Your July 4 burger is worth more effort

10 rules for getting the best hamburger

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comJuly 3, 2012 

  • Grind-Your-Own Burger Mix About 1 1/2 pounds boneless chuck roast Meat from 2 to 3 short ribs 1/4 pound boneless sirloin filets (optional) About 2 tablespoons finely grated onion 1 tablespoon heavy cream 1 teaspoon salt Freshly ground black pepper 4 to 6 hamburger buns, toasted CUT the chuck into 6 to 8 large chunks, trimming away cartilage if needed but leaving the fat on the meat. Trim the meat from the short rib bones (or use boneless), including some of the fat. Cut the sirloin into chunks. PLACE the meat on a baking sheet along with the food processor blade or the parts for the meat grinder. Place in the freezer about 15 minutes, until the meat is cold but not frozen. ASSEMBLE the food processor or meat grinder. Working in batches, place the meat and some of the fat in the grinder and grind. If using the food processor, work in batches, pulsing the meat in three or four long bursts (1 to 2 seconds each), until it is chopped and fluffy, but not a paste. PLACE all the meat in a bowl. Grate the onion into the bowl and add the cream, tossing lightly until evenly mixed. SHAPE into 4 to 6 burgers, each about 1 inch thick. Handle the mixture lightly between your palms, and press a dent in the middle on one side. SPRINKLE both sides liberally with salt and pepper just before putting on grill or skillet. COOK over hot coals on an uncovered grill or on a preheated skillet for 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare. Turn several times with a spatula, but don’t press it. (Turn carefully so the burgers don’t fall apart.) SERVE with your favorite condiments on toasted buns. Yield: Enough meat for about 6 burgers.
  • Pimento Cheese Burgers These have a long history all over South Carolina, with good reason. The mixture heightens the cheesiness, making just about the perfect version of a cheeseburger. If you don’t want to make your own pimento cheese, use a good-quality version, such as Palmetto Cheese. 1/2 pound (about 4 ounces) extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely shredded 4 to 6 tablespoons mayonnaise 2 tablespoon diced pimentos Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 pounds Burger Mix or good-quality ground beef PIMENTO CHEESE: Combine the shredded cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos. Mix and add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use. SHAPE meat into 6 burgers, each about 1 inch thick. Press a dent in the middle on one side. PREPARE a medium-hot charcoal fire or heat a gas grill. Sprinkle both sides of burgers with salt and pepper. PLACE burgers on grill and cook 4 to 5 minutes on one side. Turn and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Place a generous spoonful of pimento cheese on each burger. Cover and cook 1 to 2 minutes, until cheese is soft and starting to melt. SERVE on toasted buns with toppings of your choice. Yield: 6 burgers.
  • Bacon-Pork Burgers With Apple Mustard Spread Adapted from “1,000 Easy Recipes,” from the editors of Food Network Magazine (Hyperion, 2012). Yes, it’s decadent. We wouldn’t recommend this as everyday fare. But to celebrate our nation’s independence, it’s certainly a treat. Since pork is softer than beef, this is a mixture where we’d add the salt earlier. 6 slices bacon 1 clove garlic 1 pound ground pork 1 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1/4 teaspoon ground sage 2 tablespoons apple butter 2 tablespoons mayonnaise 2 teaspoons spicy brown or Dijon mustard Burger buns, lightly toasted Toppings (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles) PLACE the bacon and garlic clove in a food processor and pulse to grind. Add to the ground pork in a bowl with the salt, pepper and sage. Toss lightly to mix. Shape into 4 burgers and refrigerate until ready to cook. MIX the apple butter, mayonnaise and mustard. Refrigerate. HEAT a grill to medium-high. Grill the burgers 6 to 8 minutes per side, until no longer pink (160 degrees). Brush toasted buns with the apple butter mixture and serve with your favorite toppings.
  • Juicy Lucys A restaurant in Minneapolis is credited with the ultimate cheese-stuffed burger. But we based our version on advice from food writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt on www.seriouseats.com, who figured out several improvements in shaping a burger with a good cheese-to-meat ratio. You could get fancier with the cheese, but American melts easily, yielding the juiciest Juicy. 1 pound Burger Mix or good-quality ground beef Plastic wrap 4 slices American cheese Kosher or coarse salt Freshly ground black pepper Toasted burger buns Toppings of your choice (ketchup, mayo, mustard, lettuce, pickles, onions – it’s up to you) MEASURE 8 sections of ground beef (2 ounces or 1/3 cup each). Working with one section at a time, place a section between two small sheets of plastic wrap. Press with a heavy skillet to make a thin sheet of ground beef, about 1/4 inch thick. PEEL off the plastic wrap from one pressed section and top it with 1 piece of American cheese sliced into quarters, making sure there’s about 1 1/2 inches of space around the cheese. Peel off the plastic wrap from a second section and top the first. Press firmly all around the edges, then turn over and press the edges again, rounding the edges with your hands to shape a good burger. Make sure there aren’t any holes where the cheese is showing. SPRINKLE both sides with salt and pepper. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes per side. Serve on toasted buns with your choice of toppings. Yield: 4 burgers.
  • Vegetarian Burgers Non-meat burgers deserve equal time. We got this mixture several years ago from a confirmed burger fanatic, co-worker Eric Edwards. If a meat-burger guy loves a vegetarian burger, that says something. 2 teaspoons olive oil 1 medium onion, chopped 2 to 3 slices wheat bread 1 (19-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed 1/2 cup cooked brown rice (precooked in a pouch works great) 2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste, available in most supermarkets) 2 tablespoons tamari or light soy sauce 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley 1 tablespoons chopped garlic 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon cayenne Oil for frying or grilling Toasted whole wheat buns Toppings of your choice, such as Amy’s Goddess dressing HEAT oil in a skillet and cook onion until translucent, about 10 minutes. Set aside. PLACE bread in a food processor and process into crumbs. Set aside. PLACE drained, rinsed beans in food processor and process until well-ground. COMBINE beans, rice, tahini and tamari in a mixing bowl and stir until mixed. Add sauteed onion, parsley, garlic, cumin and cayenne and stir until well mixed. Add bread crumbs about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until you get a mixture that is still a little moist but is dry enough that it doesn’t stick to your hands. (Can be made several days in advance and refrigerated.) FORM about 1/2 to 1 cup at a time into patties. If you’re frying in a skillet, add about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and fry until well-browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. If you’re grilling, brush each side well with vegetable oil and grill 6 to 8 minutes per side, until crispy. SERVE on toasted whole-wheat buns with your choice of toppings. Yield: 4 to 6 burgers.
  • More information Recipes inside

