One of my first "grown up" summer jobs was as a cook. Started out with seafood, moved to grill. I was about 19 years old, and I fucked up more burgers than I can count. I blamed it on the waitrons, of course, but it was all me, baby, because I sucked at cooking burgers (suckage increased when I did steaks; I was at a French cafe and couldn't believe what the customers wanted when they asked for it "black and blue"). The copious amounts of beer, coffee, and whippets in the walk-in didn't help. 'Course, I was so inept that they couldn't have hurt much either.
In my defense, burgers aren't easy. Plenty of chefs can't find their way around a burger grill. I've sent back more overcooked hockey pucks than I can count, and I'm not even a real ball buster. Maybe because the burger stands low on the totem pole of beef, they let the dishwashers step in to cook 'em. But I'll brook no disrespect to meat, particularly in regard to a burger. Burgers are an incredibly flexible and creative presentation of beef, and they deserve to be honored as such. A well-cooked burger on the right bun will take a basic steak out back and thrash it within an inch of its life (in a future column, I'll tell you how to make sure that steaks will stand up to such a challenge).
But for today, I'm going to tell you how to make great burgers to impress your friends and taunt your neighbors with. I'll pass along a couple of recipes I use that
make people love me. And I'll give you pointers to improve your burger-cooking skills.
First, though, learn and live this basic and immutable law: It all starts with the beef -- like everything else that matters in life, come to think of it. Go to your local supermarket -- or better, a local butcher -- and ask them to freshly grind you some beef with a 25 to 30 percent fat content. That's right, 25 to 30 percent. Ground sirloin is for poseurs, and ground round is for people trying to convince themselves they're eating healthy. You want the fat, so tell the butcher to bring it. Ground chuck is great, but try ground brisket if you can get it (if you can't, you might want to look for another butcher). Ask for it to be wrapped loosely, or try to get it wrapped in butcher paper instead of bound up like a set of chunky gams in pantyhose; once compressed, meat stays compressed. On your way home, try to avoid speeding tickets in your excitement.
Now you have three (four if you want cheese) steps left between you and your goal. Easy, right?
Patty construction's five critical rules:
1. Chill the meat first; it holds together better. If you make a bunch of patties, consider chilling them again before cooking.
2. Avoid excessive pounding and handling -- of the burgers. It makes them tough and less than awesome.
3. Bigger isn't always better. Keep your patties in proportion to the bun. Shape them into a nice circle, and push in from the sides, not just out from the middle. That keeps cracks from forming in the burger's tectonic plates.
4. After it's shaped, push your thumb into the center of the patty, making a little dry pond. It helps them cook evenly and minimizes crazy swelling into meat balloons.
5. Season before cooking. Use salt, and don't be shy. Avoid garlic powder, because garlic powder is to garlic as zoo monkeys throwing feces is to Nolan Ryan pitching a no-hitter.
Cooking the bad boy right:
1. Your cooking surface needs to be hot. Hotter than the surface of the sun, or as close as you can get. If you're cooking indoors, preheat your oven to about 350 for finishing.
2. If you're cooking on a grill, place your burgers where there is consistent heat. Be patient, and do not flip your burgers until they release from the grill. If you do, they'll come apart and the cow will have died in vain. Don't insult the cow.
3. If you're cooking on a skillet and want to try the oven technique, get a hardcore sear on both sides, then transfer the burgers into the oven for finishing. Timing will vary (see step 5). Otherwise, cook as you would on the grill. Try for a single flip only.
4. After flipping the burger, you want to keep an eye on it, because this is the tough part: When the hell is it done? Cutting it open to check is just so, so wrong. With practice, you'll be able to tell by pushing down on the patty and feeling the tension; but until you've learned what feels like what, it's OK to use a meat thermometer (anyone laughing at you will shut their piehole once they try your burgers).
5, If your guests want rare, go for about 125 degrees at the center. If they want medium, try about 140 -- that ought to be pink but not mushy. If they want well-done, tell them to get the hell out of your house.
1. One thing most folks agree on is that you want to cut a single slice, about the size of the patty. The choice of type is yours, but I like cheddar personally. My kids like American. Go figure.
2. When to cheese it is a learn-as-you-go thing: You want it melted but not liquefied. Cooking time will vary depending on the hardness of the cheese, so you're going to have to use the force on this one, young Luke.
Bunning and dressing it:
1. Hard rolls ruin burgers. Don't use them. They'll crush the meat before your teeth get anywhere near it.
2. Über-soft rolls fall apart when they get juicy (and they will). Don't use them either.
3. Like Goldilocks, you want something juuuuust right. And warm it up, preferably by toasting it after splitting. You want a fluffy inside surrounded by a mild crust and a crunchy toasted bottom.
4. Use FRESH veggies. For lettuce, I recommend romaine, not iceberg (the water of lettuces). Use a quality tomato (or tomatoe, if you're Dan Quayle), and make sure it's nice and ripe. The rest is up to you: I like red onion and jalapeño, but that's just the way I roll.
That's it -- you should be in burger heaven in no time. The recipe I just laid out is for the beloved classic burger, but you want more, don't you? You want people talking about your incredible prowess with burger meat, I know you do. If you follow all those steps above, you'll get there, but if you want to try something a bit fancier, I'll pass along my personal fave.
Cheddar-Stuffed Jalapeño Burger
Before making your patties, dice up some jalapeños. Be tough and leave the seeds in. Mix into your burger meat, then divide into portions. Each portion should consist of two full diameter but half thickness patties. Take a slice of cheddar cheese and push it gently onto one of the patties. Top with the other and seal the edges, removing cracks and finishing it as you would if there weren't cheese hiding in the middle. Cook as before.
You must be kidding me. An oxymoron if I've ever heard one. Go back to the cheddar-stuffed or classic, you sick, sad person.
Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and believes that, if he had them available, Jesus would've divided burgers among his followers.
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