Burgers — Mr. Do Bee or Mr. Don’t Bee

May 22, 2010

Bend and stretch, reach for the stars. There goes Jupiter, there goes Mars…
~Miss Barbara

Are the Romper Room digressions too age revealing? Maybe just some harebrained, even represssed, cheeseburger to childhood flashbacks—no doubt in black and white.

It seems the hamburger legend goes something like this. During the late Middle Ages, Genghis Khan’s feared Mongol calvary would store to-go patties from lamb and mutton scrapings under their saddles. Apparently, the meat was naturally tenderized from the repetitive impact between gear and horse. When his grandson, Khubilai Khan, decided to invade Moscow he brought this ground grub with his marauding hordes. Muscovites assimilated this new found food into their cuisine, redubbing it steak tartare after their name for the invaders.

Onto a tale maybe more reality driven. Raw chopped beef first appeared in France’s fine hotels at the turn of the 20th century, when expanding tourism fueled an epoque of internationalism in restaurants. The dish was originally called beefsteack à l’américain (sp?). The steak tartare vogue really ginned up after WW II. It was raw ground beef topped with a raw egg yolk with capers, chopped onion and chopped parsley. So, steak tartare was originally named not for carnivorous Tartars, but for the tartar sauce that was served with it.

Now, back to the past. In the 17th century, ships from the bustling seaport of Hamburg began calling on Russian harbors ultimately bringing steak tartare back to Germany. Soon it was called “Hamburg steak” or “Steak in the style of Hamburg.” Then, in the late 1800’s, sailors and immigrants from Hamburg brought their beloved ground meat to America, and eating stands along New York harbor began to sprout. After that, the “invention” and dispersion of the hamburger idea in and across America is a matter of controversy and sometimes baseless debate.

Gastronomic proof has again proven elusive yet plausible on each count.

For reasons unknown, this has been a post I have avoided. Maybe it was familiarity breeds contempt or perhaps the subject seemed to lack culinary sexiness. In any event, I thankfully broke down. This is not meant to be some step-by-step on creating the sui generis backyard burger as perfection is not the desired end. Rather, just consider these few random tidbits to help make those primal burger grilling experiences ever more blissful.

Marbled Meat
Ground beef with a meat-to-fat ratio between 75%-25% and 80%-20%. Assuming the leanest meat is the best is a grave error. Lean ground beef, e.g. 7% fat, will likely result in dry burgers. When grilled, much of the meat’s fat will drain off so a lean start leads to a cardboard finish. Then a fatter patty (> 80%-20%) will lead to issues such as shrinkage.

Consider a coarse grind as finely ground meat can become soft and mushy, making the patties hard to work with and more likely to fall apart on the hot grill. In the best of all possible worlds, grind your own using select, choice or prime grade meat, particularly chuck.

Toothsome Buns
Think buns too. So many put their best efforts into the meat without regard for bun quality, texture, flavor and size. Try to achieve a meat-to-bun ratio of 1:1 which usually means buns with about a 4″-4 1/2″ diameter. Super sized, overhanging buns do not allow for an equal taste of every element (meat, bun, cheese, toppings) in every bite. Brioche, challah, conventional, seeded or not, grilled or not—your bun affinities rule.

Chill In Advance
Before you even form the patties, put the meat in the fridge for about an hour. Chilling the meat helps it withstand the body heat exuded by your hands when forming the burgers. Consider washing your hands in cold water before working the patties to reduce their temperature.

After the patties are sculpted, place in the refrigerator once again before cooking.

Do Not Overwork
Avoid working the meat too much. Nimbly form the patties and leave them alone. Less handling, no slamming or spanking and no squeezing are much preferred and lead to a moister, more tender end product. Overwrought ground beef turns into flavorless mush, as the heat from your hands and the friction of mixing breaks down the morsels of fat that create juice and flavor. Et voilà, a grilled beef brick.

Use Both Hands
Pull the meat apart into equal pieces, then pat down into a patty with one hand while forming the rough edge with the other. Some even swear that the lid of a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar makes the best possible burger mold. Steer clear of magnum patties as they are so often disproportionate to buns and toppings. I tend to prefer a burger with the circular dimensions of the bun and a thickness of about 1″ or so.

A Glowing Grill
Preheat charcoal grill to medium high to high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count how long you can keep it there before the pain demands you retract it in around 2 seconds.

The object is to hard sear the meat rather quickly so it is nicely browned, but not overly charred, while imbued with the flavors and scents of the grill. Should you wish a little variation, add pre-soaked wood chips or rosemary sprigs in the grill to impart.

Many espouse placing the meat on heated heavy, cast iron pans or griddles and never cook patties directly over the grill. This method allows beef fat to render and gather around the patties as they cook. The hamburger grease alone is a condiment.

Season Last
Add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper right before grilling, as after time salt tends to dry out the patties.

Resist the Urge to Touch
Let well enough alone while the burger cooks. When raw meat hits a hot grate it will naturally stick, almost seizing the grill for dear life. If you try to turn the patties too early the burgers will tear and fall apart. The secret is to flip the burger the moment after it has released from the grate.

Of course, cooking time is dependent on patty thickness. The easiest way to determine the degree of final doneness is by firmness. During the cooking process the meat changes color, juices become clear, the meat shrinks and the patty becomes firm. Just lightly feel the degree of firmness with a finger or touch gently with the spatula. For me, the goal is precisely medium rare—cooked well on the outside and rosy pink from edge to edge on the inside.

Do Not Press Down the Meat
Consider this to be a cardinal rule of cooking burgers. Sinfully smashing meat on the grill with a spatula squeezes out the juices, rendering the patty dry and flavorless. Heresy. I have no clue why grillers insist on making these hockey pucks.

Cheese It
Gooey cheese choices are crucial and can truly morph your burgers. Think cheddars, american, emmenthal, manchego, brie, tallegio, asiago, fontina, mozzarella, bleu, morbier, gruyère…To achieve that melted, oozy texture, add cheese shortly after the last flip while the burger is still being grilled. As with all sandwiches, please never overdress.

Allow to Rest
After removing from the grill, let the burger rest for at least 5 minutes in order to redistribute the interior juices. Otherwise, the juices will bleed out profusely on first bite leaving a dried out disc behind.

Beyond The Norm
While I am a basic cheeseburger fiend—beef, cheese, bun (maybe bacon)—there are some game changers beyond exotic cheeses, breads, buns and varied wood chips:

Cheeses (see above)
Lamb or pork shoulders or combos thereof
Pulled pork nest
Pork belly slice(s)
Bacon, pancetta, proscuitto, serrano
Foie gras
Capers
Kosher dills
Grilled chiles, such as poblanos, jalapeños, anaheim, et al.
Grilled or caramelized yellow or red onions, scallions, shallots
Grilled mushrooms
Grated beets
Fried eggs, sunny side up
A slather of roasted garlic
Arugula, red leaf or romaine lettuces or anything green and crispy
Speaking of, fresh herbs
Grilled or fresh heirloom tomatoes (local and in season)
Basil pesto, tomato pesto
Thyme, herbes de provence, rosemary
Coriander, cumin, turmeric, biryani, garam masala, cardomam
Mayonnaise, tarragon mayonnaise, aïoli, chipotle or jalapeno mayonnaise
Dijon mustard, tzatziki sauce
Chutneys
Harissa
Avocado, avocado, avocado

Laissez-faire fare.

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