Bites and Pieces: Build a Better Burger

Gourmet burgers have become all the rage in the DC area. The Five Guys burger chain has its origins at the intersection of Glebe Road and Columbia Pike in Arlington, not too far from where I live. Rays Hell Burger was locally famous before it became a favorite place for President Obama to take visiting dignitaries. Their burgers really are THAT good. BGR is another favorite of mine. The worst burger I ever ate was at a greasy spoon off campus of the University of Missouri. I was interviewing for a faculty position in the Physics Department. I ordered a burger for lunch, took one bite, and realized that the center was raw. My guess is that it hadn’t completely defrosted when they put it on the grill. My choices were to send it back, potentially causing an awkward moment, or to choke it down. I choked it down and probably was fortunate to not get sick. I didn’t get the job; they gave it to a former grad student of the chair of the search committee. On the plus side, we went to a wine dinner that night at a local shop that was worth the trip.

A good burger is a thing of beauty and a great base for whatever you want to do. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, it’s going to be topped by green chili. Treat it like a steak and top with bernaise sauce. When you come down to it, basic is best. Few things are finer than a simple cheese burger on a good bun. Perhaps some fried onions or ketchup. Keep the mustard and relish away from my burger, please. Waiter, if me and the boys wanted to eat a hot dog, we would have ordered a hot dog. [Credit to Humphrey Bogart]

So, why on earth am I going to waste a valued slot of Bits and Bites on burgers. We all know how to make a burger. Take some ground beef, make some patties and grill them. Simple, no? Well, it’s time for me to go all Alton Brown on you. I want to focus on the critical ingredient: ground beef. If you’re buying it from a supermarket, you are either paying too much or don’t know what you’re using. I’m not talk about pink slime, simply that the stuff sold as “ground beef” in supermarkets might as well be mystery meat. It’s all the trimmings ground together, adjusted for fat content, and thrown out there for $4/pound. Good for the bottom line, but not the making of a great burger.

I ground my own beef for the first time a few years ago. We were one of a half-dozen families who were getting together for a picnic and I was assigned burgers. One of our copies of Cooks Illustrated had an easy way of making ground beef using a food processor, so I decided to give it a go. The burgers were great, even if the picnic wasn’t. One of my sons had an extended crying jag and I had to leave around the time that enough people finally arrived for the grilling to commence.

Thereafter, there has been a repeated refrain when it comes to E Coli contamination: ground beef. Does anyone remember when E Coli hit Jack in the Box. I remember a suggested slogan for them after the scare. “Jack in the Box: We cook the shit out of our burgers.” The best way to have a burger is medium rare and the only way you can be sure of it is to know where the beef comes from or trust the source. As long as you’re going to make your own burger, why not take a bit of extra time on the most important ingredient?

What meat to use? I have two ways to make ground beef. Chuck roast is perfect for making ground beef, which is why you often see it listed as ground chuck. One gets about 20% fat, perfect for burgers. We have a Costco membership, so I pick up some chuck roast every so often. I can get it for about the same price as ground meat in the grocery store. Oh, but the quality is so much better. I sometimes use flank steak, which is flavorful, but quite lean. I pair the flank steak with boneless short ribs to get the right fat level. Other folks like sirloin. Hey, do what you want to do! I’ve read about using a cheap cut of relatively lean beef and adding in lard to kick up the fat level. You could go full gourmet and add duck fat.

How to make the ground beef? We bought a stand mixer a few years ago via Craigslist and the owner threw in a pasta making attachment (useless) and a grinding attachment (wonderful). So, I use that for making ground beef. A food processor works just fine. Cut the meat into 1” – 2” chunks, put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes to firm it up, and pulse it until you get the right consistency. It’s easy! Process it in batches and freeze the excess. I wrap the ground beef in plastic wrap, followed by a barrier layer of aluminum foil. It’ll keep and there’s no freezer burn.

