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Dec 6, 2012 02:05 PM

Steamed burgers at Umami and Short Order

Normally I'm not one for rumormongering.

I've been to both Umami and Short Order, several times at each. Every time I've gone, I'm always sitting there, looking at my half eaten burger, wondering how on earth it's possible to produce a burger patty that is so completely devoid of flavor.

I know many here will disagree, some will agree, but this is simply a discussion on the flavor of the meat itself. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I could walk out of a Ralph's with a pound of conventional 85/15 burger meat, cook it at home, and wind up with something that has at least twice as much flavor as the patty from either Short Order and Umami.

The patties at both restaurants have always been incredibly tender and possessing that desired "fall apart" consistency, leading me to believe that there was some funny business going on in back. At Short Order I even prompted my waitress, "This meat is so tender! Is it cooked sous vide and then finished on the grill?" She ensured that all the patties were indeed cooked over a wood burning grill.

I'm no dummy when it comes to cooking over hardwood. When I BBQ during the summer I buy untreated firewood and burn it in a weber and grill over that. No charcoal for me. The burger patty at Short Order was so pale and light in color that I knew there was no way in hell that burger was cooked entirely over wood.

A quick google search of "Umami sous vide burgers" turns up several pages that more or less confirm this atrocity.

I've been told by a restaurant friend that Short Order steams their burgers and holds them at temperature in a steam jacket before giving them a quick mark on the grill.

I'd hate to think of myself as a food snob or some sort of "connoisseur" simply because I want my burger cooked to order on a high heat source. I'm even okay with a griddle, and in fact I know that to be a fantastic way to get a beautiful dark brown crust on a burger. It's the method of choice at Shake Shack. I'm also a big fan of burgers cooked over high heat in a cast iron skillet.

Knowing all this, I can't help but wonder at the popularity of Umami. The best bread in the world or tastiest condiments could never make that burger taste good to me.

I haven't even mentioned the cost of either one of these establishments. I've spent between 10-13 dollars per burger at both. I don't mind paying more for a burger. I'm a fan of the burgers at Rustic Canyon and Father's Office. But to pay that much for meat that is either steamed or cooked in a boiler bag is downright absurd.

There is one burger that I enjoy on a regular basis and would wholeheartedly recommend: Burger Lounge. The meat is cooked to order on a griddle, the bun is toasted in butter, the meat is grassfed but they'll serve it to you an honest-to-god medium rare so it's still very tender and flavorful, it's just a very well made burger, and for $9. This is currently my go-to burger.

The fact that sous vide cooking has made its way into our burgers makes me want to boycott the process altogether...

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  1. That's quite a rant! :)

    But I'm not sure what you're ranting about. Are you complaining that the meat used by Umami and Short Order has no flavor? Are you complaining that they're dishonest with their cooking practices? Are you saying that sous vide somehow leaches the flavor out of what would otherwise be flavorful meat?

    In the end, I'm not sure what difference the prep/cooking methods make if the end product is appealing.

    4 Replies
    1. re: JeMange

      I think he's complaining about a lack of flavor. But that's contrary to my experience at Umami.

      1. re: JeMange

        I think he is complaining about the lack of flavor due to the cooking process. If Short Order is in fact steaming their burgers, holding them, then just chucking them on the grill at the last minute, it's pretty appalling. Even Carl's Jr. doesn't do that.

        Especially given how ridiculously expensive and precious Short Order is. As I mentioned in my rant some time ago:

        for God's sake it's just a burger! (Oh, and the prices have gone up since my rant.)

        1. re: EarlyBird

          While it would be ridiculous to say that steaming then marking on the grill is the best possible way to prepare a burger, it also seems a bit snooty to simply dismiss out of hand. Let's not lose sight of the most important thing - the taste for the end-user: the person putting up the money to eat the burger in question. Basically, I'm saying that while I'm curious about their methods, I wouldn't rule any of them out simply because I didn't approve of the particular technique. Seems absurd to me.

