Take a minute and think about the best hamburger you’ve ever eaten. Many of you will say it’s one that you cooked in the backyard. Others will sing the praises of some restaurant burger. Many of you will reminisce about an old-school diner or drugstore lunch counter.
So what makes a great burger? My thoughts have changed on the subject. After writing three cookbooks on grilling, I thought I knew the best way to cook a burger, but I want to offer you a new trick in the quest for burger perfection.
I’ve realized that the best burgers I’ve eaten were “griddled” not grilled. This is a subject that I’m going to get push back on, I know, but cooking a burger on a griddle (or flat top) forms a perfect crust of caramelized flavor and allows the burger to cook in its own juices instead of those juices dripping away through the grill grids.
Professional chefs who grill burgers will rotate the burger to create those crosshatch marks, which add the crust, but you still lose the flavorful juices. Here’s my dilemma: I like the flavor that an outdoor grill imparts, but I like the crust formed on a griddle. My solution is put the griddle or a cast iron pan on the grill, get it hot and cook away. Then I get the best of both worlds: flavor from the coals as they smoke and crust from the griddle. It’s an easy way to get a wonderfully juicy, perfectly cooked burger.
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Also don’t skimp on the meat. Grass-fed has superior flavor, but freshly grounded is as important. The great burger joints use a mixture of beef and so should you. What I’ve laid out in the recipe below is a good starting point. I’m one that believes cheese is an important part of a burger, and the cheese should melt fully and enrobe the burger. A neat trick to help with this is to place the cheese on top of the burger when you turn it, then cover it with a metal mixing bowl. An old school trick is to squirt a little water under the bowl creating some steam. Good for the cheese and the burger.
Use a good bun and grill them while the burgers rest. A little butter on the buns never hurts either. If using lettuce when building your burger, put it on the bottom bun before the meat. This prevents the bun from becoming soggy.
A burger should really be more than an afterthought. Treated well, it’s better than most anything to eat.
Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. His latest cookbook is “Bacon.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Perfect Cheeseburger
2 pounds freshly ground chuck, grass-fed preferred
2 pounds freshly ground sirloin, grass-fed preferred
Freshly cracked black pepper
6 slices of your favorite cheese
6 hamburger buns
Sliced ripe tomatoes
Thick cut bacon, cooked
Mustard, Mayonnaise, Ketchup
Using a spoon, not your hands, gently mix the 2 meats together in a large bowl. Run your hands under cold water and divide the mixture into 6 even chunks of meat, about 6 ounces each. Running your hands through cold water frequently, shape each clump of meat into a burger big enough to fit the hamburger bun. Take your thumb and make a depression in the center of each patty. This will keep them flat as they cook. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to cook.
Start your charcoal fire or preheat your gas grill to high. Set for direct cooking. Place a flattop griddle or cast iron pan on the cooking grates.
Season both sides of each pattie with salt and pepper. Place the patties on the griddle and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium doneness. During the last 2 minutes, cover each burger with your choice of cheese (you can use several types if you wish). Also put the buns around the outside edge of the grill to toast. Close your lid and after about 2 minutes the cheese should be nice and melted and bubbly. Remove each burger and let rest while you grill the buns. Serve with the condiments of your choice.
Yield: 4-6 servings.