Bump up your burgers for the barbecue

July 14, 2009|LYNNE ROSSETTO KASPER/Scripps Howard News Service

Dear Lynne: Where others improvise like crazy in the kitchen, I plod. I have two left feet in the make-it-up-as-you-go department. My mantra is, follow the recipe to the letter, or fail. Can you actually learn to improvise? -- Stymied Sam

Dear Sam: You, too, can learn to riff. Here is what to remember:

Follow the technique to the letter (using common sense when needed), but vary ingredients and/or seasonings.

Let's take the basic burger. Usually, it is merely ground beef slow-cooked on a grill to 160 degrees degrees at its center (to avoid any tricky organisms). That is the technique; stick with it.

Here is the improvising. The juiciest, tastiest burgers that won't crack the budget are made with 85 percent lean ground chuck. Improvise seasonings by gently working in salt, pepper, minced onion and, if you like, basil, oregano, hot pepper sauce or smoky Spanish hot paprika.

Keep the patty tender by lightly shaping it into a 4-inch ball, burying a tablespoon or two of shredded cheese in the center. Gently work it into a round that's an inch or more thick. Grill as the recipe instructs.


How do you know which seasonings work together? Put a little of each one you are contemplating on your tongue. In an instant, you'll know what will fly and what won't.

Here is a recipe to test drive.


To ensure juiciness, don't use any ground beef leaner than 85 percent. Stuff the burgers with cheese at the center instead of on top. Be sure to cook the burgers to 160 degrees. Serves 4 to 5.

1-1/2 pounds ground beef chuck (85 percent lean)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 to 2 teaspoons hot chili powder or Spanish paprika (optional) (see note)
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar, asiago or manchego cheese

Wipe grill grate with vegetable oil to prevent food from sticking. Prepare charcoal in the grill, piling briquettes three deep on one end and in a loose single layer at the other, so one side has high heat and the other low. Start the fire and set the grate back on the grill. Or, use a skillet lightly filmed with oil. Have an instant-read thermometer handy.

In a large mixing bowl, gently work together the beef, salt, pepper, onion and chili powder, paprika or herbs (if using). Don't overwork the mixture or the meat will toughen. Shape the mixture into balls 4 inches in diameter, burying 2 generous tablespoons of cheese in the center of each. Then, gently shape into patties about 1-inch thick.

Lightly brown the burgers over high heat, then cook over low heat about 5 to 6 minutes per side, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center reaches 160 degrees. Let burgers rest a few minutes off the grill while you quickly toast the buns. Serve with the usual fixings.

Note: Instead of chili powder or paprika, you can substitute 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, torn; 1 tablespoon fresh oregano with 1 teaspoon shredded lemon zest; or 1/3 cup of salsa or tapenade.

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