How do you make a better burger? A great burger needs three things: ground beef, salt, and pepper. If you’re adding bread or onions or whatever else, you’re making meat loaf, not a burger. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good meat loaf. This, however, is about burgers. I do think that the salt and pepper should be mixed it. The entire burger should be seasoned. Otherwise, there’s a hit of seasoning on the crust, and nothing inside. So, mix in the salt and pepper. I like ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of black pepper for a pound of ground beef. Once it’s mixed, divide the beef into about 5 oz. for each patty. Cook how you like. It’s hard, ok, impossible, to beat the grill. On the stove, I use a cast iron skillet. Avoid non-stick at all cost.

Now, sauce time. I can hardly fault the combination of grilled onions and cheese. I mentioned the New Mexico penchant for green chile sauce on burgers, so I thought I’d share my favorite salsa verde. It comes from Rick Bayless, the chef with a number of Mexican restaurants in the Chicago area, including Topolobampo and Frontera Grill.

1 pound of tomatillos
1 head of garlic, separated into cloves with skin on
8 Serrano peppers
1 lg. white onion
1 bunch cilantro
2 – 4 limes (depending upon how juice they are)
salt and pepper to taste

Remove outer wrap from tomatillos and wash. Rub with vegetable oil and put into oven (a toaster oven is great for this) on broil until skins blacken. Set aside to cool and remove skins. Don’t worry about getting it all. When skins are removed, toss into the bowl of a food processor.
Meanwhile, thoroughly coat Serrano peppers and garlic cloves with vegetable oil and put in medium sized pan. Cook over med-high heat, shaking occasionally, until skins of peppers blister and the garlic slightly blackens. Remove from heat, cover and let cool. Remove the skins from the garlic cloves and Serrano peppers. The steaming action while cooling makes removing the skins easy. Depending upon how spicy you like your salsa, you can remove some, all, or none of the seeds from the peppers. Toss the peppers into the bowl of the food processor.

Chop white onion and briefly blanch in hot water (I boil a bit, but very hot tap water works too). Drain and put in food processor. Rinse cilantro and coarsely chop. Keep the stems in as they’ve plenty of flavor. Blend everything and pour into a bowl. Add salt, pepper, and lime juice to taste.

I’m also moving Okie Girl’s tomato salsa as it’s a great ketchup alternative. [Hope you don’t mind me moving it up into the main post, Okie!]

ORIGINAL TOMATO SALSA

This recipe came via one of the old regulars at a neighborhood dive bar I used to frequent to play shuffleboard. His nickname is “Lumpy” as a result of a serious car accident in which his neck was broken. He published the recipe in a cookbook the bar patrons all contributed to many years ago. Another regular patron who owned a local restaurant then began serving it in his restaurant and reported it was a huge success. I made some modifications that I’ll describe after the original recipe and began giving it as holiday gifts. It has been so popular I am now up to giving away 4-6 pint cases every Christmas.

Ingredients

6 lbs plus 3 oz canned chopped tomatoes
¾ C dried onion
½ C sugar
1 ¼ C white vinegar
3-4 jalapeno peppers (to taste)
1/8 C pickling salt
¾ Tbs chili powder
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp alum
1 small can green chilies

Preparation

Mix all ingredients together in large pan. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. After it cools, pour into jars and keep refrigerated. Makes about 8 pints.

Modifications

I use fresh chopped onion instead of dried, reduce the sugar a bit, and use a mix of canned and fresh tomatoes. This tends to make a rather thin salsa, so I use half fresh tomatoes and half canned crushed tomatoes to add some body. I also add a couple of cloves of minced garlic, a large chopped bell pepper, and about a half bunch of chopped cilantro. If I’m going to be using the salsa immediately, I reduce the vinegar a bit (to about 1C) but leave vinegar as is if I’m canning it.

Since this makes a more liquid salsa than I typically prefer, I frequently strain off some of the liquid and use it as seasoning in other dishes (such as using it for part of the cooking liquid for rice).

So, what’s your better burger?

