In summertime, it is too hot to cook even in an air-conditioned kitchen, so we crank up the grill and move to the backyard. Casual get-togethers around the grill start with “Come over; we’ll throw some burgers on the grill,” a promise of nothing fancy, especially as far as the food is concerned. But even a casual dinner can be a more–than–satisfying culinary experience if it includes just a few fresh, homemade dishes. Nestle a burger in a home-baked bun, and you make the whole experience simply divine.
Two halves of a bun filled with a burger or any other grilled food is essentially a sandwich, but we never say that we had a “burger sandwich.” In Jewish tradition, we encounter a sandwich in the Passover Haggadah: Rabbi Hillel’s sandwich of matzah, haroset and maror. It is called Korekh, from the root of the Hebrew word for to wrap. Karikh is the Hebrew word for sandwich. A similar word is used to describe a book’s cover. After all, both the book cover and the pieces of bread fulfill a similar function.
We are taught to make an effort not to judge a book by its cover, yet we don’t even think about judging a burger by its bun, when maybe we should. In fact, we overlook the bun (or the matzah, pita or baguette wrapped around the sandwich filling), the most-visible part, completely. But try eating a burger without a bun—it’s definitely not the same.
I am sure there is a science to the perfect burger. Layers of flavors, colors and textures, soft and crunchy, make the experience appealing to the eye and the palate. The bun halves are not mere bookends, holding together the layers in between them. They absorb the juices and flavors of all that goodness to make the whole so much better than each of its parts.
Commercial buns are always so full of promise, but end up being a disappointment. Full of air, they seem to dissipate with the first bite. When I moved to Washington a long time ago, my husband introduced me to the Whopper, a wholly different experience from pre-globalization Israel’s Vimpy or McDavid. The combination of flavors was tasty, but the bun was too squishy and seemed to deflate and disappear. Now that I am a pescatarian and the days of grabbing an occasional burger are long behind me, I satisfy the occasional craving with a portabella mushroom tucked into a good home-baked bun.
A bun should be pillow-y, but robust enough to hold a juicy burger without disintegrating. A good American hamburger should, in fact, be the successful cultural matchmaking of French brioche and a German burger. The bun itself must be a slightly sweet bread enriched with eggs and fat (butter or oil to keep them dairy-free and pareve).
Beyond their visual appeal, the sesame seeds sprinkled on top of the bun add flavor and a measure of crunchiness. I recently baked buns using oil and served them filled with either grilled chicken or portabella mushrooms and topped with avocado, tomato, sautéed Vidalia onions, harissa and homemade mayo. As the enthusiastic oohs and ahs showed, it’s all in the bun.