For something that is practically our national dish, we don’t always do right by the good ol’ American burger.

Pre-ground beef mixtures have such bad reputations, we dub them “pink slime.” Even if we use better ground beef, we underseason it or we season it at the wrong time. We slap it on a grill and squish it with a spatula.

We don’t take the time to treat our burgers with respect, and then we wonder why they turn out disappointing.

For our national holiday, take a little time to think about the burger rules. After years of testing, experimenting and studying, I consider these truths to be self-evident:

1. Grind your own. Most debates about meat mixtures focus on chuck, sirloin, brisket and short ribs. Several years ago, I went through many combinations before settling on my favorite mixture: Chuck and short ribs, with boneless sirloin thrown in if available. For more details, check my blog, obsbites.blogspot.com.

Grinding your own meat sounds intimidating but it’s not difficult. A meat grinder is the easiest. But you can do a decent job with a food processor if you chop the meat in large chunks and put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes, until it’s very cold but not yet frozen.

If you don’t want to grind, look for ground beef that’s organic or pasture raised.

2. Keep it cold. You need some fat to make a good burger mixture, but if it isn’t cold, the fat will end up smeared on your equipment instead of in your burger. Cold meat also grinds better. So chill everything, from the equipment, such as the meat grinder screw or the food processor blade, to the meat. Even the bowl you mix the meat in should be cold.

3. Add moisture. When I tested those meat mixtures, I also tested ways to add moisture, including water. The addition that actually made a difference? Heavy cream and grated onion, two tricks I found in an old recipe by James Beard. Trust a big man to know his burgers. Grating onion adds subtle flavor; cream adds flavor, but also acts as a binder.

4. Know when to salt. Salt makes meat lose moisture and it dissolves meat proteins, making meat dense and spongy. Both result in dry, tough burgers. Instead of mixing salt into the meat, wait until just before the burgers go on the grill, then season the outside liberally with salt and pepper.

5. Shape it right. A burger that’s too thick will burn on the outside before it’s done on the inside. Aim for 1 inch thick, the depth of the first joint on your index finger. Don’t pack the meat too tight; aim for a loose shape with some crannies for holding juices and cheese.

6. Dimple it. Meat fibers clinch up when they cook, giving you a burger that’s shaped like a softball. After you shape your burger, put a dent in the center. It will disappear as the burger cooks.

7. Don’t squish. Pressing a burger with a spatula may cause flames to jump and look impressive. But all you’re doing is pushing out the fat and moisture you just took the time to add. Flip all you want – there’s really no reason not to turn a burger several times if it gives you something to do. But don’t squish it.

8. Use an instant-read thermometer, inserted sideways into the burger. Whether you want medium-rare (135 degrees) or well-done (160 degrees), it’s the only way to know for sure. Since you’re cooking it at home, we’ll leave it to your conscience to decide which is right for you. (If you’re feeding children, pregnant women or people who are being treated with immune-suppressing drugs, please cook to medium, 150 degrees.)

9. Let it stand for a couple of minutes. Standing time improves all meats. The temperature will climb a couple of degrees and the juices will settle back into the meat, where they can give you that juicy experience.

10. Pick your bun. There’s no reason to get all fancy. Something soft and bland can let the burger stand out. Brioche or kaiser rolls are nice, but our favorite: Martin’s Potato Rolls. They’re inexpensive, they toast up nicely and they’ve done well in many taste tests. They’re also higher in protein and lower in calories than several other supermarket brands.

To see printable versions of the recipes, click on the recipe names below:

Grind Your Own Burger Mix

Pimento Cheese Burgers

Juicy Lucys

Bacon-Pork Burgers with Apple-Mustard Spread

Vegetarian Burgers

Purvis: 704-358-5236.

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