Chicken crackling smash burger
” the wonder of chicken is that, even though the meat lags behind pork and beef in intensity, its cracklings on the other hand, are incredibly potent and explosive. …these itty bitty fragments of fat caramelize and crisps into powerful flavor pellets where bright rays of chickeny-ness are released when crunched through in your mouth. “
There are many reasons, perhaps good reasons, why humans can’t seem to shake the global spell of beef burgers even in the wake of the negative effect of raising cattle has on climate change. We as a remarkable species have never backed down from the challenge of a good self-destruction, let alone that in this rare instance, it isn’t absolutely senseless.
For one, out of the few domesticated livestocks we grow for meats, beef, seems to persistently transcend in the robustness of aroma and flavors when its proteins and fats undergo the maillard reaction of browning. In plain English, meats taste good, but beef seems to taste best. Secondly, it’s hard to go to a supermarket without bathing in the seduction of see-through packaged ground beef sold in wide open isles in bulk at a reasonable pricing. Gushing and bloody, they are everywhere at anytime in close proximity where carnivores in practice or in relapses lurk. Urge plus convenience, its recipe for success isn’t exactly a mystery. And that is because, last but not least, beef is big money. It is a hundreds of billions of dollars industry globally, with none other than USA leading the parade as the biggest beef producer followed by countries like Brazil, China, Argentina and Australia. It doesn’t take a meat eater to explain. A Buddhist economist could tell you why beef burger is one of the most successful American cultural exports. Money money money. Money.
When short-term pleasure is weighed against long-term peril, we humans can always count on ourselves to make the dumb choice.
That is unless, there is a feasible alternative.
No, I’m not talking lab-grown beef, not that it isn’t a promising and totally totally appetizing candidate. I mean who wouldn’t be aroused by meat grown in a petri-dish? No, today I want to focus on an option that has long been right in front of our eyes, that can compete in the convenience as well as economic viability of beef. One that has been overlooked not for lacking in any of the above reasons, but simply because it hasn’t been thought of that way.
Before you leave the building, I’d like to shout as loud as I can that I’m not talking about store-bought ground chicken which you only ingested in a terminal stage before you reach the great beyond and reborn as a robotic calories calculator. The difference between that ground chicken and my ground chicken is the single most under-valued asset of this noble bird, its secret weapon, its Trudeau’s hair. Anyone who has ever rendered their own schmaltz, aka chicken grease, would know whole-heartedly of what I am about to unveil. For everybody else, I’m talking about, the chicken skins.
Pork has chicharrón, and chicken has what I’d like to call, chicken cracklings. It is the crispy remnant of an animal’s fatty mass – in this case the chicken skins – after its moisture and liquid grease is extracted by heat in a process called rendering, leaving behind tiny nuggets of crispy and golden browned brittles if you will, that is an intense condensation of flavors and aromas of its formal self. But the wonder of chicken is that, even though the meat lags behind pork and beef in intensity, its cracklings on the other hand, are incredibly potent and explosive. When properly mixed into the ground chicken for the purpose of a flat disk where contact surface area with the hot skillet is maximized, these itty bitty fragments of fat caramelize and crisps into powerful flavor pellets where bright rays of chickeny-ness are released when crunched through in your mouth. I’m not saying it’s the same as a beef burger. I’m saying it’s not but equally satisfying. I crave one just now.
But a perfect burger is not just the patties. Far from it. The delicate balance between the texture of the buns, the ratio between components and flavors, sometimes perfection requires restraint more than generosity. I’m a purist when it comes to burgers, especially this burger. The protagonist is the flavor and aroma of rendered chicken skins, and its voice comes through most vividly without distractions of “over-condimentation”. Simple mayonnaise for moisture, mustard for acidity and a single slice of cheese is suffice. No onions or garlic powder, tomatoes or lettuce, because this burger (or most for that matter) does not benefit from a big party.
Now you can say nah, I prefer a good-old beef burger. Hey I sometimes do, too. But I don’t have children and never wanted one so you’re not shitting on my invested future. Go to town. But if you have second thoughts on that matter, then give this a try. A win-win situation is rarely just a burger away.
If you didn't read the text I'll say it again. I'm a purist when it comes to burgers, especially this burger. The voice of the protagonist is the flavor and aroma of rendered chicken skins, and it comes through most vividly without distractions of "over-condimentation". Simple mayonnaise for moisture, mustard for acidity and a single slice of cheese is suffice. Please restrain from adding onions or garlic powder to the mix because this burger does not benefit from a big party.
- 2 lbs (910 grams) boneless SKIN-ON chicken thighs, see note*
- 2 tsp fine sea salt
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp ground white pepper
- Canola oil and unsalted butter for cooking
- 5 to 6 potato rolls
- 5 to 6 slices of American cheese
- Mayonnaise and yellow mustard
- PREPARE THE PATTIES: Cut the skin-on chicken thighs into small bite size pieces and place them on a tray in a single layer, then leave in the freezer for about one hour until hardened. If the skins are not frozen enough, they won't be blended properly. In small batches inside a food-processor (filling the bowl in a single layer), pulse and blend the semi-frozen chicken until it's coarsely ground, meaning you can still see separate bits and pieces of skins and meats instead of a paste.
- Lay a large square of parchment paper on the working surface, then tightly pack the ground chicken into a 1/3 measuring cup, making sure there are as little air pockets within as possible. Use a butter knife to score the edges of the cup to release the puck of meat onto the parchment paper. Place another large square of parchment on top, then use a flat-bottomed plate to press the puck into a pattie that's about 1/3" (1 cm) thick. The patties may look very big but they will shrink considerably during cooking. Repeat until all the ground chicken is done. You should have about 10~11 patties. You can now cover and freeze the patties until needed.
- TO MAKE THE BURGERS: Mix fine sea salt, black and white pepper evenly in a bowl. Take as many patties as needed out of the freezer and let it thaw slightly on the counter. You don't want them to thaw completely, only to the point that it's become pliable. Meanwhile, cut the buns horizontally and spread the cut-side with softened unsalted butter, then toast on a skillet until golden browned. Spread one side of the bun generously with mayonnaise, and the other side with Dijon mustard. Set aside.
- When the patties have become pliable, heat a large flat skillet over high heat and coat it generously with 1/2 canola oil and 1/2 unsalted butter (however much it takes to coat the skillet completely). Meanwhile, remove the parchment on one side of the patties and season it with the sea salt-mixture. Place the patties in the skillet with the seasoned side down while removing the parchment on the other side, then season the second side (now facing up) as well.
- It will splatter quite a lot so I highly recommend wearing a mitt during the cooking process. Use a flat spatula to gently press the patties down against the skillet so the two surfaces have thorough contact with each other, and swirl the skillet so the grease distributes evenly around the patties. Do NOT flip back and forth. Cook until the first side is deeply golden browned. You'll be able to tell when the edges look crispy and browned. Then flip the patties and allow the second side to crisp up and brown as well.
- Place the crispy patty on each buns. You can do a single or double patties burger. I'm a double when it comes to this burger. Then put a single slice of American cheese for each burger (I like to give it a little torch). Serve immediately with pickles.
* Look, compared to any other types of meats, the taste of chicken is probably the most wide-ranging depending on its quality. Pale-skinned and white-fleshed chickens most commonly seen in American supermarkets are incredibly more tasteless and boring compared to yellow-skinned and almost red-fleshed chickens that are seen in Europe or Asia. If you want to pursue the best tasting outcome of this recipe, I'd urge you to source a better quality chicken in your area or at least free-ranged.