The White Castle hamburger is a fun little thing. Unlike larger, more contemporary burgers, White Castle burgers are designed to be soft, tender, yielding, and uncomplicated. Generally speaking, the basic burger is just a square of meat on a very soft bun with just some griddled onion, two thin slices of dill pickle, and yellow mustard. A slice of cheese adds to it but is hardly necessary.
|A perfect little burger!|
In continuous operation for ninety years, White Castle is the oldest hamburger chain in America, and they truly were innovators from the outset; they introduced a corporate rigor that was unseen at the time for quick-service restaurants, instituted an assembly-line mentality to their food production, and created very specific store-branding esthetics (all their early restaurants were white ceramic tiles laid over a pre-fab metal framework). Even though they’d eventually be eclipsed by some (think golden arches) and shamelessly copied by others (think Krystal Burger), their burgers were original, simple, and beloved. Their fanatics are referred to as Cravers.
White Castle coined the term “sliders”, and although that term in the popular vernacular has come to mean any small, burger-like sandwich (crab-cake sliders? really?), it shouldn’t be forgotten that they came up with the idea. Little burgers, quickly cooked, easily eaten. Yummy.
Apparently early on White Castle used fresh ground beef cooked over fresh onions, a process which half-steamed them and half-grilled them, which accounted partly for the softness of the sandwich. Eventually they switched over to a very thin, square frozen patty with a very specific feature — five holes in the patty, which allows steam to vent through the burger while cooking, allowing for quicker cooking. In trying to duplicate this burger I really wanted to copy this feature, as it’s part of what makes the White Castle burger so distinctive.
White Castle has just over 400 stores, all in the midwest and northeast. So people in the west and the south are not necessarily familiar with this marvelous little burger, except as a plot device in the stoner comedy Harold & Kumar. If you’ve never had a White Castle burger, please give this recipe a try. I’ve done my best to replicate the White Castle experience, to very positive response. It’s worth the effort.
You’re gonna need:
1 pound of ground beef, preferably 15-20% fat
2 teaspoons powdered “au jus”, available in a paper packet
1 small white onion, diced very small
3 tablespoons dried onion
1/2 cup beef broth
salt & pepper
dill pickle, sliced very thinly by hand
American cheese, optional
soft dinner rolls. I used Sara Lee brand.
Now to make the square burgers. In a large mixing bowl blend by hand the ground beef and the au jus powder. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or wax paper. Spread ground beef evenly out on the paper and cover with another layer of paper. Using a rolling pin flatten the meat until you get a large meat slab about 1/4 inch thick all over. With a spatula straighten out the edges until you have a large meat rectangle. Remove top paper and with a long, sharp knife score a grid to create squares of meat approximately 2 1/2 to 3 inches on each side. I ended up with 12 square patties. To create the holes I used a chopstick and wiggled it around five times in each burger. Replace the top sheet of paper and freeze the patties for a couple of hours.
When your patties are frozen solid, remove the tray from the freezer and break the meat sheet by hand along the score lines into individual patties. You can let them defrost if you’d like or cook them frozen. It’s fine either way.
|Holey burger patties!|
When you’re ready to cook put fresh and dried onions in a bowl and soak in the beef broth.
Now set up a steamer to warm your rolls. Use a pot filled with an inch of water lined with a steamer basket with the center pole removed. Line steamer basket with aluminum foil. Bring water to a boil and then reduce to a very low simmer. Split rolls in half and put them in the foil-lined steamer. Cover pot with a lid and keep warm while you cook the patties.
Heat a flat griddle or a very large saute pan. Add a generous tablespoon of oil to the surface and spread around evenly with a spatula. Cook burgers three at a time (more or less depending on the area of your cooking surface) by first placing a small pile of wet onions for each patty into the hot oil. Each pile of onions will be about one full tablespoon of onions. Flatten the onion pile and immediately place a burger patty onto each pile. The onions will cook and steam the burger from underneath. Season the top of each patty liberally with salt and pepper. Cook for about two minutes.
|Cook those burgers!|
Now flip the burgers over and, using your spatula, arrange cooked onions on the top-side of the patties. If you want to top with American cheese now is the time. Cook for one minute more.
Take buns out of the steamer and add mustard to the top side and bottom side of the roll. Add two thin slices of pickle to the top portion. Add your burger patties and close.
For a truly authentic experience, wrap each burger in deli paper. Also, crinkle cut fries complement the burger perfectly.
|Damn tasty little sliders.|
A side note: When I was scouring the internet researching copycat White Castle recipes, I saw that many recipes call for mixing beef-flavored baby food (!) into the meat before you form the patties. Honestly that sounds hideous, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I was going to follow that advice. I understood the point though, and that is to add more “beefy” essence into the burger. I opted for the powdered au jus, which is also a cheat, but seemed marginally more sane than the frickin’ baby food route.
I think my choice results in a killer burger. But if powdered beef gravy gives you pause, by all means omit it!
A final note: sorry if a couple of the pics aren’t a sharp as you’ve come to expect!