          There's an east coast chain, Jackson Hole, that has been steaming its burgers for years. While they're just okay, I always thought that a bit of charring/caramelization would work wonders in terms of flavor. Perhaps the "steam then scorch" method is the way to go. Who knows?

          If it tastes good, enjoy...

      2. Big fan of Burger Lounge. Also my current go-to (if I'm in the hood). They're literally doing everything right, from the ingredients, to the Maine Root soft drinks, to the price, etc.

        Just wish they'd move a bit closer to the East Side.

        Have you tried Round's Premium? That's also just a griddled burger.

        1. My favorite burger is at Golden State. That's one great burger.

          2 Replies
          1. re: wienermobile

            When I had my first Golden State, my heart stopped! My jaw was frozen! :)

            Heck, they have my favorite burger in my life!

            1. re: wienermobile

              Golden State's burger has the best buns.

            2. Wow. I've had quite a few Umami burgers, and only one from Short Order. I liked both, felt SO's was overpriced, but am wondering that because of the tasty toppings, that's why I haven't truly tasted the meat, and could not say whether I felt it was bland or not. Maybe I need to go to each and order a totally plain burger, meat & bun only, and taste them truly for myself. Naaaah, I like the toppings too much to waste that kind of cash & calories on a taste test.

              But I wonder why Adam Fleischmann would go to the trouble of doing interviews and spelling out his method of cooking burgers (which I've tried at home and really agree with) if he was instructing his cooks to steam or sous vide the meat first?? Doesn't seem very plausible to me.


              1. My rant is this:

                The meat has no flavor, period, and now I know why.

                If I sound incredulous, it's because I am. We've got so-called "artesan" burger joints charging a premium for a burger and...steaming them?

                Call me a purist or whatever. I'm a firm believer that a good burger is not the sum of its parts. A good burger has a foundation of a great patty and a great bun. If you don't have a good patty, it's not a good burger.

                I know there will always be someone chiming in, "Well if it's a good final product, then..." If you like mushy, falling apart, flavorless meat, hey, dig in. Maybe I just didn't get the right burger with the right toppings to make up for the lack of flavor.

                I could have simply stated, "Umami and SO suck! Stay away!" But you, like myself, enjoy a great burger, you'd probably want to know WHY these places aren't very good.

                12 Replies
                1. re: fooddude37

                  No "sous vide" issues at The Apple Pan.:) Still my favorite. What you see on that grill is what you get.

                  1. re: fooddude37

                    Had my first Umami burger last monday. Shared an order of onion rings. Had one of the tap beers.
                    Excellent. Also had very good company.

                    1. re: fooddude37

                      Been rolling this around in my head some more. Not trying to defend, just putting together some facts. Re: Umami's burger, seems to me if it were steamed first, then griddled, as you believe, to get some color, I can't imagine how they get them so dark brown all over, and manage to keep the inside at medium rare. Mine have been cooked that way every time I order them. And they've always come out perfectly MR in the center and juicy, I would think they'd be over done, if they were precooked. Just thinking aloud.

                      1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                        From J. Gold. "Umami cooks its patties for a long time at a low temperature, and then — ssst, ssst — briefly sears them before serving."

                        1. re: wienermobile

                          I'm thinking fooddude has conflated cooking for a long time with steaming.
                          BTW, didn't White Castle steam its burgers?

                          1. re: wienermobile

                            Its a technique called "reverse sear" and I use it whenever I grill or roast red meat. Works wonderfully. Steamed burgers are a Connecticut specialty.

                            1. re: wienermobile

                              Hmm. That surprises me, as it seems he led readers to believe he cooked the burgers a different way than that, in the above-referenced link to a magazine interview. Or maybe that's just the way I read it.

                              Anyhow, no steaming done at Plan Check, and their burgers are also very soft, as the OP calls it. I watched them make them on the grill today. The meat was definitely raw when it hit the grill. I would think the cuts used to make the burger may attribute to its texture quality.

                              1. re: Dirtywextraolives

                                Plan Check uses the torchon method for their burgers. During the grinding process, the strands coming out of the grinder are aligned parallel and uniformly, then carefully rolled into a big torchon or log. From there they can slice off a patty to give that tender fall-apart texture. I believe this was an innovation of Heston Blumenthal.

