You take the time to pick out the best meat, selecting just the right fat blend for your cooking method du jour. You weigh your cheeses carefully, factoring in meltiness, creaminess, and taste. You go crazy with toppings, frying the artisan bacon, sauteeing the mushrooms and onions, slicing the ripest tomatoes. You watch that grill like a hawk, monitoring your temperature and pulling the burg from the fire just a few degrees before your target doneness. And then you just slap the whole thing between whatever bread product you happen to have handy?!? Say it ain’t so, dough.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do. You wouldn’t write The Great American Novel and then wrap it in a brown-bag dust jacket, would you? In this installment of our Build a Better Burger series, we’ll help you navigate your numerous options and select the perfect baked-goods bookends for your burger.
The fact is, most of us are stuck with whatever’s at the grocery store for our own burger adventures. This usually means a plastic bag filled with 8 or 12 uniformly-shaped, factory-cut hamburger handles from whichever big-business bakery your grocery store chain has a supply deal with. You want to customize? If you’re lucky, you get to decide between sesame seeds or sans seeds.
Personally, sesame seeds don’t do a thing for me. Sure, they’re a fast-food staple and get special lyrical billing in the famous jingle, but I’ve never bit into a bare bun and thought, “That’s not bad, but it could really use some tasteless seeds that end up all over everything with each bite.” But they’re fairly inoffensive and do render a pretty, photogenic burger. Sesame seed buns are classic, and sometimes, that’s exactly what you want out of a burger. (Poppy seeds, on the other hand, are seldom seen on burger buns and immediately elevate the burger closer to fancypants territory.)
A kaiser (or Kaiser) roll is recognizable by its segmented top design. Usually scored five times in gentle curves emanating from the center, the kaiser roll (or at least the topmost crust layer) is typically a little harder and crustier than a standard bun.
A wheat bun often signifies a “healthy” burger, one that may or may not be topped with things like alfalfa sprouts and avocado slices. But even if whole grains, fewer calories, and less sugar don’t matter to you, wheat buns often add another layer to a burger’s flavor profile.
Potato rolls, as the name suggests, replace a bit of the regular flour with spuds. Not found on many restaurant menus (likely because it doesn’t sound trendy enough), potato rolls tend to be very squishy and pillowy with a superb texture and hearty taste.
Brioche is one of the hottest words in restaurant-speak over the past few years. Gourmet burger joints love to tout their brioche buns, which are generally ID’d by high egg and butter content, a puffy and fluffy look, and a dark golden crust, which is frequently given an egg wash to add browning and flakiness. But brioche isn’t just for linen-napkin joints anymore; even Bob Evans is slipping their farmstyle burgs into these French-inspired buns.
Martin’s rolls deserve a special shout-out. The buttery buns cranked out from this smalltown Pennsylvania bakery are often considered by burger geeks to be the best in the world, with a sweet taste and squishy texture that’s thought to be the benchmark by which all other burger buns should be measured. While they offer full-size buns, their mini-buns are the gold standard for sliders everywhere.
Want a hearty quality to your burger? Pretzel buns are often used on hefty tavern burgers, with their dense, slightly sweet dough. English muffins also make the occasional appearance, usually when someone’s going for an authentic pub-style burg. Or sometimes if your end goal is a breakfast-themed burger. Their craggy nooks and chewy crannies often distract from the burger-ness of the finished dish, though, and end up being more about style than substance.
While you can toast any bun variety with nice results, using actual toast can add an interesting element. You run the risk of turning your classic burger into more of a patty melt by introducing toast, but in the right down-home setting, it’s the perfect crowning touch. Using toast (often Texas or sourdough) is also a favorite trick of fast-food chains in pushing new burger types that they hope will appeal to fans of classic diner chow.
You can bake cheese directly into bread, so why don’t more buns have cheese embedded inside? Well, that’s the point of putting cheese on the burger, isn’t it? A cheesed bun may add a subtle flair to the burger’s overall taste and looks really cool on the menu, but it often contributes to a bun that’s prone to breaking and falling apart.
If you’re willing to consider using toast as burger buns and are intrigued by the idea of putting cheese into the bun itself, it’s just a short journey from there to employing entire grilled cheese sandwiches as buns. Usually found on extreme burgers with names like the Double Coronary, the Cardiologist’s Special, or the Heart Attack on a Plate, these are guaranteed to get the table talking… and make you all kinds of full, given that it’s essentially three sandwiches in one. But for sheer shock value, nothing beats it… almost.
