H/T Chicago Tribune.
I knew the era of the double cheeseburger had officially arrived when I encountered the burger at the downstairs bar of Maple & Ash, a glitzy Gold Coast steakhouse that opened in October. Most steakhouses serve stoic oversized burgers, with imposing beef patties. But this bawdy newcomer had the gall to forgo all of that nonsense and serve a greasy, messy double cheeseburger — so unwieldy I needed to wrap one of the bar’s cloth napkins around my neck to prevent staining my clothes. I loved it.
(To be clear, when I say the era of the double cheeseburger, I’m talking about the modern era of the double cheeseburger. We’ll get into that distinction in a minute.)
Chicago has always loved burgers, but for many years the trend has been for them to get bigger and fussier. Sure, there is something primally satisfying about digging into a 10-ounce patty of beef, like the kind you score at Kuma’s Corner in Avondale, where they go so far as to put entire bratwursts on top of the beef. But this arms race ignored the very essence of a burger, trading the simplicity of beef and cheese for an excuse to add unnecessary, froufrou ingredients and ridiculous, ill-suited buns.
The embrace of the simple double cheeseburger by the kind of trend-aware restaurant you may expect to follow the Kuma’s model has been happening over the past few years. It’s hard to say where it started — Edzo’s, the beloved Evanston burger shop, opened in 2009 with a simple double cheeseburger (made, of course, from locally sourced, sustainable meat); M Burger, built into the side of posh restaurant Tru, hit Chicago proper in 2010 with a double on its menu — but one can argue it was West Loop diner Au Cheval, opened in 2012, that began to push the two-thin-patties model into the spotlight
Au Cheval’s burger is currently the most acclaimed in Chicago, with nods from the Food Network, Bon Appetit, Travel + Leisure, Time Out, USA Today, Zagat and this publication, among many others. After its burger blew up, you started seeing the double cheeseburger everywhere. Yet, for all the praise, this style of burger is, at its heart, a straightforward diner classic.
“It’s not a revolutionary idea,” says Au Cheval owner Brendan Sodikoff. “I don’t think we pioneered the idea of a double cheeseburger. I think In-N-Out was doing it, McDonald’s has done it, every other fast casual diner and burger joint in the country has done it.”ADVERTISEMENT
Which brings us back to the distinction I promised. This is the new era of the double cheeseburger, but the style has been around for a long time — 70 or even more years, depending on whom you ask. George Motz, author of “Hamburger America,” the definitive work on burger history and culture in this country (currently in its third edition), believes the double cheeseburger came about almost accidentally. “In the very beginning, there was only one size of burger,” says Motz, “If you wanted more burger, the cooks would add two balls to make a bigger patty.” The change, he believes, came when ground beef started to be sold pre-pattied, to help streamline the burger-making process. This regular size made it much easier to stack.
Bob’s Big Boy is credited with serving the first double cheeseburger in 1937. But any burger connoisseur knows that something else lurks in that burger — an extra bun. Between the two patties is third bun, which is the same blueprint that McDonald’s swiped when it created the Big Mac. While Motz notes that the extra bun does help soak up some juices, turning pleasingly soft and saturated, he thinks the extra slice had more to do with economics: “The bun is cheap filler.”
A real double cheeseburger needs no filler. While it’s hard to know who figured it out first, one restaurant that really helped popularize the style was In-N-Out. The much loved California chain launched in 1948 with a double double, which features two beef patties and two slices of cheese, along with lettuce, tomato, onion and a pink-hued sauce, labeled “spread” on the menu, that is very reminiscent of Thousand Island dressing.
Of course, other chains produced top-quality double cheeseburgers at the same time too. Steak ‘n Shake (founded in Illinois in 1931) specialized in burgers smashed on a griddle until thin and well browned. While the single steak burger works, the real magic happens with the double.
Another classic double cheeseburger option that also happens to be native to Chicago is the Big Baby, a specialty of the Southwest Side. Along with two patties, a slice of cheese, ketchup, mustard and pickles, each burger gets a tangle of richly caramelized onions.
Thanks to these restaurants and many noble joints like them, the double cheeseburger never truly went away. But the American populace became distracted. We subjected ourselves to all manner of trendy burger mishaps: gorging on oversized patties, losing ourselves in topping craziness, and falling prey to years of subpar fast food in the name of cheapness.
If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, it’s time. The double cheeseburger not only has a lot of great history behind it, but I can prove it’s more delicious than the standard oversize burger.[Most read] Lawsuit against Dennis Hastert involving hush-money pact is settled before trial »
Why does a double cheeseburger taste meatier than most larger burgers? Because double cheeseburgers are the height of ground beef engineering.
When beef interacts with a hot griddle, it develops a beautiful dark brown color. While helping to make the exterior crispy, the heat also develops the Maillard reaction (named for the French physician who first identified the reaction in 1910). This process is responsible for the complex, meaty flavors associated with roasted meats and, if you’re catching my drift, delectable burgers.
Try this: Cook a 1/2-pound patty on a griddle, and you get two nicely browned sides. But if you cook two 1/4-pound patties, you have the same amount of beef but now you suddenly have four browned sides, effectively doubling the Maillard reaction of each bite. As Motz also reminded me, if each patty is salted on both sides (as it should be), you’ll also have twice the amount of seasoning. Adding two slices of cheese instead of one further adds fuel to the savory bomb.
If a double cheeseburger bests a single, what stops a triple cheeseburger from taking the crown? This gets to the issue of proportion. The best burgers ensure that you get all the components in each and every bite. If too large, you run the risk of the dreaded burrito distribution dilemma — the sad fate of a poorly constructed burrito when all the components are unevenly spread, leaving you with a bite that is all sour cream. Keeping things compact helps avoid this problem.
I posed this question to Motz, and he brought the conversation back to In-N-Out. “The double double is pretty perfect,” admits Motz, noting that the proportion of bun to meat is ideal. Plus, he adds, “it’s still very manageable.” Sometimes he can’t help himself, however. “The triple (cheeseburger) isn’t manageable, but it is satisfying.”
Enjoy this day and age. Who knows what the next burger trend will bring. Could be kale patties, ramen buns or some other nonsense. Regardless, none has any chance of being as delicious as an old-fashioned double cheeseburger.