In honor of
National Grilling Memorial Day, I’ve decided to rerun this post on how to make the most kickass burgers you’ll ever taste. Really. Happy holiday weekend!
I have Depression-era parents. That’s why I grew up eating freezer-burned heels of bread, and why there are spices in my mother’s pantry older than I am. One useful culinary thing Mom did teach me, besides making braising liquid for pot roast with Lipton’s Onion Soup mix (totally trailer, but so good), is to stretch my pennies by mixing egg and breadcrumbs into ground meat when I make hamburgers. Not only does this make for a lighter, juicier burger, but they taste pretty kick-ass when you liven up the grind with minced shallots, garlic, and chopped fresh herbs.
So, now that summer is finally here (yes, I realize it’s September but I live in Seattle), I thought I’d celebrate by firing up my metaphorical barbecue (I also live in an apartment at the moment), and share with you my tips for making a better burger.
*Remove your ground meat of choice from the fridge half an hour before you plan to make your burgers. You’re going to be adding stuff to it, and it will bind better if the meat isn’t too cold. Allow about one-and-a-half pounds for four people, depending upon what else you plan to serve. It’s always better to prepare too much than too little, and leftover burgers are great crumbled into stir-fries, pasta sauce, or scrambled eggs.
*Open a beer (personally, I prefer cocktails or wine but raw meat flecks and smeary fingerprints on glasseware is just not sexy).
*Dump the meat into a large bowl. Add one egg and one or two largish handfuls of panko or breadcrumbs; make them yourself with leftover bread or score some discounted day-old stuff from a bakery or local dumpster. Storebought stuff works, too. Add another egg if the mixture seems too dry. The point of these two ingredients is two-fold. The egg adds moisture and acts as a binding agent, while the breadcrumbs increase your yield and ensure your burger won’t end up festering in your colon for the next several months.
*Be sure to wash your hands after handling the egg and raw meat, and keep them separate from any utensils or ingredients you plan to use on raw food. E. coli is also not sexy.
*Add to meat one large shallot, minced, and at least three cloves of garlic, also finely minced. I always add a dash or four of soy sauce or Worcestershire, for added flavor. Throw in a handful of chopped Italian parsley or chives. Ground lamb with mint is also wonderful.
*Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and mix well using your hands until all the ingredients are fully incorporated. To determine if your seasoning is right on, fry up a pinch of the mixture. Form into one-and-a-quarter-inch-thick patties by scooping the meat into your hands and gently! patting them into shape. Resist the urge to fondle too much, as it will compact the meat, making for a dry, tough burger. If you make them slider-sized, you’ll be able to double fist, clutching burger in one hand and beer in the other. I may not like greasy glasses, but I’m a huge advocate of eating and drinking ambidextrously.
I always make a slight indentation in the center of each patty, because that’s what my mom did to prevent “shrinkage.” I have no idea if this is true or not, but it does make you look like a wise old kitchen sage. You can make the burgers up to a day ahead; if you’ve got a crowd, place a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap between layers to prevent them from glomming on to one another. Bring up to room temperature before grilling.
*Preheat your grill or flat-top. Have another drink while you’re waiting.
*When coals are ashy and white and you’ve got some flame going, lightly oil the grill using a damp rag dipped in cooking oil. If you’re using a pan, get it smoking hot and brown both sides of the meat for better flavor. Try to refrain from cooking past medium rare if you’ve thrown down cash for good meat.
*Toast your buns. Artisan or Wonder Bread, they’ll taste better and it will help prevent the condiments from making them soggy.
*One more drink. Eat. Enjoy. Make friends or significant other clean up.
Depending upon your budget and the state of your arteries, you can opt for lean ground beef (around the eight- to ten-percent fat range), or go big on something 20- to 25-percent fat. Hamburgers are not the place to skimp on fat–it’s a necessary component, whether you use ground chuck, sirloin, or round. I recommend grassfed- and -finished beef for health, humanity, and flavor reasons, but bear in mind it’s lower in fat and shouldn’t be cooked past medium-rare.
Chuck is the most popular and economical, and provides a good fat and flavor balance. When purchasing, look for a bright, pinky-red color, and if cellophane-wrapped, avoid anything gray, leaky, smelly, or otherwise bio-hazardous. Tempting as it may be to purchase the preformed, opaque-packaged, phallic “chubs,” refrain. Saving a few bucks isn’t worth eating gussied up pet food.
If you’re on a tight budget, however, even if you buy the $2.99/lb. ghetto
grind, it will be vastly improved by the addition of a truly great egg. Pasture-raised chickens snack on foraged bugs and decaying vegetation (Those of you with McNugget crumbs around your mouths shouldn’t look so horrified) and the results are exceptionally rich, orangey-yellow yolks packed full of all kinds of that healthy antioxidant crap. They’re a great, inexpensive protein source on their own, and so much better than pale, watery, flavorless commercial eggs that are god knows how old.
[Photo love: burger, Flickr user Adam Kuban]