Of course, there’s always the ultimate in burger insanity… at least according to most rational folks. A now-defunct bar in Decatur, Georgia lays claim to being the first place to serve a burger between glazed Krispy Kreme donuts, but now it’s a practice that belongs to the world, with everybody from minor league ballparks to hipster restaurants to state fairs offering their take on the donut burger. Two donuts is how the trend was born, but many eateries that do a donut burger use one donut cut in half lengthwise (yeah, ‘cos if I’m eating a cheeseburger between donuts, I don’t want to overdo it) and assemble the burg with the cut sides out to lessen the messiness (yeah, ‘cos at that point, I sure don’t want to look like a fat slob).
Or if you’re really feeling adventurous, you can, in fact, bake your own burger buns. At that point, the sky’s the limit, and you can customize your buns in any way imaginable to take your burgermaking to the next level. But that’s pushing the limits of what most carnivores are willing to do for a weekend cookout. Good to know that there are plenty of other options that go above and beyond that same old twist-tie bag of Sunbeam, Arnold, or Pepperidge Farm from the bread aisle.]]>
Iowa is pig country, and few things stir up that autumnal Hawkeye pride like the smoky smell of pork on the tailgate grill. For this installment of our Build a Better Burger series, we’ll tackle pork burgers.
Out of the shrinkwrap, it looks pretty similar to ground beef, if perhaps a rosier shade of pink. The stuff at my grocer’s was listed as 80/20, the exact same fat blend as ground chuck (and cheaper by over a dollar per pound), but dryness can be an issue with pork. That’s why most pork burger recipes call for some type of binder to help keep the patties intact as they cook.
Mine used soft bread crumbs and an egg. And to help season the meat, I added grated Parmesan cheese, dried parsley flakes, dried basil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Once it was all combined together, I was left with a mixture reminiscent of meat loaf, but not as moist (since no ketchup or Worcestershire sauce was added to the mix).
I shaped the meat mixture into burgers (0.4-pound patties, my personal preference for backyard grillers) and popped them in the fridge to chill while my charcoal got hot.
It was pretty much burger business as usual up until spatula time. Once the burgers were flipped, the differences between beef and pork were really starting to become noticeable. I had some decent griddle marks, but in between were stripes of a color I’m not used to seeing on Burger Night. The other white meat, indeed. The paleness of the meat was somewhat startling and had me scrambling for some technological backup.
I’ve grilled enough burgs that generally I know what to look for, color-wise. And while I always check my work with a meat thermometer, it’s critical when you’re flying blind, cooking a meat you’re not used to. By-the-book rules say that ground pork should hit 160 degrees, but porcine pros know that 140 results in much tastier swine. And thanks to carryover cooking- whereby the internal temp will continue to rise 5-10 degrees even after you pull the meat off the grill- I knew that 136 was close enough.
The binders in my meat mixture worked- all five patties stayed intact on the grill, with only minor cracking. I dressed my burger simply- just lettuce, tomato, and mayo- to really let the pork flavor come through.
While they certainly weren’t as run-down-my-arm juicy as beef burgers, these were not like eating a giant breakfast sausage, as my wife had feared. They were a really nice change of pace and fit the cooler weather of fall to a T. Some pork burger recipes call for other seasonings in the meat mixture: ground caraway seed, fennel, green onion, paprika, etc. I found myself wishing my pork burgers had a bit more bite to them; I’ll double up the pepper and maybe add some sage next time. If you’re looking to “beef” up your tailgate spread with a little razzle-dazzle this football season, try pork burgers with your home team. Pork: it isn’t just for Iowans anymore.]]>
Yeah, those shrinkwrapped burgers at the meat counter. I grabbed the three varieties offered: the bacon-and-cheddar stuffed burgers pictured, plus some blue cheese burgers, and “steakhouse seasoned ground round” patties. Quick and convenient? You bet. Worth eating? I’d soon find out.
Things looked promising as they hit the grates with a satisfying sizzle. The bacon-and-cheddars, at top and bottom left, weren’t so much “stuffed” Jucy-Lucy-style as they were “studded,” but that’s semantics. I certainly liked the grated cheese mixed throughout the patties, a method I’ve had great success with in my own experiments. The blue cheese burgs at middle top and bottom also used the “studded” approach. All four of these burgers were half-pounders and made from ground chuck, with its ideal 80/20 fat blend. The “steakhouse seasoned” burgers at top and bottom right were only third-pounders, and made from ground round. (I’m assuming that the smaller size was to balance out the slightly-more expensive 85/15 meat, allowing this shrinkwrapped package to be in the same pricing ballpark as the others.)
