May 23, 2007
For the Love of a Good Burger
By MARK BITTMAN
I’M sure you know how to make a burger. But do you make a burger you love, one that people notice, one that draws raves?
In a world where “burger” most often means a thin piece of meat whose flavor is overwhelmed by ketchup, mustard, pickle or onion, it doesn’t take much effort to make a better one. In fact, it’s almost as easy to cook a really great burger as it is to cook a mediocre one.
When I was young, my mother and her friends produced good burgers. They used different butchers (some were kosher), had different preferences (chuck, round or sirloin), and cooked either in a pan or the broiler (there was no grilling, except when we visited some relatives on Long Island).
A favorite recipe in the neighborhood called for garlic powder, an exotic ingredient in 1958; chopped onion; and — gasp! — Worcestershire sauce. This avant-garde recipe was treasured and shared sparingly.
What the burgers of my childhood all had in common was high-quality meat, and this is exactly what is missing from most of the backyard barbecues I visit. I see people buying everything from packaged ground meat to frozen patties. With these ingredients, the best they can hope for is to mimic fast food.
The key is to avoid packaged ground meat. When you buy it, you may know the cut of the meat — chuck, for example — and the fat content.
But you have no way of knowing whether the meat came from high- or low-quality animals. It could come from dozens of animals, and they could all be poor-quality animals — old dairy cows, for instance, rather than cattle raised for beef. The meat from these animals is ground together in huge quantities.
If the aesthetics of that don’t give you pause, consider the health concerns. Massive batches of ground meat carry the highest risk of salmonella and E. coli contamination, and have caused many authorities to recommend cooking burgers to the well-done stage. Forgive my snobbishness, but well-done meat is dry and flavorless, which is why burgers should be rare, or at most medium rare.
The only sensible solution: Grind your own. You will know the cut, you can see the fat and you have some notion of its quality.
“Grinding” may sound ominous, conjuring visions of a big old hand-cranked piece of steel clamped to the kitchen counter, but in fact it’s not that difficult. As the grinder was an innovation in its day, the food processor has taken over. It does nearly as good a job — not perfect, I’ll admit — in a couple of minutes or less.
Take a nice-looking chuck roast, or well-marbled sirloin steaks or some pork or lamb shoulder. Cut the meat into one- to two-inch cubes, and pulse it with the regular steel blade until it’s chopped.
If you have a 12-cup food processor, you can do a pound or a little more at a time; with a smaller machine, you’ll need to work in batches. You can do a few pounds at a time and freeze what you won’t use immediately, or you can grind the meat as you need it.
There are a few rules here. One, buy relatively fatty meat. If you start with meat that’s 95 percent lean — that’s hardly any fat at all — you are going to get the filet mignon of burgers: tender, but not especially tasty. If you use chuck or sirloin, with 15 to 20 percent fat — still quite lean by fast-food standards, by the way — you’re going to get meat that is really flavorful, along with the good mouth-feel that a bit of fat brings.
The same holds true with pork and lamb, though the selections are in fact easier, because the shoulder cuts of both animals contain enough internal fat that they’ll remain moist unless you overcook them horribly.
Next, don’t overprocess. You want the equivalent of chopped meat, not a meat purée. The finer you grind the meat, the more likely you are to pack it together too tightly, which will make the burger tough.
The patties should weigh about 6 ounces each: not small, but not huge, either. Handle the meat gently. Make the patties with a light hand, and don’t press on them with a spatula, like a hurried short-order cook.
Finally, season with salt and pepper aggressively. I’d start with a large pinch of salt and a bit of pepper and work up from there. If you grind your own beef, you can make a mixture and taste it raw.
(To reassure the queasy, there’s little difference, safety-wise, between raw beef and rare beef: salmonella is killed at 160 degrees, and rare beef is cooked to 125 degrees.)
If you are cautious, you can cook a little meat and then taste it. Though there are virtually no reported cases of trichinosis from commercial pork in the United States, few people will sample raw pork — or lamb, with which the danger is even less. So the thing to do is season the meat, then cook up a spoonful in a skillet, taste and season as necessary.
A final word about seasoning: Remember that the burger is the cousin not only of the steak — which often takes no seasoning beyond salt and pepper — but also of the meatloaf and the meatball, both of which are highly seasoned. Think about adding minced garlic in small quantities (we’ve moved beyond garlic powder, no?), chopped onion, herbs (especially parsley), grated Parmesan, minced ginger, the old reliable Worcestershire, hot sauce, good chili powder and so on. It’s hard to go wrong here.
Then there’s the grilling: Burgers cook so fast that the heat source doesn’t matter much. You want a hot fire, but not a blazing hot one; that fat, as we all know, is quick to ignite. The rack, which should be very clean, should be three or four inches above it.
Turn the burger only after the first side releases its grip on the grill, after a few minutes; if you don’t press with the spatula, you’ll get less sticking, too. Cooking time depends on the size of the burger, of course, but mine take about 6 to 8 minutes total, for rare to medium-rare. Pork takes a little longer, but not much.
The grilling is the easy part. The more important steps are shopping and grinding. The difference they make, you will find, is astonishing, and will change your burger-cooking forever.