Food You Can Eat: Hamburgers the Julia Child Way

Who's up for a little bifteck haché?

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Imagine Julia Child working at a fast food burger joint. She probably would have been fascinated. She wasn’t a snob. She was one of the pioneers of the postwar American food revolution, and like Alice Waters after her, believed, above all, that the essence of good food is good ingredients. If she could have found a place that used top-grade ingredients while at the same time churning out 200 hamburgers an hour, rather than 2, she would have been delighted. This recipe comes from her magisterial Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was published in 1961, which means that she and her co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle were developing these recipes in Paris in the late 1950s. This is all covered in the movie “Julie and Julia.”

Bifteck Haché À La Lyonnaise (Ground Beef with Onions and Herbs)

Makes 6 hamburgers

[Writer’s Note: The culinary capital of France is not Paris but Lyon, in the same way that Bologna is the culinary capital of Italy, not Rome. If you ever see anything that says “à la Lyonnaise” go for it.]

3/4 cup finely minced yellow onions and 2 tbsp butter.

And we’re off with the butter! Cook the onions, presumably in a sauté pan or frying pan, I use a frying pan, slowly in the butter for 10 minutes but don’t let them brown. Put these in a “mixing” bowl, but you won’t be using a mixer.

1 1/2 lbs. lean ground beef

2 tbsp softened butter, ground beef suet, beef marrow, or fresh pork fat. I don’t know about you, but that butter is what I would have around, so I used that.

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper (just shake a little in)

1/8 tsp thyme (same, from your spice rack)

1 egg

Add all of this to the onions in the mixing bowl and “beat vigorously” with a wooden spoon to blend thoroughly. As you do this idly wonder, as I did, whether Julia Child ever entered an arm wrestling contest. She would have been a formidable challenger. Form this into 6 patties 3/4” thick.

1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp oil, to “film” the bottom of a skillet, and 1 or 2 heavy skillets so you have enough room to make all 6 burgers at once without overlapping.

This is another good thing to know. Put the oil and the butter in the skillet (or 2) and heat over medium high. When the butter stops foaming, that’s how you know it’s hot enough. “Sauté the patties for 2 to 3 minutes or more on each side, depending on whether you like your hamburgers rare, medium, or well done.” You can just imagine what Julia Child thought about this. 2 to 3 minutes max. But she was a woman of the people and if some among us enjoy charcoal briquettes who was she to disagree?

Move the burgers to a warm serving platter.

Now what? Well, it was the late 1950s in Paris, so you don’t plop them on hamburger buns and squirt ketchup over them. Oh no.

1/2 cup beef stock, canned beef bouillon, dry white wine, dry white vermouth, red wine, or 1/4 cup water

2 to 3 tbsp softened butter.

Pour the fat out of the skillet and pour in the liquid of your choice. Boil it quickly and scape up the bits; you’re deglazing. Reduce this so it’s syrupy. Add the butter 1/2 tbsp at a time so it gets absorbed. Pour this over the hamburgers and serve.

But why stop there? Don’t just add plain old butter after you deglaze and have the syrup, use a flavored butter. Julia provides no less than 6. This one’s my favorite: Cream 2 to 3 tbsp butter and add in 2 or 3 tsp mustard (she specifically mentions Dijon) 1/2 tsp at a time. So you do this very slowly. Add salt and pepper if you want.



    • Wikipedia lists John Candy and Julia Child as both 6-2, so he was a great choice to play her.

      Supposedly she was just an office worker for the OSS in WW II, but we all know she was parachuting behind enemy lines with nothing but a dozen hand grenades and a cast iron skillet.

  1. What I think is so good about this recipe is its assumption that when you have ground beef, it must be added to to give it extra oomph, it must be sauced, and since you’re in Paris in 1959 you are in an apartment, unless you are wealthy and live in an hôtel particulier (a townhose). Maybe you have a courtyard, you probably do, but you don’t have a backyard, never mind a barbecue. You will have a cast-iron skillet, it is your birthright.

      • Possibly, but even the finest cuts of meat do not go unsauced in JC world. I think her assumption was that you would be getting a good cut/bifteck from your local butcher, grinding it yourself maybe (and maybe ideally), and serving this to guests. There’s something about this recipe that implies it’s not meant to be a family meal made out of leftover meat or inferior beef you’re trying to palm off.

        JC will sometimes slip in something like, “This is a good use of tomatoes [or whatever].” If you read between the lines, it means you have a surplus to use up. But in these cases it evokes imagery that you have removed yourself to the countryside and you have an unexpected bumper crop of something, not that something has been hanging out in one of our gigantic 21st-century American fridges for too long.

        • I would bet there was a huge rush in France in the late 1940s, like in the US, to leave behind the subsistence food of the 1930-45.  So if someone was reduced to eating chopped workhorse in 1944 they would make sure, at a minimum by the time Julia Child was writing, to upgrade to ground beef with butter and wine and Dijon.

          It sounds like the remaining horse eaters in France are increasingly seen as relics from a far off era

          • There’s a great “All in the Family” episode that deals with horse eating. It was the 1970s so everyone was obsessed with the rise in food prices. This theme also shows up in the opening credits of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” where Mare is shown in a supermarket, looks at the price of a package of meat, rolls her eyes and grimaces, and tosses it in her cart.

            Anyway, Archie gets the bright idea to drive over to New Jersey, where the sale of horse meat was still legal, and returns home in triumph, because horse meat was so much cheaper. You can imagine the response of Dingbat, Meathead, and Little Girl.

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