Coronavirus has changed a lot of things in our world, but it can’t take away the start of grilling season. And with Memorial Day growing near, it’s time clean off the patio, fire up the grill and serve some juicy, hot-off-the-barbie burgers.
For some pointers, we turned to three local grilling aficionados: Noah Siebenaller, executive chef and general manager of Beasts & Brews; Dan MacDonald, co-owner of Colorado BBQ Outfitters; and Cheryl Alters Jamison, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author who recently released her cookbook “Texas Q.”
Before you light that grill, consider your meat purchase. All our burger experts agree on one thing: Ground beef for burgers should be 80 percent meat and 20 percent fat. But they have slightly different approaches to accomplishing the goal.
“A lot of people like to buy the leanest ground beef they can,” said Siebenaller, whose restaurant includes an extensive butcher shop open to the public. “Then they ‘doctor’ it up by adding ingredients like fat — butter or oil — and a ton of seasonings.”
He likes a mixture of brisket and chuck, which he grinds in-house. For even more flavor, he recommends a blend of 70 percent ground beef and 30 percent ground pork.
MacDonald points out, however, that if meat comes from a USDA-inspected plant, “hamburger” can have fat scraps in it, while “ground beef” does not. Hamburger can come from miles away and often has been thawed for days. Meat handlers may add ammonia to the meat to kill the microbes.
“They do not even have to label it (ammonia) as an ingredient,” MacDonald said.
For that reason, although it’s more expensive, he recommends buying ground beef at a meat shop such as Siebenaller’s or looking for Ranch Foods Direct ground beef. The meat should always have at least 20 percent fat in it for better flavor.
Jamison goes a slightly different direction.
“I look for a burger with enough heft to get a good sear — almost char — on the surface and still have a juicy interior,” she said. “I favor chuck or chuck and brisket for that reason.”
MacDonald calls shaping the patties “an art.”
“Never use wet hands, as that will cause wet meat and it won’t crisp up when cooking,” he said. “Pack the patties loosely to allow for pockets to hold the juices.”
He puts the shaped patties in the freezer for about 15 minutes while he heats the grill. That way, the outside of the patty will be colder than the inside, which makes for more even cooking, he said.
As far as seasonings go, Siebenaller recommends the simplest seasoning possible: kosher salt, black pepper, granulated onion and granulated garlic, which he sprinkles on the burgers as they cook.
Charcoal is best. MacDonald — who is more than a little knowledgeable about how to get great results when cooking over glowing coals — says there’s nothing quite like the taste of a burger grilled over an open flame.
“I flip my burger frequently to allow the juices to flow through the meat and not subject one side to being overcooked,” he said.
He initially cooks burgers over indirect heat, using water-soaked wood chips to create a smoky flavor.
“Gas grillers can achieve this by only turning one burner on and leaving the others off,” he said. “Place some wood chips designed for barbecuing in a foil pan and poke some holes in the bottom of the pan. Set the pan directly over the burner that is going. Cook the burgers just off to the side of the direct heat.”
Keep an eye on the internal temperature of the patties using a digital thermometer. When the burgers are about 20 degrees under the desired done temperature, MacDonald moves them to the direct heat. He showers them with a generous sprinkle of salt and paints them with vegetable oil to seal in the flavor.
“The result will be a nice salty taste on the outside, undertones of smoke in each bite, and a juicy center,” he said.
Buns and condiments
On these, our experts have their own preferences.
Jamison said, “I really like toasted brioche buns. The bun needs to be sturdy enough to hold everything but not be cardboard-y.”
And skip the mustard for her.
“I think mustard is awful on a burger,” she said. “I save it for hot dogs. I’m a fan of mayo, ketchup or barbecue sauce mixed together. I go for dill pickles, either on the burger or on the side. I love lettuce and tomato too, but only if the tomato is truly ripe. I’m appalled by the horrid out-of-season specimens often foisted on us by restaurants. Cheese and green chile are tops for me too. Just don’t let the toppings overwhelm the taste of the meat.”
Mustard is fine with MacDonald, who would also add mayo and onion — and bacon is a must. He cooks several strips on the grill alongside his burgers. For the bun, he’s not picky, but it has to be toasted and buttered.
Siebenaller agrees with MacDonald on traditional condiments and bun choice.
“Everyone tries to overdo with ‘fancy’ buns,” Siebenaller said. “The bun should be able to stand up to your burger without getting soggy and falling apart. My favorite is a potato bun. They support the juicy beef very well.”
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