than our own). Atmosphere-wise, I suppose it doesn't help that the place was full of groups as everyone gears up to Christmas. Our feeling is that it's a great place to take your mates, rather than have any intimate, post-work catch-up with a partner.

From all our dealings with Franco, he has been nothing less than accepting of criticism, always keen to get to the root of any problem. And I've always liked SoLIta for not seeming as try-hard as Almost Famous. We'll be back, just not for a steak. 

SoLita on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Byron hamburgers, Waterloo

This mouth won't wait for no photo.

Unfortunately, this isn't a post about the brand spanking new Byron hamburgers in Manchester city centre, but it is a post about Byron hamburgers on the Cut in Waterloo! A trip to London for bank holiday weekend saw a total of three burgers consumed, a feat I have not achieved since living above GBK for near on a year (OH, I miss those days).

Sitting on the sunny Southbank, drinking a bottle of Veuve my clever friend spotted in a local offy mispriced at £15.99, saw us very quickly in need of some grub. I remembered there's a supposedly decent gastropub nearby in the shape of the Anchor & Hope, but sadly found it closed. Lo and behold: Byron hamburgers sat directly opposite.

I've been to Byron before and happily found this visit as pleasant as the last. The interior is bright, the service speedy and friendly, and the food pretty damn good. I'd been to Meat Market the same weekend, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my double patties, I was secretly quite pleased to find a more refined affair. I can never resist a burger with cheese and bacon (as the bite mark in my photos evidences), and this one was as delicious as usual!

Burger, open. (2013) Please note: this image is due for submission in the Turner Prize 2014.

Possibly my favourite thing about Byron burgers is the MASSIVE gherkin that accompanies them beef things (saying burger over and over is getting repetitive). The piece of pickled cucumber you see before you is actually only 1/20th of the entire thing*. Immense. I think the burger was probably slightly more cooked than I would have eaten at home, but it was actually so tasty - slathered in mature Cheddar and bacon - that I didn't really notice. (Oh, and the booze again might have had something to do with it...)

Chips innit.
Skin on chips are usually a delight, and these were no exception. My friend and I shared a portion along with our burgers, and if your tummy has been filled with bubbles prior to eating, I'd say this is plenty. However if you're more of a Big Ma(n)c kinda guy or gal, then you might want a portion to yourself.

Not to forget this delightful bottle of house red, named on their list as "good" (the wines range from good to best, so the one we had was essentially their worst). At £14.95, it may be a little pricier than some expect for a burger joint, but it went down a treat. Having shared this bottle with just one friend, I'd perhaps recommend others don't: 375ml is quite a lot to consume with just a burger for company, and it resulted in me nearly missing my train back up north... The online menu suggests a great selection of bottled beers, which is music to my ears. Next time, I'll skip the overwhelming amount of red juice and opt for a Kernel instead.

The Byron I visited is located on the Cut, so it's a perfect spot for pre or post-theatre dining if you're visiting the Old (or Young!) Vic, and it's also handily located within walking distance of Waterloo - bypass the overpriced Upper Crust and get yourself a real meal if you've got time to kill round here.

I know Byron may not be as cool or trendy as some burger bars, and is probably a tad overpriced when you factor in fancy toppings like er, spicy BBQ sauce at £1.25, and chips at £3.25, but I like this place: I can visit Byron and enjoy a burger in a grown-up environment, without worrying about the sexist undertones of the menu. I also hear their milkshakes are winners (must work on increasing stomach capacity), if feeling adult ain't always your thing.

I'm yet to visit the new Byron site in Manchester, and sincerely hope I won't be disappointed. From reading Bacon on the Beech's write-up, it sounds like I'm safe. Phew!

*Note: this may be a slight exaggeration. I was suffering from cheap champagne induced sunstroke at the time.

41-45 The Cut
London SE1 8LF
020 7633 9882

Byrons on Urbanspoon