Oklahoma food was in the national spotlight recently when an article in the New York Times lauded "the simple perfection of the Oklahoma onion burger," declaring that, "like pizza margherita or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," the Oklahoma onion burger is "a culinary endpoint: a creation so perfect in its simplicity that it cannot be improved upon, only tweaked."
The Oklahoma onion burger was conceived in the late 1920s, when Oklahoma was hit with the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl: economic depression coupled with extended drought, and unusually high temperatures. The story goes that the first Oklahoma onion burger was invented when the price of ground beef became unaffordable. Because onions were cheap, Ross Davis, a cafe owner along Route 66 in western Oklahoma, began adding a half-shredded onion atop a five-cent meat patty and smashing them into the burger with the back of his spatula. It made the burger look bigger while adding deliciousness. He called his creation a "Depression Burger." Soon diners and cafes all over Oklahoma were serving onion burgers, and they have been a staple ever since. El Reno, a small town outside of Oklahoma City, remains home to some of the state's best onion burgers and hosts an annual Fried Onion Burger Day Festival.
With this summer's record high temperatures and rising beef prices, this is a good time to put Oklahoma onion burgers into your menu rotation. They are juicy, messy and incredibly delicious.
There are several aspects to making a good onion burger. A good onion burger starts with good ground beef containing a minimum 80/20 ratio of meat to fat. The onions must be sliced paper thin. This is best accomplished with a mandolin. I like the Japanese mandolin made by Benriner which sells for about $45. Because the onions are smashed into the burger, you'll also need a very stiff spatula. And finally, to get a nice sear, they are best cooked in an ungreased cast iron pan or griddle. Using an ungreased cooking surface is important – you want the meat to stick in order to brown efficiently.
To achieve the most flavor, the onions should be sliced orbitally (through the middle) rather than from pole-to-pole (top to bottom). Orbital slicing ruptures more onion cells and releases the most oniony flavor and aroma. But be forewarned: the same onion vapor that permeates the bun will make your eyes sting more, so turn on a fan. The glutamates in the cooked onions greatly amplify the umami of the burgers.
Oklahoma Onion Burger
Yield: 6 burgers
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lb ground 80/20 beef, gently formed into
2 ½-ounce balls
3 medium onions (preferably white), sliced paper-thin
6 slices of American cheese
6 brioche or other soft burger buns
Preheat an ungreased skillet or griddle over high heat until it begins to smoke.
Add the balls of beef and press down with a spatula until somewhat flattened. Season generously with salt and pepper. Mound up piles of onions over the burgers and press down to embed the onions into the meat, spreading it into a rough patty large enough to overhang the edges of a bun. Some of the onions will spill over the sides of the burgers. The patties should be thinner around the edges and slightly thicker in the middle. Cook without further pressing until a nice crust forms and the edges of the meat have started to crisp, about 2 minutes. When juices start to collect on top of the patty, it's time to flip the burger, onion-side down.
Turn your spatula over to increase leverage and free up the perimeters of the burgers, being sure to scrape up all browned meat, and flip over, so the onions are now under the patty. Use your other hand to hold the onions onto the patty as you flip. Season again with salt and pepper.
Cook until onions start to soften, about 1 minute.
Add a slice of cheese, followed by the top bun half. Place the bottom bun upside-down over the top bun and cover the skillet with a folded kitchen towel to allow the buns to steam in the onion vapors. Cook on the other side for about 2-3 minutes.
When the burger is cooked to your preferred doneness, remove the bottom bun and place it upright on the palm of one hand. With the spatula, lift up onions, burger and top bun and place atop the bottom bun. Holding the buns together gently with your fingers, squeeze and pull out the spatula and place the burger on a plate.