Beef up your burger

Meat is not a requirement for a great grill creation

Meat is not a requirement for a great grill creation

June 22, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

You've already smelled them this year.

You've probably even tasted them.

That's because summer is the season of the burger and offers a good chance to look at what makes them so popular.

Quick, mass-producable and very difficult to get wrong, burgers are deceptively simple.

As compositions, they're more complicated than grilled steak. As an American folk food, they have a convoluted history and stark regional differences. Outside the backyard, burgers inspire ambivalence - popular as fast-food nosh, but a faux pas if ordered someplace fancy.

Barbecue experts, cookbook authors and even a Napa Valley winery have joined forces with hopes of giving grillers a greater appreciation for burgers this summer.


"The first bite of the bread, when it's crispy, then the meat - ummm, I'm salivating already," James McNair said in a recent telephone interview. McNair is author of "Build a Better Burger" (Ten Speed Press, 2005).

McNair, who has written more than 30 cookbooks, said burgers are more complex than steak. There's the hot meat patty against the cold lettuce; sweet bread, sour pickles; crunchy bacon, soft meat patty - these layers of contrast are what give burgers balance, McNair said.

Burgers are the most popular items to grill, beating out steak, chicken and hotdogs, according to a consumer survey conducted by trade group Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. The survey asked 13,995 consumers about their grilling habits in 2007. More than 80 percent said burgers were their favorite things to grill, spokeswoman Deidra Darsa said.

As contest chair for Sutter Home winery's yearly burger contest, McNair has seen some of the best and the worst in burger making. A black forest cake-themed burger with cherry and chocolate filling with whipped cream made the worst list.

McNair included winning contest recipes through 2004 in his burger book. There also is a list of past winners and a database of user-generated burger recipes on the contest's Web site, This year's contest deadline is Aug. 18.

Linda Mullane, a member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society's national board, trained the judges for an upcoming barbecue contest near Martinsburg, W.Va., set for September.

She said regardless of how they are made, good burgers share similar traits: fresh ingredients, quality meat (or meat alternative), and toasted bread. Meat is not a prerequisite. She likes to grill marinated mushrooms for her vegetarian friends.

Much like barbecue, burgers are subject to regional variations.

At least that was the discovery of burger lover George Motz, who made the documentary "Burger America" in 2005 and wrote "Hamburger America: One Man's Cross-country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation," (Running Press, 2008).

As part of his research, Motz sampled burgers from across the country, eating as many as 20 in a week. He ate "goop sauce" burgers in the Pacific Northwest, deep-fried slug burgers (with onions and stale bread mixed in) in the Southeast and burgers topped with green chile sauce in the Southwest.

During a recent phone interview, Motz said fast-food burgers were a threat to burger diversity because they are pretty much the same wherever you go. He was particularly hard on McDonald's burgers.

"They're sort of like Frankenstein creations," Motz said.

Sutter Home's contest has been encouraging entrants to play up regional flair in their recipes, which spokeswoman Colleen LeMasters said makes for better recipes.

As a judge, McNair said he favors recipes with regional touches, like a past entry of a Hawaiian-inspired salmon burger with a soy glaze and ginger-lime aioli. He also recalled a Moroccan-themed burger with apricots and dates, topped with a Moroccan carrot salad and spiced mayonnaise.

McNair said a few posh eateries are starting to consider burgers as acceptable gourmet. But even as burgers appear on upscale menus, there are still patrons who would turn up their noses at the thought of ordering a burger, McNair said.

Burgers also have yet to gain widespread acceptance at what would seem like their natural turf - barbecue contests. Mullane said barbecue purists don't even consider burger-making as true barbecue.

"Honestly, they're too easy to cook," Mullane said.

Mullane said user-friendly production is one of the reasons burgers will always remain popular at family gatherings.

"They're a tried-and-true combination," Mullane said.

Food fight!

Think you know who invented the first hamburger? Take a number. Many claim to be the burger's inventor. Here are a few of the alleged:

· The Library of Congress credits New Haven, Conn., diner Louis' Lunch with inventing the hamburger. The diner, which is still in operation, claims its original owner invented the burger in 1900.

· In 2007, Wisconsin's general assembly issued a joint resolution that proclaimed Seymour, Wis., "the rightful home of the hamburger." According to the resolution, Seymour resident Charles Nagreen made the first burger in 1885.

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