Recently, in a very fashionable bar somewhere in New York, a young man with a beard offered me a ‘loose meat, smash burger'. There was, as there always is, a little tableside narrative about the earnest authenticity of it, how the ground beef was seared on the plancha and served, not in a bun, but on a griddled slice of their house sourdough. It was all very charming... but, God, it made me yearn for the real thing.
I'm sure that, back in the day, Mum just browned some minced meat, stirred in some Bisto gravy and poured it onto a fried slice, but this homely combination has so much potential. Over the years, it's become the greasy peak of my home-cooking repertoire.
Start with the mince. Everyone knows by now that cheap cuts are tastier and that fat carries flavour, so, counterintuitively, the cheapest grade of supermarket beef mince is not to be scorned. It's full of all the tastiest and toughest extremities and has a good, high fat percentage. If you want the reassurance of control, get your butcher to help you choose some good, complex, fatty brisket, a quantity of chuck and maybe some short rib, and ask him to mince it for you. It's the kind of combination you'd want for a very authentic burger, but fattier.
Most recipes start with firm instructions to ‘brown' the mince. This is based on the idea that searing the surface of each individual meaty grain will seal the juices inside. It's a principle that has long been disproved about steaks, so it's time we questioned it for mince. Minced meat in its own gravy should, by the time it's been properly cooked, be a near-homogenous slurry, with the meat just supplying the barest hint of granular texture.
If all the juice leaches out into the gravy, it will only be a good thing. The best way, in this case, to brown the mince is to start it in a pan, on a high heat with a small quantity of water. The water helps to break the mince up completely and gives an initial ‘steaming' that renders out fat and some proteins.
In less than a minute, you should have found that the water has boiled off and the completely lump-free, lightly steamed mince is now frying in its own fat, the proteins helping to form the Maillard crust that gives grilled meat its best umami flavour. If you fancy adding an alcohol to your flavouring, you can use it instead of water. White wine is a modest, delicate addition; port would not be insane; Madeira sublime.
Cook the mince hard to really build the flavours up and you should end up with dry, free-flowing and granular cooked meat. Now add enough strong chicken stock to cover the mince, reduce the heat to the barest simmer and step away. Forget about it for a good half hour before briefly revisiting to top the stock back up and cover the mince again. Forget everything you've ever learned about keeping good meat rare. This is not a steak or a poncey burger. This is effectively a thick beef gravy with a very carefully managed textural addition.
Season to taste, initially with salt and pepper, but then pause for a moment of quiet contemplation. Where do you want to go next?
A tiny shot of sriracha will subtly perk things up, more sriracha will make it properly hot (though that's not really to my particular taste).
A touch of tomato purée is no bad thing – little enough that things don't go fully Italian, but enough to boost the umami. A truly fearless cook might even try a shot of tomato ketchup – though I'm not keen on the sweetness it adds. Soy sauce is never wrong, either, but for me there's one secret ingredient that really helps the whole thing achieve launch velocity.
I religiously hoard the vinegar from jars of pickled walnuts – indeed, I've been known to replenish my stock by deliberately cooking beef and pickled walnut pies, just to have another season's worth of the precious fluid. Just a few drops of this imparts a combination of traditional English spicing that's quite similar to Worcestershire sauce but with the added acetic kick of vinegar, acting as what the French refer to as a gastrique... the shot of sour that's unusual in British recipes but which stimulates the taste buds.
Proper mince and gravy is, to use the formal term, ‘runny'. The Italians bang on endlessly about how the texture of risotto should be ‘pourable' and that it should pool and puddle on the plate. In exactly the same way, mince should end up as a naturally thick, gelatinised gravy, with small, soft grains of flavourful meat suspended in it. If your mince is too granular, the pieces chewy or the liquid too clear and separate, it's not proper, because the point of the bread is to soak up all that thick, gravy amazingness.
Choose a substantial white bread, doughy and with a proper crust – bloomer or split tin would be right – and cut a slice about two centimetres (almost an inch thick). Allow it to stand for an hour or two so that the outer surface is dry and a little stale. Moist bread takes extra heat in the pan to drive off steam, so it won't crisp as nicely when fried.
Start by grilling the bread in a dry pan, flipping it until both sides have begun to crisp but not colour, then drop some dripping into the pan and fry the bread until both sides are golden brown.
Transfer the fried slice to a place, mound the mince on top of the bread and serve.
As you cut through the slice and allow the gravy to soak the soft heart of the bread, consider how brilliantly this has transformed the very cheapest of butcher's meat into something nourishing, delicious and emotionally fortifying by the simple addition of time, effort... and bread.
Mince on toast
- 4 slices white bloomer bread, about 2cm thick
- 800g beef mince
- 75ml Madeira
- 1tsp plain flour (optional)
- 1 litre chicken stock
- 2tsp pickled walnut vinegar (from the jar)
- 150g beef dripping or butter
- Salt and black pepper
In a dry pan, lightly grill the bread on both sides.
Heat a separate pan over a medium heat and add the mince, along with a cup or so of water. Bring to the boil so that the water ‘sets' the mince into distinct grains. Pour in the Madeira and allow the alcohol to boil off. Thicken the gravy with the flour if you wish, but I don't usually bother. Add the stock and simmer for at least half an hour until you're left with mince suspended in a good quantity of gravy. Stir in the pickled walnut vinegar, then adjust the seasoning.
Melt the dripping in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry both sides of the grilled bread in it. Transfer to a plate and pour over the mince, allowing the gravy to soak into the bread.
Photography by Sam Folan
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