A Perfect Burger, Top to Bottom

By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I thought mastering the hamburger would be easy. After all, I had cooked for many years in fancy-schmancy restaurants. How hard could it be? So I agreed to take the culinary reins of a start-up burger chain in Boston with a couple of friends.

My first attempts in front of a captive audience were ego-bruising. Sure, I had flipped patties before, but these folks were looking for a magic touch -- some exotic grill marks or wild Benihana-style spatula trick -- that would demonstrate I really knew my stuff. Alas, I had no tricks that day and, even worse, I didn't know the basics. For one thing, the grill was too hot, causing the outsides of the burgers to burn and the insides to cook unevenly.

Since then I've had a couple hundred thousand chances to get the technique down and learn some burger secrets. The truth, though, is that they're not so much secrets as a basic understanding of the process. That, and a measure of restraint.

Even though it took me a whole lot of repetition in restaurants to master the grilled patty, a burger is perfect for home cooking. You don't need expensive industrial equipment or esoteric ingredients, just a grill and some good beef. Perhaps that simplicity is why Americans love making burgers. When it comes to grilling, they are our second-favorite thing to cook, just behind steaks, according to the market research firm Mintel. And if you combine a perfectly grilled burger with a few bright homemade toppings and summery sides, you've got the makings of the ultimate summer cookout.

Choosing the Meat

Because grilling burgers is so simple, the small steps make the difference. Start with the meat. Grinding beef at home (see TIP at lower right) can ensure good quality, and it's not difficult if you use a food processor, but chances are you'll want meat that's already ground. In that case, go to a reputable source where the beef is ground daily; avoid prepackaged, preformed patties that offer uncertain flavor and texture.

Ground beef usually comes from one of three cuts: chuck, round or sirloin. Chuck is my favorite; it's a little fattier than the others, but that translates into great flavor. Ground beef from the round or sirloin tends to be leaner, a good thing if you're counting calories but a bad thing if you want the juiciest, most dynamic burger possible. My favorite is 85 percent lean ground chuck.

Making the Patties

Once you've got the beef, you have to form the patties, an important yet underappreciated step. Use a scale to weigh the portions. That might seem fussy, but it ensures burgers that cook evenly. And resist any temptation to make monster mounds; six ounces (think just between a half- and a quarter-pounder) is just right.

Then work gently to make thin patties. If you really pack the burgers (particularly if you're using leaner beef), they will acquire a dense, meatloaf-like texture. Thin burgers cook quickly and don't ball up into fat pucks (heat tends to shrink the patties), plus you get a good balance of meat, toppings and bun in each bite. Gently press and stretch the patties, sprinkle them with a little salt, and make your way to the grill.

At the Grill

Time for more restraint. I understand the tendency to want to build a big ol' fire. But big flames are no better for your basic burger than for most things on the grill: They char the outside before the inside cooks through. A moderate, steady fire is the way to go, as it will slowly guide the meat to the desired doneness.

When you grill burgers, the less you fiddle with them the better. Leave them undisturbed for about 3 minutes so they get good grill marks and don't stick. Flip and continue cooking, perhaps with one or two more flips, until they're done to your liking. And take note: Although you've seen countless fry cooks do it, don't, under any circumstances, press the burgers while grilling. You might think you're facilitating grill marks or speeding up the cooking, but all you're really accomplishing is pressing out those precious juices -- and causing an upsurge of smoke in the process.

How much should you cook them? The U.S. Department of Agriculture takes a hard line, recommending that you cook ground beef all the way through (to a 160-degree internal temperature). That caution comes in response to periodic outbreaks of food-borne illnesses caused by commercially processed ground beef. Whole cuts of beef don't carry the same risk, which is another argument for grinding it yourself or buying it from a reputable source. If you like medium or medium-rare burgers, that is the safest way to get them.

Knowing when to pull the burgers off the grill can be tricky, whether you prefer them a touch pink in the center or cooked through but still juicy. Just as it's easier to jump off a slowly moving train than a speeding one, a moderate fire helps by giving you more wiggle room. With practice, you can check doneness by touch: a little give for medium and just barely firm for well-done. Until you get good enough at that, though, the best bet is to peek. Make a small slit in a thicker part of the burger. The interior will be light pink for medium or just browned all the way through, but still juicy, for well-done.

Toppings With a Twist

Once your burgers are cooked, it's time to dress them. You can top the grilled patties with lettuce and tomato, slide the lot between a bun and call it a dinner. No shame in that. But if you're having company over or if you're looking for a little more excitement, the minimal effort it takes to concoct your own condiments is worth it.

Green peppercorns, shallots and fresh thyme spruce up whole-grain mustard, while minced garlic, fresh lime and cilantro transform jarred mayonnaise into aioli with a kick. I'm quite fond of the bottled ketchup that I grew up with, though occasionally I like to make a spicy ketchup as a treat. I cook spices in a little oil with chopped onion and then stir in some tomato puree, vinegar, chipotle chili peppers and more, then cook until the mixture thickens into a vibrant paste.

The Perfect Sides

By this point, I hope, you've solved the other crucial question: what to serve with the burgers. Potato salad and coleslaw are the quintessential summer sides, but I like taking each in a slightly unorthodox direction. In my versions, buttermilk, lemon zest and sour cream give the potatoes plenty of zip, and thinly sliced fennel and scallions offer crunch and a sweet, aromatic edge. Building on that theme of bright, acidic flavors to counterbalance the grilled beef, I like to make my mother's coleslaw, a vinegary Montreal-style take with thinly sliced bell peppers, grated carrots and shredded green cabbage.

That's my game plan. Follow it, and you, too, might be ready to open up your own burger chain. But I'd rather you kept the grilling to your back yard. Frankly, I already have enough competition.

Tony Rosenfeld, contributing editor at Fine Cooking and author of "150 Things to Make With Roast Chicken" (Taunton Press, 2007), grills burgers at b.good restaurant in Boston.

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