Five hours into my new life as Mrs. Jan Roberts-Dominguez, I was starving. It had been a grand affair, our wedding and reception. But true to form, I was far too busy chatting up the guests to do much eating. So on the way to our honeymoon, I turned to Steve and uttered my first directive as Chief Cook: “There’s a Denny’s restaurant up there on the right. Pull over!”
I embraced the monster-sized bacon-cheese burger with both hands and total abandon. Glistening juices trickled out through my fingers and down my wrists. The only thing that saved my new silk suit from total ruin was my foresight to marry a man with fast reflexes. He’d hastily pushed the cuffs of my jacket up over my elbows as soon as the meal began leaking towards them.
All these years later that burger is still on my top-ten list of culinary experiences.
Certainly, the circumstances surrounding that memorable meal influenced my reaction to it. But still, there’s something about a well-executed burger that satisfies deeply. Even if you aren’t starving.
When cooks are handicapped with the food safety imperative that no pink patties should pass our lips, what makes a burger memorable? I’d have to say that it’s all about flavor combinations and texture. And technique. You really can produce a juicy “medium” burger if you pay attention and take care.
For safety reasons, burgers need to be cooked to at least “medium.” That’s an internal temperature of 160 degrees for beef, lamb and pork, and 165 degrees for ground turkey and chicken. A medium burger is firm to the touch; to the eye, the meat is no longer pink, and the juices are running clear instead of reddish pink. After handling raw patties, always wash your hands, counter tops and cutting boards with hot, soapy water. And use a fresh platter and utensils when moving the cooked burgers from grill to table.
Tips for memorable burgers
Fat is flavor: That means between 15 percent and 20 percent fat. For beef burgers, the best flavor experience comes from ground sirloin, round and chuck. Sirloin generally contains less fat than round or chuck, but they all make flavorful burgers. For pork or lamb burgers, the best flavor tends to be in the shoulder cuts.
Grill at will: Nothing beats an outdoor grill when it comes to flavor. But a cast-iron skillet will also do an awesome job. Consider adding a bit of butter if you’re pan-frying.
Preheat: Your cooking surface should be nice and hot before you begin to cook your burgers, so thoroughly preheat your grill or skillet. This ensures a nice outer crust, which helps keep the juices in the burger.
DON’T smash the patty: It makes me nuts when I see cooks doing this, because they’re forcing all those tasty juices out of the burger. And it really doesn’t speed up the cooking time by very much. So knock it off.
Flip once: To keep burgers from drying out try to flip them one time only. Flipping back and forth only sends all those tasty juices flying.
Additions: One of my favorite additions is to add a bit of ketchup. Its sweet-yet-savory flavor provides the umami experience without too much fuss. Also, consider incorporating a bit of another type of ground meat, such as your favorite sausage mixture. There are so many styles in the butcher case now, including apple, pesto, roasted red pepper, and garlic flavored. Beyond that, things to consider (not all at the same time) include mustard, Worcestershire, crumbled sourdough bread, A-1 sauce, srirachi sauce, chopped olives, shredded cheese (especially blue cheese, feta or a smokey provolone), finely minced fresh onion or shallots, a sprinkling of onion soup mix, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, hoisen sauce, chili-garlic sauce, pine nuts, horseradish, taco seasoning.
Top it: Memorable toppings for your burgers include crisp-fried bacon, sliced olives, cheeses beyond Cheddar (including Jarlsburg, blue, a smokey provolone, pepper Jack, feta, blue cheese, and extra-aged Gouda), guacamole, salsa, caramelized onions (just saute in a bit of butter over medium-low heat until golden brown), roasted or sauteed peppers, pesto mayonnaise (equal portions pesto and mayonnaise) or grilled pineapple slices.
The Steve Burger
Makes 4 burgers
This is how my honey keeps the magic in our home-cooked burgers.
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck (15-20 percent fat)
1/2cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 or 3 healthy glugs of Worcestershire sauce
Fixings as listed above
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground chuck, ketchup, onion and Worcestershire sauce. Without over-mixing at this point, give the meat a preliminary toss with your hands or large fork then determine if more ketchup is needed for that “firm-yet-loose” point. Mix to evenly distribute the onions and ketchup throughout the meat.
Shape the mixture into 4 patties that are about 1/2-inch thick (or slightly thicker). Lightly oil the pre-heated grill or a skillet over medium-high heat and cook the burgers to at least 160 degrees internally, about 5 to 7 minutes per side for medium.
Serve with desired burger fixings.
Andouille Bayou burgers with red pepper mayo
Makes 6 burgers
Smoky and spicy, these Cajun-inspired burgers are made for sausage fans. Andouille is a delicious smoked pork sausage used in Cajun specialties such as jambalaya and gumbo. If you can’t get andouille, use any other spicy pork sausage instead.
1/2pound uncooked andouille sausage meat, ground or finely chopped
2 1/2pounds ground beef chuck
1medium-size green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2small red onion, minced
1 1/2teaspoons salt
1 1/2teaspoons fennel seeds, crushed
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Red pepper mayo (recipe follows)
In a large mixing bowl, gently mix together all the ingredients. Shape into 6 patties, each 1 inch thick. Lightly oil the grill or a skillet over medium-high heat and cook the burgers to at least 160 degrees internally, about 5 to 7 minutes per side for medium. Serve on focaccia or toasted sesame seed buns with the Red Pepper Mayo and grilled onions.
Red pepper mayo
In the jar of a blender, combine one 3- to 4-ounce jar of roasted red peppers (drained), 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 1 tablespoon minced shallots or sweet onion.
Recipe adapted from “The Great Big Burger Book,” by Jane Murphy and Liz Yeh Singh.Mustard-shallot burgers
Makes 6 to 8 burgers
2pounds ground beef chuck
2cloves garlic, minced
1tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1tablespoon whole-grain Dijon mustard
1tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1tablespoon soy sauce
Combine the beef, shallots, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, olive oil, parsley, soy sauce and salt in a large mixing bowl. Form into 6 to 8 patties, each about 3/4 inch thick.
Lightly oil the grill or a skillet over medium-high heat and cook the burgers and cook 5 to 8 minutes per side for medium.
Curried chicken burgers with hot yogurt sauce
Makes 4 burgers
2tablespoons olive oil
1/3cup minced shallots
2tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 1/2pound ground chicken or turkey
1cup chicken broth
2tablespoons curry powder
3tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
2tablespoons tomato paste
1/2cup plain low-fat yogurt
In a small skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the shallots and the ginger and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, mixing to combine and coat with the oil. Set aside to cool.
In a mixing bowl, combine the ground chicken with 1/3 cup of the broth, 1 tablespoon of the curry powder, the parsley and the cooled cooked shallots and ginger. Form into 4 patties, each about 3/4-inch thick. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prepare the sauce
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-low heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon shallots and the remaining 1 tablespoon of curry and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, until the shallots are just translucent and the curry has toasted a little. Add the remaining broth, the tomato paste, and salt. Slowly mix in the yogurt and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
In a pre-heated medium-hot skillet, saute the patties, turning once, until browned and cooked through. (Note: If you want to grill them, you’ll need to place a grill topper on the grill that has small holes to keep the patties from breaking apart during cooking). Serve with the sauce.
Adapted from “The Great Big Burger Book,” by Jane Murphy and Liz Yeh Singh.…………………………………
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Oregon, food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.