In recent years, we've read a lot about burgers that aim to break the bank by dazzling us with luxurious ingredients. The upscale upstarts are engineered from expensive Kobe beef and then stuffed with such fare as truffles and foie gras, and possibly both. The cost jumps way past $25 . . . for one.
The indulgent, big-city concoctions feed our interest in the iconic American sandwich, but the reality is we need far less — in both quality and taste — to satisfy our burger lust. Cheap fast-food burgers are good enough some days, and homemade burgers are delicious almost all of the time. There's nothing better for Memorial Day or Fourth of July meals, although some hot dog recipes with a twist are a nice changeup, as are grilled pork chop recipes and some delicious kebab recipes.
As its core, the hamburger is about the beef and simple fixings. Dressed classically, it's the cheese, tomato, lettuce, onion, dill pickles and ketchup that make the meal. The bun matters, too, but a burger has to start with the meat. You can use pork, chicken, turkey, seafood or even recipes for grilled vegetables, but we are focusing on the original, beef.
To make a basic beef burger, all you really need is the meat plus salt and pepper. Some people like to add eggs, bread crumbs and other seasonings, but that makes it more like meatloaf. Let the flavor of the meat shine through and add flavor and texture with your toppings.
The following tips will help you construct the sturdy foundation on which to pile just about anything. Including truffles.
When it comes to hamburgers, chuck is king. Chuck comes from the shoulder of the cow. It is a fatter and tougher cut of meat and it used to be cheap when beef in general was cheap. Pot roast and chuck roast come from this part of the animal and require long cooking times to tenderize them. For ground chuck, the grinder does the tenderizing.
You've heard it before, but it's true: Fat equals flavor, so meat with higher fat content tends to produce tastier burgers. Chicken and turkey have less fat, and that's why burgers made from them can be dry and bland. Poultry burgers need lots of seasonings and condiments to enliven them. Ground chuck makes a better burger than ground sirloin, but if you are watching fat grams like a hawk, go with the latter. Your condiments can make up for a lot.
Look for meat that has been freshly ground. Most busy supermarkets have high turnover of inventory, so you're usually assured fresh meat. Select meat that is bright pink if you are buying it already thawed. It's best to form your own burgers rather than buy preformed; the less handling the better. Plus, it's cheaper.
You can grind the meat yourself or pick out a boneless chuck roast and ask the butcher to do it. (They will do this for you at the grocery store meat counter.) Request that any visible fat be trimmed. Once through the grinder should do the trick, but if you want finer meat, ask for twice. Note, though, that you may be tempted to pack finely ground meat too tightly, which will result in a tougher burger.
When forming patties, remember that they shrink in diameter and increase in height during cooking. If you want them to fit a regular size hamburger bun, try to make them wider and quite flat. Make a small indentation in the middle of the burger, which reduces shrinking.
Ground beef can be especially susceptible to bacterial contamination, so it needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Invest in a barbecue fork with a thermometer built in or an instant-read meat thermometer. At 160 degrees, the meat should be slightly pink in the middle; in cooking terms that means medium well.
Burgers cook quickly on the grill. Once the grill is hot, place the burgers on the grate and leave the cover off. Four-ounce burgers will be cooked to medium in 11 to 13 minutes; flip them a couple of times during grilling to prevent charring. Six-ounce burgers take 13 to 15 minutes.
If you are cooking burgers on the stove, use a heavy skillet. Once the burgers are browned on both sides, turn the heat down and cook slowly unless you want them rare. If the meat exudes a lot of liquid, drain it off halfway through. Otherwise you will be boiling the meat, which makes it tough.
Never press the burgers with a spatula to hasten cooking or flatten. This forces out juices and can produce the proverbial hockey puck.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.