Basic BBQ: The cheeseburger

So look, I know how it must seem, being the House Ape and Website Plumber for a cook like Tina.  I hear it all the time in social situations, within a few minutes of this website entering the conversation:

  • Oh Mike!  You must feel so lucky, getting to eat so many different things!
  • Oh Mike!  You must never get bored when Tina’s in the kitchen!
  • Oh Mike!  You must have put on quite a bit of weight since you moved in together har har har!

And without a doubt, these statements are undeniably true.  I can bring into work even the most scant leftovers and have my co-workers trailing me back to my desk, sniffing enviously at the steam from my lunch.  I can personally guarantee each and every one of you that I do not know what I will be eating from day to day, which adds a dimension of adventure to a life I had once exclusively resigned to frozen foods, buffalo chicken wraps and chocolate almonds.  And I can tell you, with honesty, that I want to cry every time I look at the bathroom scale.

As much as I love the robust variety, high adventure and shattering weight gain that accompany my relationship, there are some times when I crave the basics I left behind.  Tina will, bless her heart, try very hard to oblige me — but she is fundamentally incompatible with the most simple of foods, and that can be overwhelming for her.

“What do you want for dinner tomorrow, babe?”

“Oh, I dunno,” I’ll say.  “What about a cheeseburger?”

“Good idea!  We can try it with goat cheese, and– oh!  What goes with goat cheese?  Or what if we did a Thai chicken burger, and made a spicy chili relish that would–”

“Or… a cheesebuger?”

She gives me a long look, then, as I have suddenly started speaking backwards and upside-down.   “…Indian-style?” she’ll say, as if trying to make sense of the strange noises emitting from my head.

“No, no.  Just– just a cheeseburger.  Beef, cheese, the BBQ, a cheeseburger?”

Often at that point she will simply leave the room, until negotiations can resume under more reasonable circumstances.

So you will forgive me my brash moments of rebellion every now and again, like when she goes out for dinner and a movie with the girls and leaves me to my own furtive devices.  These are the moments when I can bash out the quick and simple meals I occasionally treasure, and brush off the basic skills I often think I’ve forgotten.  To that end, let me share with you the most fundamental of these:

The Basic Cheeseburger (which is not at all that basic)

Keep in mind that this is less a simple burger and more a product of the bitter lessons I’ve learned since first acquiring a BBQ.  If you have any objections at all to cheese, why, you need only omit the last steps of this process to enjoy a still-delicious meal (and perhaps then re-evaluate your attraction to this site, which I suspect is actually made of cheese).

First of all, my position is that the best hamburgers are the simplest ones.  As soon as you start getting fancy with little cheese pockets, a hundred herbs and spices rolled into the beef, or multi-stage cooking processes, you’re not actually making a hamburger any more — you’re making a kibbeh, or a meatloaf, a kafta. I have all the time in the world for seasoned meat patties or loaves, but a hamburger at its best is a ground steak sandwich, seasoned to accentuate the flavor of the meat and preserve its moisture.

To that end:

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See all of these ingredients?  Observe them carefully, make sure that you have them all in proper quantity… and then get rid of the bread crumbs and the eggs.  They deserve a better fate than this, and you don’t need them for the amount of meat that you’re about to cook.

I know, I know, you’ve seen lots of people who’ll crack an egg and add bread to their mix, but ask yourself why.  To preserve the moisture?  To bind the meat together?  That’s a job normally reserved for the fat, so if you use the right grade of ground beef it becomes unnecessary to add any more breakfast ingredients into your burger than you need to.  Fry the egg and put it on top, if you really want, and make yourself a Good Morning Burger.  Otherwise, save them for another day.

The basic burger requires only the following:

  • Medium (not lean, definitely not extra-lean) ground beef;  6 oz. makes a good burger
  • Salt, 1 tsp per pound or so
  • Pepper, in the same proportion

And yes, that’s it.  If you’re using fresh ground beef with enough fat content, that really is all you need to make a good hamburger.  Just make sure that you add the salt and pepper to the meat after you’ve broken it up, and before you’ve started forming patties.

If you want to get a little fancy, one of my favorite variations is one I learned from Cook’s Illustrated’s voluminous tome, The New Best Recipe, and adapted to my meagre supplies.

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Prior to mixing, add to the patties a thin paste comprised of:

  • Approximately 1 tbsp. of chives, chopped (roughly enough not to get stuck in teeth, but not so fine that they’ll simply melt)
  • 1 tbsp. of grainy mustard
  • 1 oz. of brandy

If the mix is a little loose, remember that you’re going to be adding it to a pound or so of fatty ground beef that’s already been salted.  It’ll blend.

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See?  No problem.