                                Plan Check is indeed delicious!

                            2. re: Dirtywextraolives

                              Sous vide, steam, it's all the same to me. Whether you seal something in plastic and put it in a water tank, or put it on a tray on the steam setting of a combi oven, it's all the same. Low temperature cooking at precise temperatures to ensure consistency. Call me old fashioned but I find these practices absurd and unnecessary, merely crutches so that chefs and cooks no longer have to pay attention to what they're doing and can automate their process. I'm sure Umami was designed to expand since day one. If you're doing fast food and charging 3-4 bucks for a burger that's fine (and even then I get a cooked-to-order burger at In n Out), but if I'm paying $10+, I'll just take my business to Houston's or Morton's.

                              What I'm realizing from some of these responses is everyone has a difference reference point. It seems like there's a camp that enjoys burgers as the sum of their parts, which I don't get, but hey whatever floats your boat. The best burger I've ever had was the one I make at home in a cast iron skillet with Pat LaFrieda meat. But don't let the quality of the meat fool you, that is not the determining factor in what makes a burger taste great. It's the cooking method. I flip the burger every 30 seconds in a cast iron skillet over raging high heat, Heston Blumenthal method, and the end result is a medium rare burger that has a profoundly beefy, savory, dark crust.

                              I'll admit that the burger at Umami LOOKS great. But after a few bites I have to wonder if there's something wrong with my taste buds or I'm missing something. There's just no flavor whatsoever.

                              1. re: fooddude37

                                I'd say quality and technique do go hand in hand, so I do not agree with you on that.

                                I enjoy burgers at both Umami and Short Order and don't find the flavors or consistency to be that of a steamed burger. Just straight TASTY!

                                1. re: fooddude37

                                  Your conflation of sous vide and steaming is just plain wrong. They're two different techniques that produce two different results.

                                  At home, I cook burgers on a cast iron skillet or over mesquite charcoal but I'd disagree that the meat used has little to do with the taste. There's a reason dry aged prime beef, for example, tastest beefier than wet aged choice, for example. There's a reason why ground round tastes different than ground chuck or ground sirloin.

                                  1. re: JeMange

                                    "Your conflation of sous vide and steaming is just plain wrong. "

                                    I was about to write this. They are not the same. Also, please note that I do not cook with the sous vide technique, but it is nonetheless interesting.

                                    Let's break it down. I'll use chicken breast to illustrate, because it's such a temperamental beast.

                                    A chicken breast is perfectly cooked at 160-165 Fahrenheit. At 170+, it's dried out (which is what most people are used to eating) but at 160, it's simply perfect-- moist and bursting with flavorful juice. There's this razor thin temperature window and if you screw it up (as most people do), you wind up with dry white meat.

                                    When you sear a thick, raw chicken breast cutlet, you face that eternal problem-- by the time the interior reaches 160, a significant part of the exterior is already past 170. (That's why thin breast cutlets are the way to go if searing, so the cutlet cooks at the same rate).

                                    Sous vide eliminates all the guesswork. The temperature control on a sous vide machine is extremely precise.

                                    The upshot is that if you set the water bath temperature to 160, and drop the chicken breast in (in a vacuum sealed sous vide pouch), that chicken will NEVER get hotter than 160. You could leave it there for 8 hours, and it would never overcook. Ever.

                                    That means the exterior cooks to 160, and after a long enough time in the water bath the middle of the chicken will also reach a perfect 160.

                                    Since the chicken is in a vacuum sealed bag, the flavorful juice from the chicken will not leech out into the sous vide water.

                                    Finish with a very quick sear on the stove and voila, you have perfectly moist, juicy flavorful chicken.

                                    You could do something similar by cooking with steam, but your temperature control variables are less precise (a lot more margin for error) and because the chicken isn't in a vacuum sealed bag you'd be dealing with loss of juice from the meat (more potential for the meat to dry out and lose flavor).

                                    Mr Taster