Once flipped, the burgers displayed fairly nice griddle marks, my hopes still riding high as my team engineered a 4th-quarter comeback. It was at this point that I also started to appreciate just how spoiled I have become with the grill in my own backyard. I know its hotspots, I know how to tweak and adjust everything on that grill to maximize airflow and keep a bed of charcoal glowing hot. On this unfamiliar grill, I was losing the fire fast and had to lower the cooking grate to its bottom position to eke out every last bit of heat from the dying coals.
I wish I could say that the taste of these burgers was on par with their convenience factor. Or even close. It wasn’t. All three varieties were bland and boring. The strands of meat were much more tightly-packed than I would have ended up with had I formed the patties personally and resulted in dense, dry beef. None of the promised flavors shone through. In fact, if I hadn’t known which was which, I couldn’t have told the difference. No bacon flavor whatsoever in the bacon-and-cheddar, and not nearly enough cheddar. Zero discernible blue cheese taste. And the steakhouse burgs were unevenly seasoned at best. (Go back at look at that photo of when they first hit the grill. One half of that patty at top right is completely devoid of seasonings.)
Yes, if you’re on your way to the campground or the stadium, picking up these pre-made patties from your grocer’s butcher case is easy. But don’t expect them to score any touchdowns on taste. These are a Hail Mary play at best, so be ready to add some much-needed razzle-dazzle with extra toppings and fixins.]]>
That, my friends, is a buttload of butter. Sixteen tablespoons, to be exact. Two. Full. Sticks. It’s the suggested amount required for eight “butter burgers,” the naughty new burger style I’ve been having a little fling with since my summer vacation in the Midwest, where they’re not just an interesting subspecies of America’s favorite food, they’re a dietary staple.
Most give the credit (or blame, if you’re a cardiologist) for inventing butter burgers to Solly’s Grille in Milwaukee, WI, where they do know a thing or two hundred about dairy products. Theirs is the recipe I’d be trying to duplicate for my maiden voyage.
Scouring my sources, I found two key guides. One was a recipe “adapted from” Solly’s for Food Network Magazine. The other was the book Hamburger America by George Motz and the accompanying DVD, which featured a six-minute segment on Solly’s, with footage and interviews shot in the restaurant itself.
According to the documentary, Solly’s uses a quarter-pound patty (although their menu also offers a few third-pound burgs) of sirloin. That’s 90/10 ground beef, if you’re making out a shopping list. It’s a thin diner-style burger, so I started with meatballs.
But the Food Network Magazine recipe had me cooking onions as a first step. They’d be a topping for the burger, and in true Solly’s fashion, they’re sauteed in butter.
After a 6-8 minute bath in the foaming butter, add 1/3 cup of water, cover, and cook for another 15 minutes. This supposedly “stews” the onions very closely to the way they do it at Solly’s (at least in flavor- the video clearly shows whole onion slices sitting intact on the patties as they cook). Set these aside and wipe out your cast-iron skillet for Round Two.
The ripping-hot skillet will retain enough butter fat and onion flavor to cook the burgs quickly. Once the meatballs hit the pan, smash them flat with a spatula and give them a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Flip them three minutes later and you should see some damn sexy charring taking place.
After another three minutes, they’re done. (And I mean well done. No use trying to get a slim-jim patty like this to medium-rare. Believe me, it’ll be more than juicy enough when we’re through.) Now here’s where some crucial timing comes into play. You should be toasting your buns so they’re ready about the time the burgers come out of the skillet. Then slather 2 full tablespoons of softened room-temperature on the inside of the bun top. Don’t skimp. Neatness does not count; it’s all gonna melt as soon as you smash that buttered bun onto the smoking-hot burger. And, oh yeah, have a stack of napkins standing by.
I used the sauteed onions on one burger like a true Solly Burger. The onions take on a sweet flavor, but I ended up losing half of them in the creamy mudslide of melting butter. I tried another with American cheese, but decided at the last second to use an under-patty placement, for fear of the cheese interfering with the all-important melting-butter thing. It worked, and I was rewarded with the telltale golden puddle on my plate, perfect for dipping the burger into as you eat.
I also tried one with cheese and onions, which may have been my favorite of the bunch. The taste is exactly what it sounds like it would be- a cheeseburger bathed in melted butter. For some, it’s drip-down-your-arm love at first bite. Others don’t seem to care for it as anything more than a novelty. I’m not sure how often I’ll make these at home; it’s a lot of work, and the house smelled like a greasy spoon for days. But I know if I lived in Milwaukee, I’d be a regular, although I can’t figure out how you’d eat these with any regularity and not end up grotesquely obese… like, extract-you-from-your-bedroom-with-a-construction-crane-on-the-Montel-Williams-Show fat. Must be all that heavy-duty snow shoveling they do in Wisconsin.
