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Mathew Ramsey, the 'Burger Pervert,' Talks Technique

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Mathew Ramsey isn't trying to cook the perfect burger. He's more like a burger artist. In place of a paintbrush are his tools: a meat grinder, cast iron griddle and ground beef, which he says is always fatty and grassfed. He is a self-described "burger pervert" and in the course of the next year he's building a burger a week (52 burgers in total) with names like, the Mac Daddy, the Pickleback Burger, the Full Mounty and the Dirty Bird. The Bloomingdale-based blogger's project, appropriately called, is a feast for the eyes. The photos alone may lead to gawking and even drooling. His ingredients also play a pretty tongue-in-cheek role. One of his recent creations, the "Cali-Corn-Ication" uses corn smut, also known as huitlacoche. This smut is a dark fungus found in corn, that's safe to eat and used in a variety of Mexican dishes.

This week's burger, the Melon Monroe, takes full advantage of "juicy" qualities. It's a burger that features compressed watermelon slices flavored in lime. It also oddly enough uses fried pig ear, pickled cucumbers, purple basil and goat cheese as toppings. All of this is sandwiched between two beignet buns. An untraditional take on the burger? You bet. But, the flavors and consistency are just as flavorful and messy as something between two sesame seed buns.

Ramsey, who graduated from culinary school and once did a brief writing stint at the San Francisco Chronicle's food section, is now a professional photographer and video producer, working out of his basement apartment. The burger project is a creative outlet, allowing him to both cook and shoot his work, and so far he says it's been a great way to share his love of cooking with others. In preparation for grilling season, Eater spoke to Ramsey to find out what every burger cook needs to know to get their creative juices — and patty juices — flowing.

For people making their own gourmet burgers, what should they look for in their patty?
For choosing meat, really it's the fattier, the better. That's honestly where all the flavor comes from in your burger patty.
When I can, I tend to grind my own, using a Kitchen Aid meat grinder. That's preferred, but honestly it's just as easy to buy ground beef. Pretty much 15 [percent] is the lowest fat content that I will go. I'm looking for stuff that's usually 20 percent and above.
Grassfed is preferred because I can really taste the difference. Sometimes I like a blend, maybe chuck with short ribs, but it really depends. Beef is probably the biggest go-to for burgers, but part of this experiment is to push what it means to build a burger. I'm working on one in the near future that's basically a vegetarian burger, maybe a fruit burger.

How are you preparing the burger? Do you use any special seasonings?
There's a million different ways, but my favorite way is on a griddle. I have a cast iron griddle that I like to use, just to get a nice sear, and then I finish it in the oven under a broiler.
When I'm trying to just get the flavor out of the meat itself, I literally just do salt and pepper on each side. But, depending on the burger I want sometimes I will add caramelized onions. I like using watercress too. It's a nice texture and you get a good color out of it. I've used beets sometimes. It gives it an unusual reddish color, which is not always attractive, but it gives it a really nice, earthy sweetness.

Are we looking for a baseball size burger? What is the size for your burger patty?
My go-to is probably a quarter-pounder basically, but, and this is like my biggest cop-out, I feel like there's a burger for every occasion. It's kind of like wine where it depends on the occasion. I really like the burgers at Duke's [in Dupont Circle]. They uses a double patty which is kind of thinner. That's one of the things that I kind of want to experiment with is patty size. Even the little sliders are great. I love White Castle cheeseburgers. The fact that they are steamed over onions, there's something special about it.

Is there anything you won't use as a topping?
The whole idea with this being a creative endeavor is approaching the toppings to see what a ketchup can be or what a sauce can be. As far as no-no's go, there's only one food that I don't really enjoy, and that's beef liver. You'll probably never find anything with beef liver. It's one of those things from childhood that I've never been able to get over.

Buns matter in the burger. What is the standardized bun people should use? And, are there unique ones?
My favorite classic is a potato brioche bun. It's beautifully soft, and it's kind of like the one, and it's my classic go-to. I love branching out though too. The English Muffin works great. You really have to think about what kind of burger you're making, and you can get creative with it. I did a rice burger which was fun, and that's already kind of happening in Asia. But, it's totally a different way to experience the burger.

Is it ever excusable to order just a hamburger, over a cheeseburger?
I almost always prefer the hamburger. It kind of depends on my mood. If I'm at a restaurant, a lot of times I will order it without cheese. I do it to taste the meat and sample what's in the burger.

What are your top cheeses for burgers?
Taleggio is a great melty, very mild cheese. Gruyere is good. Comté for the nuttiness, and grilled feta is another great one. Cheddar is a big one, and it's a classic. But, it's probably one of my least favorites.

What is it that most people do wrong when they're cooking burgers?
Me personally, I need a burger that's medium rare. Part of respecting the meat and respecting the burger is cooking it well. If I order a burger medium rare and it comes back medium or well, it kind of bothers me because I feel like that piece of meat wasn't respected in particular. It comes with practice and learning how to cook it. The more you do it. The better you get.
—Tim Ebner
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