Why hello there, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes’ongoing series about Barbecue, which we haven’t seen in almost a year, and will reintroduce by not talking about actual barbecue, because I am as perverse as I am pedantic. Yes, summer is swiftly surrounding us, with the solstice landing on June 20th this year, just under two weeks away. AS such, studies show more Americans will be heading out to their grills for steaks, burgers, franks, and the odd ACTUAL barbecue. I fully understand, as just a few days ago I myself grilled a skirt steak for a Tex-Mex dinner that will show up next Tuesday.
Ignore the fact that I seem to have set it on fire.
So, with these ideas in mind, I figured it was time to start brushing off the old grill grate, stocking up the smoker, and bringing to you some fall-off-the-bone facts and tips for proper barbecue. Today we’re going to talk about burgers, specifically hamburgers, despite them arguably not ACTUALLY being barbecue, as we covered in an earlier post. Cliff notes version: Barbecue is a low, slow cooking method. Burgers are grilled hot and fast. They are made ON a barbecue, and served AT a barbecue, but are not, technically, actually barbecue.
With such labyrinthine distinctions, it’s easy to become lost in the minutiae of burger creation, so I thought it would be wise to start this summer with a guide to great grilled burgers. That sentence had a real nice alliterative flow, which is unrelated, but super-satisfying. Just like these burgers will be!
Great Artists Steal
Now, I’m not going to claim to be revealing secrets I have gained from secret O’Guin rites, based down for generations. For one thing, my family is too forgetful to have held onto much of anything for generations, and for another, home grills really only became readily available and used in America post WW2. As such, most of my tips can be found at a wide variety of sources. I’ll be stealing many from American film legend, and, weirdly, Salad Dressing Magnate, Paul Newman.
Who could be Paul Rudd's secret father.
Yeah, in case you didn’t know, those are the same “Newman”. Turns out back in the early 80’s, Paul Newman gave bottles of his homemade salad dressing to friends as a joke Christmas gift. When they all came back asking for refills, he went “hey, maybe I can sell this.” Which he did, making somewhere around $900,000 in his first year of commercial sales. Newman, already a multi-million dollar movie star, said “Screw it, I don’t need this money. It started as a gift, let’s keep it a gift.” And so he set down that Newman’s Own would be a complete charity project: 100% of profits derived by the company would be donated to charities. That’s not relevant to burgers, it’s just a nice story.
Tangent about stars of film and salad aside, yeah, you can find most of the tips I’m going to give you in a variety of locations. I’m not claiming sole ownership of any of these ideas, because I’m pretty sure you can’t patent patties anyway. Unless you’re Mr Krabs, I suppose.
And if he did, it would not be his worst offense.
Anywho, enough legally required ass-covering, let’s get to the meat of the matter.
Tip #1: The Meat
Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: Fat, in food, is flavor. As such, most sources agree that a 80-20 blend (meaning the ground beef is 80% Beef, 20% Fat) is the best amount for good burgers. Newman pinpoints it to a 22% blend, which he gets by having his beef be hand-ground. Which brings me to the second point: most places also agree that a mixture of sirloin and chuck makes the best burgers, but let’s be real; I run a food blog, and have cooked as a hobby for over a decade, and I’ve NEVER used a meat grinder. If my family has one, no one told me, and I’ve never wanted to drop the $50 for one. Apparently they’re now down around $30, and that’s a price point I can maybe commit to. If I do, you’ll all be among the first to know. But yeah, if you have and use a grinder, use sirloin and chuck. For the rest of us, we’ll just keep using ground beef.
A phrase just vague enough to be suspect, when you think about it.
Tip #2: The Patty
Now, Paul Newman says the best burger patty is 9 oz, formed slightly wider and taller than the bun. This is because burgers shrink as they cook, so when finished, it’ll match it, for a good meat-to-bread ratio. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some 8 oz burgers, and they’re great. Other sizes are fine as well, which is why all my tips here will be size-independent. I’m just going to talk about the form of patty construction, the technical tips, as it were.
Step one is: before working with the meat, dip your hands in cold water, and don’t shake it off. You want a heat barrier between your fingers and the meat. This ties into step 2: Touch the meat as little as possible. Both of these connect to the same issue: your body temp is high enough to start melting the beef fat, which will make your burgers drier. So In general, forming each patty should take no longer than thirty seconds or so. Just grab a chunk, turn it while pressing (Like you’re squeezing a Frisbee), and pat it into rough shape. THEN, and this is a nice trick, press your thumb into the top of it, to make a dip.
See, they look like meat frisbees. I told you that would work.
