For chef Tony Maws, creating a burger for his Cambridge, MA restaurant Craigie on Main meant accepting that naysayers would be inevitable. Maws' burger philosophy is that burgers are one of a few food items that are so iconic and so sentimental that people have strong opinions and ideas about how to make them perfectly. He decided to hone in on what makes a burger ideal to his individual taste, and the results have people waiting in line to get one of the only 18 burgers served at dinner.
The inspiration for the Craigie on Main burger came when Maws moved into his current, larger location from the smaller Craigie Street Bistrot. The larger restaurant had a bar, which got Maws thinking about what a bar menu might mean. Though he says ego initially kept him from exploring the "ubiquitous" burger option, he realized that if he made a burger that was in keeping with the Craigie spirit of quality and homeyness, he could "make something tasty and that makes people happy." He used his own burger preferences and ideals to guide the way through six months of testing: No flat patties. Impeccably sourced meat. A juicy, medium rare finish. Homemade buns and ketchup only. The result is a cheeseburger that has landed on the Eater National Burger 38 list and on Eater's list of the 12 Most Elusive Burgers. Here's the anatomy of the Craigie on Main burger:
1. The Bun
After months of testing, Maws decided on a housemade milk-style bun. The bun is made with milk, "a lot" of rye flour, and topped with sesame seeds. Maws says the bun has the softness he wanted, but is firm enough to support the weight of the burger and absorb the juices without falling apart. He added sesame seeds in a nod to his childhood burger memories, and the image of a sesame seed bun continues to resonate with him. The bun is buttered and then griddled on the same plancha where the burgers cook, which is an homage to the classic greasy spoon style burger. Maws explains that the buns are "fickle and not easy to make," and says that if he bought buns instead of made buns, he might have an easier time putting the burger together. But the challenge is just part of the Craigie process, Maws believes, and he is not willing to risk compromising the quality or the spirit of the burger with something he didn't make in-house.
2. The Patty
The real star of the Craigie on Main burger is the eight ounce grass-fed beef patty. Maws sources his beef from two New England farms, and grinds the beef in the Craigie kitchen. The blend varies a bit day to day, but generally features three different cuts of beef. The mix can be explained with this burger equation: (shoulder or chuck or brisket) + (short rib or hangar steak scraps) + (sirloin tips or another highly marbled cut) + bone marrow + suet. Because grass-fed beef tends to be on the leaner side, Maws adds the bone marrow and suet to get more fat into the blend. Maws wanted to season the burger from the inside out, but adding salt too soon would cure the meat. Instead, Maws dehydrates miso, and then adds it to the burger for a "subtle" umami flavor boost.
Maws wanted his burger to be juicy and served medium rare, so he first cooks it at a low temperature in a Winston CVap oven, so that the burger retains its moisture. Once the burger is about 75% cooked through, Maws finishes it off on the plancha to give it a good crust. Not only does this cooking technique keep the burger moist, it keeps the burger big. When it's finished, the eight ounce patty cooks down to seven and a half ounces. If he cooked it in a pan, Maws says his burger would shrink to five ounces.
3. The Cheese
While Maws "appreciates" different cheeses on burgers like swiss, provolone, and blue cheese, he felt that his ideal burger needed something simpler. He went with Shelburne Farm cheddar because the cheddar evokes that classic childhood burger while still having a depth of flavor. Maws finds that the Shelburne Farm cheddar melts well and maintains its flavor even after melting, a critical reason he decided to use it. Maws typically uses the cheddar that has been aged for two years because it has "more character."
4. The Sauce
From the moment Maws decided to create the Craigie burger, he struggled over how to get ketchup onto the burger. Maws felt strongly that putting a bottle of Heinz on the table was not in keeping with the spirit of his restaurant, so he set about creating a mace ketchup for his burger. His recipe is fairly standard, and includes tomatoes, dried spices, vinegar, onions, garlic, ginger powder, and anchovy. The role of the ketchup is to add rich, acid, salt, and umami flavors to the burger. Maws also serves a bit of extra mace ketchup on the side.
5. The Toppings
The Craigie on Main burger is topped with lettuce and onion dressed in what the cooks refers to as "burger vinaigrette." Maws uses whatever lettuce looks good at the farmers market, and tosses it with onion and the drippings and scrapings from the plancha where the burgers cooks. Maws explains that dressing the salad with the burger juice "just makes sense. It's synergy." When, and only when, they're in season, Maws adds sliced tomato to the burger as well. The burger also comes with red wine vinegar pickles and celery root slaw, both of which are actually served on the side. Maws says diners often add these to the burger, but that whether they are on the burger or on the side, they add a bit of acid to the plate. The red wine vinegar pickles have a bit of heat from horseradish, while the celery root adds a bright bite from a dressing that includes aioli, lemon juice, and red onion.