One note on the bun. I made a tactical error and bought French-style bakery buns. They proved to be a little too substantial for butter burgers. Solly’s seems to use very ordinary-looking soft and squishy buns. While many butter burger dissenters knock this as the sandwich’s weak point- saying the bun disintegrates amidst the yellow flood of butter- I now think it’s essential to the whole package. I’ll go with the cheapest buns I can find next time.]]>
How do you want that burger cooked?
The issue of doneness is a veritable minefield in the burger biz. Most assembly-line places don’t ask you how you want your burger cooked. Many will honor requests just to a certain point. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told, “We can’t do medium-rare…”) Those that do give you a choice often have a hard time hitting the mark. So if trained chefs and professional line cooks can’t consistently nail a burger’s doneness, what hope is there for backyard grillers??? It’s a sticky subject, but we’ll try to get you a few degrees closer to patty perfection.
A big part of the confusion comes from the terminology used. There is no one single uniform code when it comes to what separates your “medium-rare” burger from my “medium.” I might take one look at a restaurant’s “medium-well” and call it a hockey puck. What is pretty universally accepted is this: you can’t look at a burger as it cooks and definitively say anything about the internal meat temperature. Check out these three burgs on my own grill: one is rare, one is medium, and one is well-done… but I’ll bet you can’t tell which is which.
Although the exact numbers and wordings may vary according to the source, here’s a reasonable breakdown of burger donenesses, describing what you’ll see and what a meat thermometer will read in the center of the burger.
Rare: Cool and red center, 120-125 degrees Fahrenheit.
Medium-rare: Warm and red center, 130-135 degrees.
Medium: Warm and pink center, 140-145 degrees.
Medium-well: Warm with little to no pink, 150-155 degrees.
Well-done: Uniformly grey-brown, 160-165 degrees.
Five- and ten-degree increments don’t leave much margin for error. The USDA’s website proclaims that, “A hamburger is done when it reaches 160 degrees.” So, according to the federal organization in charge of food safety, the only kind of burger you should ever eat is a well-done burger. Thus, the legal disclaimer printed on almost every menu in the country warning us about the mortal dangers of a medium-rare cheebie.
But if you’re grilling burgers in your own backyard and have a hankering for a burger cooked to a juicy rare, what do you do? Most of us just guess… and guess wrong. And no wonder. There are countless variables at play: your unique grill and its inherent hotspots and cool zones, the ambient temperature, the temp of the beef when it hits the grill, the size of the burgers, if you’re grilling other foods simultaneously, and more. But to really fine-tune your burgers’ doneness, you need two tools: a stopwatch and a meat thermometer.
The grill should be rolling along at a medium-hot temp, enough so there’s an audible hiss when the burgers are first dropped. Start your stopwatch the second the meat hits the grill. And stay close, this won’t take long. Perhaps surprisingly, for a rare burger, you should flip it after just three minutes. Add thirty seconds for each extra level of doneness: 3:30 for medium-rare, 4:00 for medium, and so on. Even a well-done burger needs just five minutes until it’s time to flip. That means that throwing a mess of burgs on the grill and then joining in that croquet game across the lawn or heading in to work on side dishes will almost inevitably result in dry, overcooked disaster. It takes just one TV commercial break for “cool, red” to rocket all the way to the “uniformly grey-brown.”
After the flip, let the burger cook for the same amount of time, from 3:00 for rare to 5:00 for well-done. As you reach the end of that timespan, stick the meat thermometer in the middle and double-check your work, using the target temps above. And remember that the internal temperature will continue to climb by a few degrees even after you take the burger off the grill, so pull ‘em a moment earlier than you’re aiming for.
Every fire is different, so it’s truly difficult to get it down to a real science. After all, some of the best restaurants on earth can’t deliver a textbook “medium-rare” every single time. But if you have everything at the ready and maintain sharp focus from the moment your meat hits the grill, you’ll find that, with practice, you can become adept at rustling up “the perfect burger,” no matter who’s biting in.]]>
That, my burger-loving brothers and sisters, is a Big Green Egg. For those of you not familiar, it’s the United States’ most popular brand of kamado. A kamado (short for mushikamado) is a type of traditional Japanese cooker fueled by wood or charcoal. Kamados were historically made of earthen materials like clay, but modern versions are usually ceramic. The Big Green Egg’s unique shape is specifically designed to help the cooker retain heat far better than conventional grills, say the brand’s fans. These cult-like devotees, who call themselves Eggheads, swear that anything you can grill can be cooked better on an Egg: ribs, roasts, pizzas, whole turkeys, even breads and baked desserts. In a surprise to no one, I put mine to the test with burgers.
