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Declare independence from blah burgers

June 24, 2009|By MARLENE PARRISH / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Company's coming for a Fourth of July cookout.

Odds are, burgers are on the menu. Unless you are feeding the whole neighborhood, puh-leez don't settle for preformed patties, frozen or not. When you select the meat (it doesn't always have to be beef) and form the patties yourself, you get to control the quality of the meat and portion size while customizing the flavors.

Why settle for mundane when, with just a bit of effort, you can switch to urbane? We tested some burgers for you. They got raves. So will you.

Burger 101 review

The better the meat, the better the flavor. No need to get the expensive cuts. Choose skirt, shin or chuck when buying beef. Choose lamb shoulder or leg. Meat that is about 20 percent fat yields a juicy, succulent, self-basted burger with most of the fat draining off during cooking. Meat that is too lean usually makes a dry, tough burger. If you insist, keep the moisture in the add-ons, such as tomatoes and sauces.

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Always chill ground meat well before use, and when mixing in seasonings or finely minced ingredients, use a gentle touch. Use slightly damp hands to form patties. Don't squeeze or press the mixture into shape; just press it lightly together gently until it forms a ball. Then flatten gently with the palm of your hand, keeping the patties an even thickness so they cook evenly. Use the tines of a fork to neaten up the sides of the patties. Once you've shaped the patties, place them on a tray and chill again to firm the meat before cooking.

Did you notice we said "gentle" or "gently" three times?

Got that?

If you can put it on a bun, you can call it a burger. Venture beyond beef. Try lamb, fish, poultry, seafood, and veggies. Game meat such as venison and pheasant makes excellent burgers, but because the meats are so lean, a little pork fat should be added.

Grilling is just one way to cook burgers. Indoors, a ridged grill pan is almost as good and a boon to apartment and condo-based cooks. A preheated, heavy griddle can accommodate lots of burgers. A nonstick frying pan or seasoned black cast-iron skillet are both burger-friendly. In any case, preheat the pan and always brush the burgers with a bit of oil before placing on the cooking surface.

When I cook burgers indoors, which is most of the time for just the two of us, instead of salting the meat, I salt the pan. I set a cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat for about four or five minutes, then sprinkle a good scattering of kosher salt over the surface. The burgers cook on the salt, which makes a crunchy brown crust.

About the only absolute no-no is pressing down on the burgers with a spatula to "speed up" the cooking. Check that urge! If you don't, the good juices will be lost and the burgers will be dry.

Think about the buns. Too soft? Too big? Never settle for inferior, squishy, cellophane-wrapped ho-hum buns. The bakery world begs you to consider onion rolls, kaiser buns, baguettes, focaccia, sourdough, English muffins, ciabatta, crusty buns with or without sesame and poppy seeds, brioche, naan and pita pockets. And toast them.

Set out "The Works." Bowls of ketchup, plain or jazzed-up mayonnaise, one or two mustards, pickle chips or spears, sliced tomatoes, hot pepper sauce, red onion rings, leaves of bibb lettuce or shredded iceberg. Try crisp bacon strips and a couple of kinds of cheese, some kind of potato dish and any version of coleslaw, preferably vinaigrette-dressed.

Your "special sauce" can be store-bought or homemade. Most bottled barbecue sauces are good. Beef burgers cry out for sour cream enhanced with a bit of horseradish and chopped chives. Lamb burgers match with seasoned creamy yogurt with diced cucumber and chopped mint and a touch of fresh lemon juice.

Now, open wide.

HAVE-I-GOT-THE-BLUES BURGERS



(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

o Icy-cold beer is a must with this inside-out burger. The flavors are all here -- salt from the blue cheese, sweet and tart from the barbecue sauce, umami from the mushrooms and bitter from the beer.

1-1/2 pounds ground beef
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 ounces blue cheese, preferably Maytag blue cheese
Salt and pepper to season
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons minced shallots
8 ounces sliced mushrooms (crimini, shiitake, oyster)
Quick Barbecue Sauce (recipe below)
4 onion rolls, cut in half

Gently form beef into 8 3-ounce, 1/2-inch-thick patties. Use a metal spoon to make a small, shallow indentation in center of 4 of the patties. Place 1/2-ounce blue cheese into each indentation. Top four burgers with another patty, and gently form into 1-1/4-inch-thick burgers, sealing all open edges. Use the side of a dinner fork to press the edges together. Cover burgers with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

Melt butter in a skillet and saute shallots and mushrooms over medium-high heat until shallots soften and mushrooms reduce in size and absorb butter, about 4 minutes. Reserve.

Just before grilling, lightly season burgers with salt and pepper.

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