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The old saying goes never talk about religion or politics in polite company. I think you can add burgers to that, too.
Because, like politics or religion, there are some great divides in opinion on what makes a good burger — adding beetroot or pickles is the holy grail to some, but an anathema to others.
And if you dare to suggest you can make a good burger without meat ... well, that’s another conversation.
But it is the heated discussions on these topics that show how much they mean to us.
Burgers have a special place in our society — as fast food, as comfort food and, to some, a culinary masterpiece.
Our annual Dine Dunedin Festival is showcasing burgers this year with its Dunedin Burger Society. Restaurants, cafes and burger joints have entered specially made burgers to be judged in a people’s choice competition.
Fresh has asked some of the creators just what it takes to make a good burger.
There is agreement on some fronts — ingredients must be fresh, it’s all about texture
in a patty and the flavours must be there — but from there, opinion is divided.
First, we went to Good Good, a dedicated burger bar in the Warehouse precinct that is climbing the ranks of the national top 25 burgers, as named by Big 7 Travel, from third place last year to second this year — beating Queenstown’s Fergburger, which ranked 10th.
Co-owner Reece Turfus says the accolades are the result of doing things differently.
He and friend Rob Ratten set up Good Good three years ago after they decided they did not want to work for anyone else.
The pair had just returned from Perth where they flatted together. Turfus was in finance and Ratten had been working in mining, but was doing scaffolding back in Dunedin.
"We started brainstorming and came up with opening a burger joint."
The idea had its roots in their favourite burger bar in Perth, which was just below their flat.
"That showed us what a burger could be; it was a different scenario to what we had in New Zealand. That started the flame inside us."
They decided to build a burger joint on a similar concept using premium, high-quality ingredients and sticking to a classic style of burger.
"There’s no fancy brie or cranberry sauce. It’s all about biting into it and it reminding us of what a burger tasted like as a child, only 10 times better."
A lot of tasting went on to devise their menu and find out what the secret to making a good burger was.
"We might have tried 50 different burgers, trying different weight patties, until we found what we felt was the nicest."
In the end, they went with the "less is more" mantra.
"We don’t try to do anything too outrageous."
Even with their Burger Society entry they kept it simple, but added an Asian flavour to their crispy chicken burger.
They chose a "special blend" of mince made for them by a butcher, delivered fresh every day.
"It’s not even formed into a burger until it hits the grill. We try not to overwork the burger."
Turfus believes it is important a burger is the right size.
"You don’t want to be horizontal on the couch afterwards."
As for the rest of the burger, a brioche bun is essential and the traditional shredded lettuce, red onion and pickles. They did try tomato but decided ito "stick to the basics".
They make their own sauces, made by trial and error, with their own "special ingredients".
"Because we don’t have a food background, we didn’t have the same mentality. We just added and took away until it felt like it tasted good."
While Turfus eats a plant-based diet himself, Ratten is the burger lover.
"He eats enough for both of us."
Turfus debated putting a plant-based option on the menu, but he was not happy with any of his trial runs.
"It has to be equally as good as everything else ... if that’s not possible, it doesn’t have a place."
At the other end of the scale is Burger Plant, a new plant-based burger joint in North Dunedin.
Thomas White firmly believes plant-based burgers have a place on the menu.
Burger Plant opened a few weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown hit, so it has been a tough ride for the 21-year-old chef, who used lockdown to finely tune his menu and develop new products.
"It’s been a learning curve, but if we can get through this, we can get through anything."
The biggest challenge, he says, is getting the texture right.
"It’s a completely different take on what most people do. We like to push the boat out a bit and pack a lot of flavour into it."
To give the burgers the "crunch" they deep-fry the patty to give it the crispy bite.
For his Burger Society entry, he chose to make a lamb-less burger with the flavours of lamb and rosemary with a mint-heavy salsa verde.
"It’s got a decent amount of punch and acidity to cut through the richness of the patty."
The aim is not to make the burger taste like meat, he says.
"It isn’t meat, so why make it taste like it is."
However, he chose the name to help people relate to the concept as saying it is a rice and textured vegetable protein (TVP) burger just doesn’t have the same appeal.
"It helps people relate to the patty. It doesn’t sound as scary to someone trying something new."
TVP provides a mince-like texture, while a "chicken-like" texture is provided by a Seitan-like gluten flour product. His "fish" burger uses banana blossom.
"All our sauces are made in-house. We use aquafaba as the base."
Reaching out to a new demographic and not just the student market is something he hopes to do.
His background as a chef — he has worked for Dunedin restaurants Vault 21 and Moeity as well as with top Auckland chef Ben Bayly — has given him the skills and courage to experiment with flavours and techniques.
White tested his products at the Otago Farmers Market for six months before he found an appropriate venue.
"I decided to give it a go."
White, who has been vegan on-and-off for a while, hopes his burgers give people an opportunity to try something new that might help them reduce the amount of meat they consume.
He believes helping people reduce their meat consumption will make more of a difference to the environment than pushing people to become vegan.
"I grew up on a farm. I’m a West
Otago country boy at heart, but I think our generation wants to lessen our environmental impact — it’s our future."
TWO FAT STAGS ON THE BAY
Burgers are not just for the specialists, though there are few restaurants or cafes that do not have a version on their menu.
At Two Fat Stags on the Bay, Craig Youngman regularly has three burgers on the menu, including a vegan option.
He believes that fresh produce is what makes a good burger.
He saw Burger Society as a chance to get creative by adding tahr to his venison mix to make a mountain burger along with a smoky kumara aoli, beetroot, bacon and an egg.
"We bake our own bread buns and make our own blend of
venison and tahr. The only thing we don’t do is catch it."
Youngman sourced tahr from a producer of wild foods in Blenheim.
"It’s such a good product to work with and not too many people have tasted tahr."
While the patty was leaner thanks, to the venison, there was enough fat in both along with some herbs and spices for it to come together nicely, he says.
"The gamey taste isn’t strong with all the different flavours."
He advises home burger-makers to add an egg and breadcrumbs if their patties do not stay together.
At St Clair eatery Salt, co-owner Alex Aerakis decided to add a Japanese-inspired burger to the restaurant’s "Bedford Burgers" range.
Using a previous chef’s karaage chicken recipe, which is still a very popular item on the menu, he added pork crackling and chicken skin.
"It looks cool."
He believes a good burger is one that can be picked up and eaten.
"You shouldn’t have to eat a burger with a knife and fork. They are messy."
His chef uses a beef and pork mince mix that he will not disclose.
"It’s a sacred thing."
OTAGO FARMERS MARKET
Dunedin’s Otago Farmers Market has also got in on the act, creating a market burger with the help of the chef at Harbourside Grill. Assistant manager Michele Driscoll says her aim was to create a burger that celebrated the market’s produce and tasted of The South.
They created two burgers — a classic Kiwi burger with a runny egg, beetroot and smoky cheese and a fish burger with a crispy rosti — that use ingredients found at the market, from the brioche bun to the protein and fillings such as lettuce and beetroot.
While Driscoll might be biased, she believes the Kiwi burger is the "best burger ever".
"It captures the best the Otago market has to offer. It’s good fun."