The Ins and Outs of an In-N-Out Burger

As evidenced by this month’s long-form love letter to the mythic West Coast chain in Saveur, the In-N-Out Burger is the Holy Grail of American fast food. Cool yet classic, cultish yet Americana—I can’t get away from the In-N-Out Burger. At Joe Bastianich’s annual Wine and Swine party this year, I stood squinting in a cloud of grill smoke, nodding knowingly as Tarry Lodge owner/chef Andy Nusser explained that he was offering me his take on an In-N-Out. What a fraud I am. The fact is… I’ve never had an In-N-Out Burger.

Though I’ve eaten my way up and down the West Coast several times, I somehow missed a trip to In-N-Out Burger, a 200-link, family-owned chain limited to California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. (In-N-Out Burger originated in 1948 in Baldwin Park, California—the same year, incidentally, that the McDonald’s bothers opened shop in San Bernardino.) This was regrettable. Turns out that In-N-Out Burger uses fresh chuck steak that it grinds daily at its original location (no wonder Mr. Meat Processing Himself, Fast Food Nation’s Eric Shlosser, likes it), the chain bakes its own buns, and it slices its own fries by hand, at each restaurant, from thin-skinned Kennebec potatoes. Amazingly, there are no microwaves, freezers, or warming tables in In-N-Out Burger kitchens—it’s a fast-food chain that cooks real food in real time. It’s not surprising that In-N-Outs are the cult burgers of foodies.

Sadly, the California-based, resolutely family-owned chain has no plans to spread east. Apparently, they’ve got some left-coast bias against pale, fast talking customers. So I decided, screw ‘em. I’m gonna make my own In-N-Out Burger right here in Westchester.

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There are many clone recipes on the web if, say, you want to spend three hours nearly recreating a 69-cent Twinkie at home with store-bought ingredients. I scanned for clones of In-N-Outs, and found this site, World’s Greatest Hamburgers, which gives us one version of an In-N-Out Double-Double.

Meanwhile, Scott Birch, another cloner, offers his take on two In-N-Outs found here.

And, for contrast, there’s always this version from Recipe Goldmine.

Now, take a look—you can see the problem with clone recipes immediately. The In-N-Out website specifies ground chuck beef (it’s also mentioned in Saveur), which they grind from whole shoulder sections at their Baldwin Park facility; none of the three clone recipes specify chuck, with one calling out only “ground beef” (essentially, mystery meat). The three recipes disagree about the weight of the burgers; two suggest 1/3 pound, while the other guesses 1/4 pound. Not one version specifies the thickness of the tomato slice (other than “large” or “plump”); and while two name-check Kraft Thousand Island Dressing as the goo de choix, the third lists only Thousand Island dressing. Phooey. Looks like In-N-Out and I are on our own.

Here’s what I did.

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Meat: When it comes to burgers, I’m all about chuck, a section of the cow that makes the beefiest-tasting hamburger. For chuck, I’m all about Westchester’s local supermarket chain, DeCicco’s. There, instead of the usual supermarket shtick of offering fat ratios rather than cuts, you can buy ground sirloin, ground lamb, ground pork —and my quarry—ground chuck, with a sumptuous 70/30 lean-to-fat ratio. I tenderly patted 1/6-pound patties out of my chuck with wet hands, taking care not to knead or squeeze the meat—a bad habit that makes for tight, dry burgers.
Cheese: American, baby—Land O’Lakes, thick-sliced at DeCicco’s.
Buns: Okay, I wussed out here. I briefly considered baking my own buns, but then acknowledged that better bakers than I have tried to make hamburger buns and ended up with bricks. No, what you want are the light, airy, nearly insubstantial burger buns that issue strictly from commercial bakeries. I opted for seed-free Arnold, since they’re slightly larger than other buns and look like the pictures of the In-N-Out Burgers in Saveur. These I toasted briefly, cut side down, in a dry (well-seasoned) cast iron Griswold skillet until they were crisp all over, while the outsides were ringed in crunchy golden brown.
Dressing: This was a dilemma. The cook in me was horrified when I saw those bottles of Kraft Thousand Island—folks, the stuff is a sickly shade of dusty pink, a color not usually found in food. Plus, it’s chunky. I scoured my cookbooks and had no luck until I cracked a stained, aged, 1953 Joy of Cooking, the kind of book that has such mid-century recipes as the one for Hawaiian canapés (ground ham mixed with cream cheese and crushed pineapple). According to the ancient Joy, Thousand Island dressing is composed of the following: 1 cup of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of chili sauce, 2 tablespoons of minced, stuffed olives, 1 tablespoon of chopped green pepper, 1 tablespoon of minced onion or chives, and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of heavy cream, whipped or plain. Fine, but suspiciously like real food. I sucked it up and bought that bottle of Kraft (and hid it in the back of the fridge in case anyone spotted it). Most clone recipes specify 1 tablespoon of Thousand Island, so that’s what I used.
Tomato: I used some license here and just stopped into the New Rochelle farmers’ market and got glorious red orbs of local, late-summer deliciousness. I’ve been eating them ever since. I sliced the tomato fat, about ½-inch thick, and used only the center circles. Though fat tomatoes are a characteristic of genuine In-N-Out Burgers, this perfect seasonal Hudson Valley tomato may have been this burger’s ultimate undoing; these things are JUICY.
Onion: Farmers’ market, a trio of crisp, local, muck-farmed things sporting fright wigs of roots with stalky greens attached. My car smelled pleasantly of onions on the way home. These I shaved super-thin, as per all clone recipes.
Lettuce: More license—instead of traditional iceberg, I cracked a head of green leaf lettuce from Trader Joe’s. Sue me.

Result dee-licious, though slightly problematic: the burgers were so juicy that the buns disintegrated, and my plate held a tasty pool of tomato and beef drippings. Can they really serve these juice balloons at In-N-Out? I scaled the tomato’s thickness down for my final version.

Here’s my perfected clone of a clone recipe:

Sexton’s Mock In–N-Out Double Double (makes one burger)

1 large, unseeded Arnold hamburger bun
1/3 pound ground chuck, split into two patties about 1/4-inch thick by 3 3/4-inches in diameter
sea salt
1 Tbsp Kraft Thousand Island dressing
1 fat (1/3-inch thick) slice of locally grown, ripe tomato
1 washed, dried leaf of mild-flavored lettuce, green leaf, Boston, iceberg (so no mesclun or arugula, duh)
2 thick slices American cheese
1 very thin slice of onion

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, and fire up the grill. While grill is heating, toast cut sides of buns in dry skillet until golden and ringed in crunchy brown. Set aside. Place patties on hot grill and sprinkle each with a good pinch of salt. Grill for a minute or two, flip, and immediately place a slice of American cheese over each cooked side. Grill for an additional minute or two. While burger is cooking, place dressing on bottom bun. Top with tomato slice, then lettuce. Place one patty on lettuce, top with onion slice, second patty, and top bun.

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