BB (for beef burger of course)

26 Responses

  1. Thanks, Paul. You have convinced me to try grinding my own beef next time, although I rarely eat ground meat. It’s usually a pain in the butt to me to fire up the grill since I’m typically cooking for one. So my go-to is indoors in a cast iron grill pan that probably should live on my stove-top because I use it so much.

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  2. FB:

    Tomatillo salsa! We do almost the same thing, except I’m lazy and just throw the tomatillos, peeled garlic, hot peppers (I add habaneros), and sliced onion onto a foil-lined baking sheet, drizzle with oil, salt and pepper, and roast in a 350-375 degree oven for 30 – 40 minutes. Then I just dump everything into the blender with the cilantro and puree.

    For the burger, we have been taking the ground beef, rolling it into a ball, then making an indentation that you can fill with grated/melty cheese. Re-form the ball then flatten out and it’s ready for grilling.

    The burger craze has hit Tampa as well. We’ve gone to a few places, but Five Guys is only about a mile from our house.

    Your mention of E. coli is timely as this story is on the WaPo website right now.

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  3. I often do an easier variant where I puree the tomatillos, onion, and cilantro in the food processor and then cook in on the stove. Removing the skins from the roasted tomatillos is a bit of a pain. It’s still worth the trouble to pan roast the garlic cloves and serrano peppers. it adds terrific flavor to the garlic and tames the heat of the Serranos.

    I bought some flank steak last weekend for us to make fajitas this week, but then a wave of stomach flu hit the family. So, I picked up some short ribs at the grocrery store yesterday and just converted everything into three pounds of ground beef. I’m thinking burgers on the grill tomorrow night!

    Cheers!

    BB

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  4. Mike – I’ll forgive you for the cheesy center. If you mix it into the burger, you are dead to me. [Unless you make some more spring rolls, that is!]

    BB

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  5. I’m clearly pumping my own thread here, but should mention a site with good information on burgers.

    http://www.amazingribs.com/recipes/hamburgers/zen_of_hamburgers.html

    BB

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  6. I generally use ground beef, but I season it with chili powder, salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder.

    And I always cook it over charcoal. Even in the snow..

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  7. FB:

    No mixing stuff into the burgers except the seasonings.

    Next time you’re down, we’ll have spring rolls AND we’ll take you to the Wagyu beef burger place that just opened up down the road.

    Strangely enough, I have just been informed that I have some burgers to make for dinner when I get home …

    Brent:

    And I always cook it over charcoal. Even in the snow..

    My kind of cook!

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  8. Brent, you are again absolutely correct. IMO there is no real substitute for charcoal grilled. I just get lazy when I’m cooking for one. (At least I don’t eat stuff straight out of a can, lol.)

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  9. Actually just lit off the grill… doing burgers and brats tonight.

    Tomorrow, is shrimp tacos on the grill for Mothers Day.

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  10. Agreed, Brent, both on seasonings and the use of charcoal.

    I like the idea of chili powder. I was home this week with a sick kid and decided to do a bit of kitchen organizing. We were low on the powder, but had a lot of chili flakes. I fired up our retired coffee grinder (one of the little Krups units) and converted the chlii flakes into chili powder. When I made Saag Paneer this week, it had a lot more kick to it than the one I’d made using the store bought chili powder. Lesson learned. Fresh ground red chili powder has a lot more kick to it!

    BB

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  11. BB,

    I am kind of anal about chili powder… I get mine at Mild Bill’s http://www.mildbills.com/

    I go through their Mexene chili powder like candy. When i make chili, I use a number of their chili powders.

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  12. Nice link, brent. I am tempted to give Mexene a whirl. Around here, really good Mexican spices are plentiful in almost every grocery store (not to mention the bountiful markets geared primarily to Mexican).

    Heh, suggesting nothing political with that statement. It’s been that way since I first moved to OKC in mid-70’s.