As I said earlier, burgers shrink while cooking. Specifically, the meat fibers TIGHTEN. So if you leave the top of your patty flat, when the meat tightens, it’ll puff up and look a little weird, like when you try and fit into pants that are slightly too small.
Now, you can season the patty pre and post grilling, which leads to the next point.
Tip #3: Grilling
First, a quick word on seasoning your patties (I’ll get more into this in the next section): Purists will say all you need on the patties is salt and pepper before you grill, and if you’ve got halfway decent meat, that will be enough. If you’re working with just okay meat, or maybe a little sub-par, there’s no shame in punching up the patties a little with some more seasoning. Just avoid sugar, as it will burn.
Make sure your grill is preheated to high (or your charcoal is hot enough you can only hold your hand over the grill grate for 2-3 seconds), and the grill oiled. Slap your burgers on there, and here comes the hardest part of the whole process: DON’T. PRESS. THE PATTY. DOWN.
I know, it feels right. There’s a need to it, a subconscious urge. People have made a variety of arguments to defend why they do it, but here’s the thing: science says they’re wrong. If you want to smash a burger, cook it inside, in a good pan, and smash it down within the first 30 seconds. THAT will make a perfectly fine (to many, superior) fried/griddled burger. But on the grill, smashing just hurts your burger.
And hurting your burgers makes Ronald sad.
As does, apparently, the teenage pay rate in Wellington, NZ.
In a perfect world, you would only flip your burger once, after 3-5 minutes (depending on the thickness of your burger) to let it get a good crust. Some people have discovered if you do the exact opposite, flipping it every 30 seconds or so, you also get good results. It’s the “flip it after 2 minutes, then flip it again, then flip it AGAIN” kind of move tha doesn’t help your burgers. And I know, I’m fully guilty of that kind of flip schedule. And my burgers are fine. But If I had the patience, or the drive, to do either of the other ways, they’d be that little step better.
There’s a food safety argument to be made for cooking your burgers to at least medium: unlike a steak, ground meat can have surface bacteria throughout the patty, and if you’re cooking for an immune-compromised person, by all means do so. Personally, I’ve eaten medium rare burgers since the age of probably 10, and I can’t think of a single time it’s definitively hurt me. Whatever you cook to, after they grill, like with any grilled meat, you should let them rest for a couple minutes, before topping and serving them. Speaking of toppings…
Step 4: Seasoning and Toppings
Now, I understand this is a topic FRAUGHT with sectarian conflict. Purists will say all you need is salt and pepper on the patty, with maybe some mayo or mustard on the bottom bun for a water shield. The INVENTOR of the hamburger absolutely forbids ketchup in his restaurant. Ketchup, he claims, will overwhelm the subtleties of the meat and bread.
I get this. Ketchup is a very ‘loud’ topping. And what I would argue here is a sense of timing and scale. If you’ve got amazing beef in your burger, then of course minimal seasoning and toppings are a fine way to go. But in your average day-to-day burgers, there’s little wrong with letting people use what they like.
Newman’s burgers use just salt and pepper, with a slice of onion and a leaf of lettuce. No mayo, mustard, or ketchup. ON the other hand, a steakhouse in Chicago puts fried shallots and garlic wilted spinach on theirs, to make it more ‘steak-like’. One of my friend’s favorite burgers he’s ever had came with coleslaw, pulled pork, and onion rings. When it comes to burger toppings, put what you want on it. You want goat cheese? Fine, maybe consider a red-wine reduction sauce for it. You want fried onions? Those go great with some barbecue sauce! There’s literally millions of potential combinations.
Technically billions, if order is considered an independent factor. This burger alone would have 5,040 different ways to be arranged.
My only tip here is a structural one: don’t put two slippery toppings immediately next to each other. So many people put their tomato, onion, and lettuce all next to each other, all between one bun and the patty, and they act surprised when the top half of their burger slides around the place like it’s got boogie fever. Move one of them under the patty! Put a dab of mayo on one for glue! Crush the onion into the top bun! You have options! WHY DO YOU CHOOSE TO LIVE LIKE THIS??!
Alright, I’m calm now. Sorry. But yeah, that’s a pretty solid set of principles for burger-makin’. Hopefully this helped, and if not, well, THEN YOU CAN JUST-
NEXT TIME: JON GOES TEX-MEX IN A NEW TAKE ON A DISH HE’S ALREADY COOKED FOR THE SITE. CAN HE AVOID MAKING THE EXACT SAME JOKES? TUNE IN MONDAY TO FIND OUT!