Cooking with a Big Green Egg begins with lump charcoal. Once the fuel of choice for only the most rabid of grillers, lump charcoal (whole pieces of wood that have been exposed to extremely high temperatures to expel all volatile chemicals, leaving behind pure carbon) is now pretty readily available.
It weighs less than charcoal briquettes (thanks to a lack of fillers like wood or sawdust and because it’s not compressed into a uniform shape), but costs a lot more. The upside is that it burns much cleaner and way hotter than your granddaddy’s Kingsford. I can attest to that personally; just 15 minutes after lighting, the temp inside my Big Green Egg was over 500 degrees and still climbing.
The Big Green Egg has made a name for itself as a smoker, and that’s how I used it for my burgers. In smoking, the cooking is done over various hardwoods to infuse the food with flavor. Mesquite, hickory, and pecan are classic smoking woods, available to backyard grillers in bagged chunks or chips.
There are dozens of other woods, some better suited to certain types of food than others, and all supplying slightly different tastes. You can buy chips made from smashed-up barrels that have been used to age wine, Tabasco hot sauce, or even Jack Daniel’s whiskey. I’ve used ‘em all in my Weber kettle grills over the years with smashing success. (Chicken, pork, and fish take smoke really well. And I’ve put a smoked turkey on my family’s Thanksgiving Day table for the past 15 straight years.) For these burgers, I used cherry wood. Simply soak the chips in water for an hour or more, drain, and sprinkle the damp chips directly over the burning charcoal.
You can tweak the technique for gas grills, too, with clever little metal boxes that safely contain the wood chips and are placed on top of your grill’s lava rock or flavorizer bars. You can also DIY it by rolling the wet chips into an aluminum foil “log” and poking a few holes in the foil to allow the smoke to escape. Whatever method you use, the smoke starts rolling pretty quickly, dropping the overall temp of the fire. Generally speaking, let the smoke get going for a few minutes before you place the food over it- to avoid an overpowering, acrid taste from that initial blast.
Smoked meats take on a distinct reddish hue. (BBQ enthusiasts look for the telltale pink “smoke ring” in a cross-section of meat and award style points for a more pronounced one.) At a casual glance, smoked meat can appear undercooked because of this coloration, so using a meat thermometer to check the internal temp is always a good idea. Even after just 5 minutes of bathing in the cherry wood smoke, my burgs had taken on an obvious rosy glow.
Airflow is the key to smoking. Your cooker needs to maintain a fire to sufficiently burn the wood chips- so good air intake is a must. Then the idea is to draw the smoke being generated across the food on its way out of the grill- without trapping it inside- so a vent is also critical. The Big Green Egg does this with a bottom hatch that pulls air into the firebox and an adjustable chimney piece that controls the airflow leaving the Egg. The bigger the openings, the more air you’re letting in, the hotter the fire will burn, and the more smoke you’ll produce.
My cherry smoked burgers were not the best I’ve ever made. Truthfully, they were one of my weaker efforts. But I credit that not to the smoking technique, but to me getting used to kamado cooking. There’s always a learning curve with a new tool, and I’m still in mine with the Big Green Egg. I’m simply not used to an apparatus that hits 700 degrees with zero effort. I’m still figuring out how to control temperatures and how to adjust my timing accordingly. But that’s part of the fun of outdoor grilling, and I’m eager to master my new toy. As for smoking in general, it’s a cool way to jazz up your next round of backyard burgers and get your neighbors talking as waves of aromatic smoke waft over the fence.]]>
For many die-hards, the cheese discussion starts and ends with American. Funny, since American cheese is not even technically “cheese” in the traditional sense. It’s processed cheese, and that’s way different from milking a cow, separating the curds from the whey, and then packing the curds into a wheel or block of awesomeness. Once upon a time, “American cheese” simply meant cheddar cheese that was produced in the fledgling colonies and shipped back home to jolly old England. Nowadays, it’s an amalgamation of bits and scraps of other “true” cheeses- usually cheddar and Colby- along with additives, preservatives, and emulsifiers that extend shelf life. It is a very mild (some would argue tasteless) cheese that’s- by design- cheap to make and cheap to buy. But it also melts like no other cheese; thanks to those emulsifiers, it doesn’t separate when heated. American cheese is more about a smooth, uniform texture than a discernible taste, providing a warm, velvety-gooey “mouth feel” that is the perfect complement to a hot beef patty.
