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.
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
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.
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)