Today is “National Cheeseburger Day”, and while test burgers, experimental burgers, and don’t-you-dare-touch-these-before-we-photograph-them burgers began to pile up, I took advantage of the confusion and stole away to make a quick time-lapse video comparison. What you see looping above is, obvious, burgers being cooked. What is less obvious, however, is the difference between them.
The first, labelled “Well Done”, is just that, a well-done burger, cooked from raw to puck on stainless steel. The second is a burger that we had cooked through first in the SmartHub to medium rare and then seared. What makes time-lapse videos so interesting is that they give us the opportunity to view everyday occurrences on different timescales. Most of the phenomena in our world happen either too slowly or too quickly for us to see what is really going on. We either need to speed it up or slow it down to make sense of it. A cooked piece of meat will always weigh less and have a smaller volume than a raw piece of meat. You may know this—you may even remember the size of the meat before you cooked it—but because it happens so relatively slowly it is hard to see it changing. And while it impossible to see change (we just see the present and reference the immediate past in memory), if you can speed up the transformation of raw meat to cooked meat, you can better appreciate the changes.
When you apply high heat to a piece of meat, you are adding energy to it. Energy does stuff. In this case (heat) energy affects the way proteins are shaped and how they interact with one another. The hotter these proteins get, the more they begin to unwind (proteins are generally wound up—think a rope or string that has been twisted until to begins to knot up) and as they unwind, the regions that once were once attracted to other regions of the single protein (an act that gives proteins their “wound up” shape), begin to attract regions on other proteins. This process is known as denaturation. Instead of being wound up, the proteins are unwound and beginning to stick to on another. As proteins stick together, they push water out of the way. With nothing holding it in place, water is forced out, drying the meat little by little. Take a look at the “Well Done” burger.
You can see the effects of the proteins sticking together quite clearly. In their coming together they cause the entire burger to constrict. Lots of water is lost in the process and the burger becomes less tender. The “Medium Rare” burger, on the other hand, loses very little water. Now, to be fair, what you aren’t seeing is the water lost when we cooked it in the SmartHub, but by limiting the cooking temperature, you also limit the water loss, so in this case, very little water escaped. The seared sides of the “Medium Rare” burger actually have just as little water as the “Well Done” burger, however, as you progress past that layer, the “Medium Rare” burger holds significantly more water.
For practical purposes, preparing burgers sous can be incredibly helpful. If you have a large party planned, simply portion out your burgers ahead of time and cook them until done. You can even do batches of different donenesses (be sure to label them afterward). This can be done a few days in advance.
If you’ve cooked ahead and need to reheat, just set you machine to 125ºF and drop them in (this likely the lowest temperature that you would have used, and thus will not further cook any of your prepared bags, no matter the doneness).
Once you’ve finished preparing your fancy fixings and condiments, throw the burgers on the grill (get it very hot) to quickly sear them. Though, if we were being honest, we actually prefer to sear them in a pan: you get better contact between the burger and the heated surface, thus more evenly browning (and browning = flavor) your burger.
Don’t keep them on for too long, you will undo everything that you’ve done—just a quick sear on each side to get the flavor. If you see you burgers beginning to contract, take them off! You are overcooking them!