The kind with the holes, right? Not necessarily. There are over 450 kinds of Swiss cheese, and not all of them have holes. What we consider Swiss cheese is a variation of either European Emmental or Gruyere. More properly called “eyes,” the holes are created when bacteria used in the cheesemaking process consume lactic acids and release bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. Generally speaking, the larger the eyes, the more pronounced the cheese’s flavor (that’s why small-holed Baby Swiss tastes milder than other types), but the harder it is to run through a mechanical slicer. In fact, there are government regulations mandating the acceptable eye size of many Swiss cheeses. Swiss cheese melts very well and brings a slightly nutty flavor to your burger; sauteed mushrooms are the perfect accompaniment.
The most popular cheese in the UK and #2 in the US (behind mozzarella), cheddar originates from the village of the same name in England and was first aged (still is, actually) in local caves that provide the perfect temperature and humidity for the cheese’s maturation. Classic cheddar tends to have a pungent flavor and is readily available with varying degrees of sharpness (mild, medium, sharp, extra-sharp, etc.) determined by how long it ages. It’s most often pictured as being deep orange in color, although white cheddar is popular, too. (Different coloring additives were added in times past to indicate the cheese’s place of origin.) It’s a relatively firm cheese and will often “sweat” (the separation of the fats) when it’s melted. It makes for a burger with bite, even if it’s often not the prettiest-looking cheeseburger you’ll find. Cheddar tends to work better when it’s loaded up with other toppings: lettuce, tomato, onions, etc., since it can sometimes be overpowering as the only flavor on a burger.
If these are the Fab Four of cheese, then pepper jack is Ringo: a little wacky, a little out there, not for everybody. But if you like him, you love him. This derivative of Monterey Jack has spicy bits of peppers (usually jalapeno, serrano, or habanero) embedded in the cheese for added flavor. As the cheese ages, the pepper flavor intensifies. It melts fairly well and can add quite a bit of kick to a cheeseburger, so go all-out spicy with your other toppings: jalapenos, red onions, chipotle mayo, etc.
For a head-to-head melt-off, I whipped up 6 burgers last weekend and used all 4 of these cheeses. The burgers were grilled, then placed on a baking sheet to rest. The cheeses were added, and an aluminum pan was used to cover them all, trapping the residual heat to gently melt the cheese over all of the burgers for the same 5-6 minutes. This is what I was rewarded with when I lifted the lid:
Swiss: top left, Pepper jack: bottom left, American: top middle and bottom middle, Cheddar: top right and bottom right.
These are just four easy-cheesy choices. There’s something to be said for Provolone, Blue, Havarti, Gouda… heck, even notoriously stinky varieties like Limburger can make a damn tasty burg. Check out the Cheese & Burger Society website for more crazy cheeseburger concoctions that go way beyond the stuff wrapped up in individual plastic sheets. In the immortal words of Monty Python, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” Without them, our burgers would be naked… and a lot less tasty.]]>
When you visit an old-school burger joint and the guy behind the bar (and it’s always a bar) is working an antique flat top- scraping it clean, smashing beef into its well-oiled surface, and tink-tink-tinking the spatula blade clean with his unique, practiced cadence of taps,- it’s something to behold. When I get the urge to re-create that diner experience at home, I don’t have a seasoned flat top at my disposal. But I do have something just as good:
The cast iron skillet at my house is a Griswold #10, about 40 years old. It was handed down to my wife from her grandmother, who used it for everything from bacon to fried chicken to biscuits to eggs. And on some molecular level, everything the woman ever cooked in it left some microscopic bits of goodness behind, ready to help flavor whatever gets cooked in it next. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, I implore you to get your hands on one. Search an attic. Hit a yard sale. Ask a grandmother.
Cast iron is a crazy-good heat conductor, and since high heat is what gives a thin diner-style burg its signature char, a skillet like this is the perfect vessel for indoor burger cooking. A worthy cast iron skillet must be properly seasoned; there are several ways to do it and countless places where you can learn how… but a seasoned skillet does not make it a non-stick skillet. Grease is key. Use some saved bacon fat, a swipe of Crisco, some vegetable oil, or even a blast of cooking spray. The skillet is forgiving, but this thin lubricating layer is absolutely necessary. I sprinkle in some salt and black pepper (to kick-start the seasoning) and get the pan rip-roaring hot, to the point of actually smoking.
