Back in the heady post-high school days, before I was worried about anything beyond having as much fun as possible at all times, I spent a few summers working as a cook. I started out working seafood, then graduated to grill work after a few mishaps involving lobster salad and band-aids. Truth was, though, I couldn’t cook a burger for shit. I blamed the wait staff, the grill, the meat, the chef, the prep cook, the weather, but I just sucked at cooking burgers, full stop. I was worse at steaks, too, but that’s a whole different story.
The problem was, no one ever bothered to tell me how to make the damn things properly (and certainly didn’t warn me what the French tourists meant when they ordered steaks “black and blue”). I’m sure that doing whippets out back and having a bottomless glass of beer didn’t help, but my skills were so lacking that they probably didn’t hurt much, either.
The thing is, burgers aren’t nearly as easy as we’ve been lead to believe. Unless you’re going for a thin, flat, well done thing that has no subtlety, burgers are a real art. But asking for help in making one is socially awkward: men are supposed to be born with burger-making DNA, and admitting that you can’t make one well on a barbecue or grill-top is akin to wearing a t-shirt that says “I’m Impotent.”
So today is burger class. Follow a few basic rules, and you’ll make your family proud, your neighbors jealous, and feel like the cock of the walk.
But before we get to making them, you need to learn a basic fact: good burgers start with good beef, just everything else in my world. Leaving for another column issues like grass-fed vs. grain fed, or organic vs. non-organic, or what kind of cow tastes best in a bun, the one thing you want to do is get the right cut. What you want is 25% – 30% fat content. Sirloin is for snobs that don’t know better, ground round is for people trying to look like they’re eating healthy. Besides, as it turns out it’s not the fat, it’s the salt, as my good friends at Harvard have just told us.
If you can get your butcher to fresh grind it, that’s the way to go. Select a nice fatty cut and tell him how course you want it ground, then request it be wrapped in butcher paper. Binding it up like it’s a German beer garden waitress’s legs packed into clear panty hose is a bad idea: compressed meat stays compressed.
Now, just three (or four, if you’re looking to cheese the beef) simple steps stand between you and burger greatness. Each has a few basic rules that, if followed, will make you a hero.
Make the patty:
- Rule 1: Chill your ground beef before making the patties. The meat holds together better when you’re cooking it. If you’re working a party and make a ton of them, rechill them before cooking if they get too warm.
- Rule 2: Season the meat. Work some of the salt that Harvard said is bad for you into the beef. Do NOT season with garlic powder. Ever. In the words of an SAT analogy, Garlic powder : garlic :: flatulent rabid badger : great travel companion.
- Rule 3: Don’t work the meat too much. It makes your meat tough and reduces awesomeness.
- Rule 4: Bigger burgers aren’t necessarily better, crazy as that sounds. Keep them no larger than the buns you’ll be using, and form them by pushing in from the sides, not just out from the top and bottom. That will help keep fault lines at bay.
- Rule 5: Once you’ve formed your meat disc, push your thumb down in the middle to make a nice dent. That helps them cook evenly and helps prevent them from turning into something that looks like Elephant-man’s swollen head.
- Rule 1: Make your cooking surface as hot as possible without it going nuclear.
- Rule 2: For a grill, put the burgers in an area with consistent heat, then let them sit. Don’t try to flip them before they release from the grill (as in, they’re no longer sticking). If you do, they’ll come apart and cook inconsistently, meaning the cow died for nothing but your impatient spatula. Don’t do that to Bossy.
- Rule 3: If you’re cooking on a skillet, consider finishing them in the oven – it works great. Get a serious sear on each side, then put them in at 350 degrees until they’re ready (see rule 5 for timing). If you don’t want to use the oven technique, finish as you would on a grill, trying for a single flip only.
- Rule 4: After your flip, and you only want one flip, you need to avoid the call of the couch and stand by to keep an eye on everything. This is the part that trips everyone up: when is it done? Do NOT cut it open and de-juice it. That’s just evil. Instead, learn how to tell by pushing down on the meat and feeling how much it gives. Until you know what feels like what, just use a damn thermometer. No shame, there: you look almost like a technician of some sort.
Rule5: Pull it and rest it. Grab a rare one at about 125 or so, medium around 135. Then rest it like you would a steak, but not for quite as long. If someone asks you for well done, tell them to leave.
- Rule 1: Go with a single slice, about the same size as the burger. I like cheddar, my children like American, communists like Swiss. Your pick.
- Rule 2: When to cheese it is tough, and you’re going to have to use the force to figure this one out. You want it melted, but not liquid. Better to err on the side of firmness than not, though.
Buns and dressings:
- Rule 1: Don’t use a hard roll, unless you want the meat destroyed before your teeth get close to it.
- Rule 2: Too-soft rolls disintegrate from too much juice (luxury problem), so don’t use them.
- Rule 3: Warm up your just right bun, or lightly toast it post-split. Maintain a fluffy inside surrounded by a light crust.
- Rule 4: If you use vegetables, make sure they’re fresh. I suggest romaine over iceberg lettuce and a high-end tomato. I like me some thin-sliced red onion and fresh jalapenos too, because I know best.
There’s one more thing you might want to consider, and that’s doing a stuffed burger. Personally, I love them, as does my family, so to get you started here’s my personal favorite, and one that makes my wife and daughter extremely happy as well:
Jalapeno Burger, Stuffed with Cheddar.
Dice a few jalapenos and work them into the meat. Leave the seeds in unless you’re too chicken. Rather than a single patty, make two for each burger, though make them half thickness. Cut a chunk of cheddar cheese jam it into one of the patties, then pop the other on top and seal all the edges to keep Vermont’s finest from escaping. Finish building and cooking the way you normally would if you’d been too lazy to insert the cheese.