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  13. As I’m a Penzey’s kind of guy, I appreciate your anality. If that’s not a word, it should be. I’ve really gotten into aleppo pepper in the last year. I’ll toss it into all kinds of stuff.

    BB

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  14. My secret weapon (until it was discontinued) was the Nando’s hot peri-peri grinder.http://www.nandosusa.com/categorypage.asp?curid=5

    If you have been to London or South Africa, you will be familiar with Nando’s. I still use their sauce on rotisserie chicken. I wish I could still get the grinder, but they have been out of stock for years, and my attempts to reverse-engineer it with peri-peri powder on line have not achieved the desired results.

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  15. Huh. Nando’s came to DC a few years ago. Their outpost is in Chinatown. I should check it out sometime.

    BB

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  16. One of the best burgers I’ve ever had was at the original Shake Shack in Madison Park in New York City. There are now two of that chain in DC which I have not been to.

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  17. I always thought the best burgers in NYC were at your basic neighborhood Irish bar.

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  18. The “Meersburger” is famous across Oklahoma and people drive to Meers from all over the state to have a burger. It was established in a mining town in southwestern OK, that is no longer a town. It now has a population of one family and the burger joint is literally the only thing left (although to be fair, I think it is also a post office). If you’re looking for a town, you’ll drive right past. It has an interesting history, see their website. A burger with mayo is called a Sissy Burger, and a burger with ketchup is called a Yankee Burger. They would probably shoot a gourmet burger. They raise their own range-fed beef and grind their own meat.

    Edited for detail.

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  19. It’s a sad comment that the main thing that distinguishes a “gourmet burger” is that it’s done in the way of a Meersburger. Grind your own beef.

    I’ll be firing up the grill tonight. Half the beef I ground last night went into a tomato-meat sauce for lasagna. The rest is heading into patties today.

    BB

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    • One can learn the darnedest things on this blog. I thought “gourmet burger” referred to the toppings. Thanks.

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  20. I think 5 guys is overrated. I load it up with toppings, to make it good, but the actual beef is mediocre. Perhaps the franchises don’t live up to the original.

    For beef, we’re working through a ton of ground beef that was much of the 1/4 cow we bought. By definition it’s the trimmings, but it’s grass-fed goodness.

    Last, I’ll agree on the charcoal, specifically lump charcoal. Try it & never go back to briquettes. I’m still using gas though, as my charcoal grill got squashed by a tree limb last year.

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    • Agreed on Five Guys. I took the kids there a few months ago for burgers and all I could taste was salt. It’s a step up from Mickey Ds and the like, but I’d rather make a burger at home than go there.

      I’ve really tried to like lump charcoal. The problem I’ve run into is that it’s here and gone. That’s fine if I’m going to be out there to monitor the fire and start grilling the moment it’s ready. If I want to set the fire and work on other things while it stabilizes, I prefer using briquettes. I also like having the longer lasting fire for doing something like using the long heat for something like making roasted peppers or eggplant for later use.

      BB

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  21. The lump can burn really hot too, so controlling air & thus burn rate is more important than with briquettes. It took me a while to get fully dialed in with the lump.

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  22. Thinking back to it, I probably needed a better grill. I’ve got a Weber now and haven’t bothered to learn about controlling the ventilation, but noticed that it’s there. I really should get back into grilling. I’ve got three of Chris Schlesinger’s books (Thrill of the Grill, Let the Flames Begin, and the pickle book). The East Coast Grill & Raw Bar was my favorite restaurant in Boston. I was visiting a couple of years ago and went there for dinner on the night that a friend of the chef had caught a tuna. I had poke (Hawaiian tuna tartare) and more tuna that night.

    Well, off to bed.

    BB

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  23. I used a weber for years, until Beth bought me a char-griller, or something like that. Its barrel shaped & has a provision for adding a combustion chamber on the side for smoking. That’s the one that was squashed; my brother in law is building a new stand for it one of these days.

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  24. Sounds like nice kit. I’m looking forward to doing some grilling this summer.

    Cheers!

    Like

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