Time to drop the meat. For griddle burgs, I go a little thinner than usual. One-third-pounders (or even quarter-pounders) work nicely here. I shape mine into loose balls and plop them in the skillet, listening for that telltale hiss.
In just a few seconds, you can start smashing. You’re maximizing the surface area of the burger, putting more of it in contact with the skillet. Now’s a good time to salt and pepper the tops of these bad boys. That perfectly spherical ball will probably crack and look like it’s going to fall apart, but that’s okay. The extreme heat will “glue” the shape of the patty intact and hold everything together.
You’ll be able to watch the patty as it cooks and see how high up on its edges it’s turning brown. For me, when the halfway point is no longer raw-colored, it’s time to flip. You should be rewarded with a lovely bit of crust on the just-cooked side.
When I grill, I wait until after the burgers come off the heat to add the cheese. When I griddle, I cheese them while they’re still sizzling away. I’m not worried about losing any cheese between the grill grates; here, any drippage puddles around the burger and will get scooped up when it’s time to bun. The result is a super-melty blanket of awesomeness that can’t be duplicated on the ol’ Weber.
A few notes. A #10 cast iron skillet is fairly large, but it still can’t handle more than four decent-sized burgers. So prepare yourself for cooking in batches if you’re whipping up more than a quartet of cheebies.
And if you’re cooking in batches, know that the second batch will cook much differently from the first. The first batch got every bit of heat that that skillet had to offer. As soon as you added the burgers, the temperature came down. Sure, you got the burgers done, but the skillet is nowhere near as hot as it was when you started this whole process. If you can, let the skillet come back up to temp before Batch #2. Or allow more cooking time and know that you’ll have less char on later burgs.
And finally, remember when I said that cast iron is an outrageously efficient heat conductor? I meant it… all the way down to the handle. Use a pot holder, champ. Trust me, you’ll want those hands burn-free so you can wrap your mitts around these luscious beauties.
That’s a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, where Mia Wallace is getting to know Vincent Vega before their dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. That speech also perfectly sums up my philosophy on grilling: just replace “Beatles” with “gas” and swap out “Elvis” for “charcoal.” There are gas people, and there are charcoal people. Somewhere, you have to make a choice.
In this installment of our Build a Better Burger series, we’ll go step-by-step on grilling a burger over a live bed of hot coals. Whether you’ve got a standard Weber kettle, a tailgate-size hibachi, or a big-dog barbecue rig, the process is the same… and the results are magical.
For me, it all starts in a chimney. It’s like a supersized coffee can with a wire basket in the bottom end. Crumple up a few sheets of newspaper, wad them in the bottom, pile charcoal briquettes up top, and flick your Bic.
The newspaper burns long enough to ignite the coals on the very bottom of the chimney, starting a fire that spreads up the cylinder. The chimney keeps the coals contained and gets your fire going a lot faster than Dad’s traditional pile.
The chimney eliminates the need for lighter fluid, which can seriously affect the taste of whatever you’re grilling. Lump charcoal burns cleaner and way hotter than briquettes and are a nice alternative for cuts of meat that need to cook a while. Briquettes are cheaper, easier to find, and get plenty hot enough to cook burgs. Within 30 minutes, the full chimney’s worth of coals is ablaze. The bottom coals are rip-roaring, with the top coals just dusted over in white. This is your cue to dump them out.
Use some tongs (NOT ones you’ll flip your burgs with, Ashy McAsher) to arrange the hot coals so that they touch each other in one single layer across the grill’s bottom grate.
Add the cooking grate over the coals… and wait. Yeah, really. The instinct is to work quickly now that the coals are spread out and burning, to throw those burgers on the grill as fast as you can before the fire goes out. That’s a great way to scorch the burgs’ exteriors before the centers even know they’re being cooked. Those coals will stay hot for a long time; use this extreme heat to clean the grate.
See all that gunk leftover from the last thing you grilled? You don’t want it getting embedded in your burger. Close the lid and let the grate heat up for 5-10 minutes. Then use a grill brush (or a crumpled-up ball of tin foil) to scrape that now-softened garlic-herb-chicken detritus off the grate. Once it’s clean, test the temperature with the oldest thermometer known to man.