Toss the beef around and fold it in the same way that you might treat egg whites, at least at first.  The more you mash around ground beef, the more fibres that you tear and the more easily it will crumble before you get it on the grill.  Once it’s on the heat, the denaturing process will handle things, but why not make it easy on yourself beforehand?

The mixture should be a little bit moist after this, and again you shouldn’t worry.  After you’ve finished folding the ground beef into the mixture, let it set in the bowl for a few minutes to soak up any of the flavor — fear not, the salt will do its work very quickly.

This provides you with a moment to reflect on the nature of humanity, the origins of the universe or perhaps the possibilities of a truly just God.  Me, I like to wash the dishes, since it takes roughly the time required for the meat to work its mojo.

Now it’s time to form patties!  Before you mock me for being so enthusiastic, there is actually a trick to this that I learned in my days as a dishwasher (and thereby slave to the line cooks) in a local restaurant.  I found it highly validating to see the same advice in my Cook’s Illustrated book, and thus feel entitled to pass it along:

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Home-made hamburgers have a habit upon cooking of bunching up in the middle like a softball, and then forming an external crust that makes eating an overcooked one a particularly awkward ordeal.  Teeth grate against seared crusty beef, only to pierce the surface and eject the searing hot juices within.  It’s all terribly embarrassing and suggestive and awkward, not at all what enjoying a burger should be about.  It also makes cooking them a particular challenge, particularly when all parts of the beef stick equally when they first touch the grill — and then leave large chunks behind as they contract.

The solution to this is a neat trick where you simply compress the centre of the patty to about half the width of the outsides.  So for example, if you pack your burgers to 1/2 an inch thick, then squeeze a little divot down in the middle to 1/4 or so — just thin enough that when the hot fat expands into the middle of the burger, the shape inflates into symmetry rather than exploding into an ovoid, waiting to burn your chin with its saucy contents.

This is where being delicate with the beef while you were folding it will pay off, as you may find fault lines developing on the outside as you compress.  If necessary, start over again with the patty, because this does make a difference.

Then to the grill!

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The grill should be pre-heated at a very high temperature, preferably around 400 degrees.  If it passes the Steamboat Test (as in, if you can only hold your hand over the grill for the count of three Steamboats before you have to pull it away, it’s hot enough), then you’re good to go.  Drop the patties on the grill, with the indented side down.

Now, depending on who you are, there are any number of cooking times you can apply to this.  Tina likes meat so rare that little fibres of it get stuck in her teeth, which makes me feel a bit anxious and a bit turned on; me, I don’t mind if my ground beef is done most of the way through when it comes off the grill.  The benefit of using a higher-fat meat is that — again, unlike lean or extra-lean — medium beef will still be moist if you cook it a bit longer.  As soon as the meat is on the grill, cut the heat down to about medium and close the lid.  Leave it high and risk reducing it to a cinder.

So, let’s call it even and say that for a 6 oz. patty, look at around 3-4 minutes a side.  The benefit of doing the indented side first is that there’s less surface area touching the grill, which will make it easier to flip; however, if you feel like the beef is grabbing the grill too much, then give it a second to sear a bit more.  With the divot side up (most of which, you will note, has filled in by this point), give it two more minutes before adding your cheese — and here I strongly recommend a good old cheddar, cut thick — and then cut the heat down to nothing before closing the lid.

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Get the meat off the grill as soon as the cheese is soft, and give it about five minutes to rest and settle into the bun.  Burgers like this are always best served in a fresh kaiser, which is well worth the three minutes and fifty cents it will take you to pick one up at the grocery store, as compared to the Wonder Bread Buns you might settle for.

To appreciate the flavor, don’t mess with any heavy condiments… maybe top with fresh tomato if you feel like it, or pair it with your favorite mustard.  But cooked properly and flavored well, you really are enjoying steak on a bun — and ask yourself, would you pile mustard, ketchup and relish on top of a properly cooked steak?

The basic cheeseburger, with all the tricks and practices I can offer those of you who might be happier never touching a BBQ.  They can be easy, they can be tasty and moist, and they can still be interesting on their own.

And look Tina, I had them with carrots!

  • http://thespitefulchef.blogspot.com kristie

    Chris gets the same way about tacos, nachos, and other “simpleton” food. He craves them, and I all but forget about them in my quest to find new things I can eat. You’re right, though. Sometimes it’s good to go old-school-comfort-style with the food.

    And it’s cute how you called your grill a “BBQ.” You can get shot for doing that in Texas, you know.

  • Alan

    I had trouble parsing the phrase “Toss the beef around and fold it in roughly… ” For some reason it took me a few times to realize that you meant that the beef should be handled *gently*.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      Good point. Fixed!

  • http://www.eatingindallas.wordpress.com Margie

    I agree with the Kaiser roll thing. Wonder bread buns suck.