Yes, your hand. Some grills have a temperature gauge built in to the lid, but they’re notoriously unreliable. Your hand is foolproof. Place your palm just above the cooking surface and start counting. How long can you hold it before the heat is too much? The answer tells you how hot your fire is:
2 seconds: Hot
3-4 seconds: Medium-hot
5-6 seconds: Medium
7 seconds: Medium-low
Your personal pain threshold notwithstanding, this is a surprisingly consistent way to gauge a fire’s temperature for grilling anything. For burgers, you’re looking for medium-hot. Anything less, and you won’t get that sexy sizzle when you lay your patties on the grate. But before you drop the meat, now’s the time to safeguard against your burgers sticking. I soak a wad of paper towels in vegetable oil and rub it all over the grate with my tongs.
Non-stick sprays work, but regular cooking spray may not stand up to the grill’s high heat, and some will really flame up when you spray it right above the hot coals. Oil is cheap and does a much better job, I’ve found. Get that grate glistening, and then arrange your burgers right over the coals.
Now, leave them alone! A lot of grill jockeys start poking and scooting things around with a spatula right from the jump. This is a telltale sign of a rookie griller. You want to see nice sear marks when you flip that bad boy over, right? The only way to get them is to let that meat stay in contact with the hot grate exactly the way it landed. And no pressing or smashing! That’s fine for griddle burgers where the fat has nowhere to go, but do it in the backyard, and all that tasty grease starts leaking out onto your burning charcoal. The result will be out-of-control flames and a dry burger. Just crack open a beverage and let the burgers cook for a good 5 minutes. You’ll start to see nice browning on the bottom sides of the burgers, like above.
Now when you flip them, you should be rewarded with crusty stripes of char. This is when every second actually counts. If you like ‘em rare, (or as Vincent Vega prefers, “bloody as hell”), just two minutes should do the trick, and those burgers will be ready to come off the grill. Every 30-60 seconds will bump the burgs up to the next doneness level, so it won’t take long, even for “burnt to a crisp.”
Grilling over charcoal takes some planning. It takes patience. It takes time. It’s not really an option for a quick homemade burger on a busy Tuesday night. But the smoky taste can’t be beat. And for us true Elvis people burger hounds, isn’t that what it’s all about?]]>
So… where were we???
Right, we had three pounds of meat sitting on my countertop- 80/20 ground chuck, 85/15 ground round, and 90/10 ground sirloin. Conventional wisdom says more fat equals better burger. But I wanted to do a head-to-head-to-head taste test to see if it was that big a deal… or even true at all. I divided each pound into thirds, formed my patties, and seasoned them with kosher salt and black pepper just before sliding them onto a ripping-hot grill.
Not much difference, visually. The 80/20 chuck burgers make up the left up-and-down column, the 85/15 round is the middle column, and the 90/10 sirloin comprise the right column. It was when I flipped them that I started to notice something.
See the pyrotechnics at left? That’s not some random hot spot on my grill. The chuck burgers were dripping 20% fat content onto the hot coals and causing major flare-ups. The 15%-fat burgers in the middle? Less flame. The lean sirloin patties at right? Nada. Decent grill marks on them all, but when the grease that had pooled on top was dumped onto the hot charcoal… it was easy to see which burgs were literally adding fuel to the fire.
Off the grill, they all looked pretty much the same again, and I was starting to wonder if this talk about beef’s fat content was just bull. I let them rest for the requisite 5 minutes while some American cheese settled in on top, then bunned and cut one of each in half for a cross-section view.
The differences are subtle, but they’re there. The 90/10 sirloin at far right doesn’t look like it has great texture, comparatively. The 85/15 round in the middle seems somewhat less dense. But the 80/20 chuck on the left verges on burger porn: loosely-packed beef that’s spilling out of the bun and actually soaking the bottom bun with juice. That looks like something I want to sink my teeth into. The burger on the right looks like something I’d wedge under a wobbly table leg.
Here they are one at a time. 90/10 Sirloin:
But amazingly enough, the taste test brought me right back to wondering what all the fuss was about. Eaten side-by-side-by-side, there wasn’t a tremendous taste difference between the three. If I really concentrated, I got a juicier bite and a more satisfying mouth feel from the chuck. But if you served me the 90/10 burger by itself at a cookout, I don’t know that I’d know the difference. “What the hell is this?!? A ground sirloin burger?!? What are you trying to do to me?!?”
Then again, the sirloin was costlier. It didn’t look quite as burgersexycool. And it lacked that dripping-down-your-chin factor. It felt like the Olympics, where just a few tenths of a point means the difference between gold-medal glory and bronze-medal anonymity. And even if you know nothing else about burgers, you’re fully aware that the devil is in the details. The little things matter in BurgerWorld. So 80/20 ground chuck remains my go-to choice at the meat counter… but if you had to sneak by with some round or sirloin, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Probably.]]>