Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Burger Time! - Part 1 - The Basics

Hi there!

So, I was thinking about burgers, as one is wont to do when they're not a weirdo,  and I thought I'd write a little post about them. And then the ideas started coming about all the different facets about this ubiquitous food item and I realized there was way more than just one post worth of writing on the subject. So, I'll write three! This first post will deal with the basics of making burgers, the second will deal with where one can find a good burger in Ottawa (and elsewhere), and the third will deal with how the hamburger can become the canvas upon which one creates the ridiculous and the insane.

So let's get to it!

Ah, the noble hamburger... Next to booze, it's the second most important cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems. Scourge of vegetarians, foundation of the modern food economy and inspiration for an 80s video game (hence the title), hamburgers are pretty much the most common prepared food item in North America. And this has had some serious consequences on how we see food.

The rise of fast food has changed farming, butchery and even the global environment, and all to ensure we have a hamburger joint on every street corner. It's disconcerting to say the least that swathes of the Amazon rain forest are being razed daily just to provide pastures for cows that'll become the centrepiece of a few hundred "Happy Meals". And let's not even get started on the whole feedlot system...

But that doesn't mean I don't love me a good burger!

Seriously, there's nothing that conjures up the "sensual profile" of Summer more than a burger hot off the grill at a family BBQ, dripping juice and condiments down your arm. The main difference between this kind of burger and the McHockeyPuck burger is, of course, love. Well, that and making the burger as it should be: thick and with very little filler.

Now, making a burger that thrills and isn't just a vehicle for bacon, cheese, BBQ sauce and mayo is not an easy feat. First of all, ground beef can be a little bland and can get really dry if overcooked or too lean. I try to stick with using either medium or lean ground beef when making burgers, extra-lean just makes for a dry crumbly patty. So keep the right kind of ground beef in mind, low-fat diet be damned!

You also need to season your burger. I know purists out there will say that all you need to make a good burger patty is some salt and pepper. I respectfully disagree. A burger worth remembering for itself will have something unique about it. I usually throw in salt and pepper, a little minced fresh garlic (about a teaspoon per pound of meat) and some Montreal Steak Spice. Some people add eggs, some people swear by dry onion soup mix. It's really a matter of taste.

So, what's the basic process for making a burger patty? Throw your meat in a large bowl, add your seasoning, mix everything well with your hands (wear gloves if you're squeamish about touching raw meat, because there's really no way to make a patty without using your hands), roll into a ball, and flatten into the desired shape and thickness. Now, it should be noted that the burger recipe book I'll be discussing shortly recommends pressing your thumb lightly (1 centimetre deep) into the middle of the patty to ensure even cooking. Depending on how ready you are to cook the burgers, put the patties in the fridge until ready to cook or throw them on the fire right away!

Now, I'm not sure if there's anyone out there who believes that a fried burger is better than a grilled one, but if there is... SMACK! What the hell, dude???? 'fried is better than grilled'... Jeeeeeeeeez... But, in situations where grilling isn't possible (which should be rare; if you don't have access to an outside grill, you can always use one of those electric "George Foreman"-style grills), I recommend frying the burger in a cast iron pan.

So, what's the best way to cook a burger? Well first, you want high heat on your grill, somewhere around 400 degrees. Essentially, you want to grill the burger for about 7-8 minutes per side, making sure it's not pink in the middle (unless you like medium rare burgers, which need about 5 minutes, but to me that's asking for a tummy ache). Try to flip or otherwise manipulate the burger as little as possible. The more you play with your meat, the more juice you'll lose... aaaaand now I have the sense of humour of a 12-year old... Usually once the burgers are cooked, I set them aside on a cooler part of the grill to keep warm, then heat and slightly toast the buns over the grill. That's about it. What comes next is whatever you feel like topping them with. I'm usually happy with BBQ sauce and mayo, maybe a pickle and some tomato, but there's no end to the toppings you can choose.

When you're getting a bit bored of the "tried and true" burger seasoning you've always used, it helps to look elsewhere for inspiration when your culinary muscles aren't flexing as well as they should. With this in mind, we turn to a little gem of a cookbook I was able to procure last year for 5 dollars. Sally Sampson's Recipe of the Week: Burgers is pretty much what the title says: 52 different burger recipes. I've made a few of them and they all turned out pretty well, mostly because I stuck with the simpler ones, I'll wager.

Damn useful resource for 5 bucks!

Here are a couple of the recipes from the book, simplified for the sake of bloggish simplicity.

First there's a basic burger with just a few alterations, namely the inclusion of chipotle peppers. I pretty much followed this recipe to the letter.

Chipotle and Scallion Burgers    

Makes 4 burgers, about 1/3 pound each. For smaller burgers (1/4 pound), use less meat!


- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (medium or lean)

- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp scallions (green onion), both white and green parts, minced
- 1 tbsp canned chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 4 lime wedges


- Place beef, garlic, scallions and chipotle in a large bowl and mix well with hands, and form into 3/4 inch thick patties, making an indentation as described earlier.

- Season patties with salt and pepper and grill or fry as indicate earlier.
- Serve on warmed buns with lime wedges.

One of the first recipes we tried and it worked great!

Next, there's the recipe pictured above, which omits the use of buns altogether, instead using lettuce as the delivery mechanism for meaty goodness. I'm presenting the version I actually made, but the basic inspiration is still from Ms. Sampson's book.

Asian Beef Burgers with Ginger and Cilantro

Makes 4 burgers, about 1/3 pound each. For smaller burgers (1/4 pound), use less meat!


- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (medium or lean)
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp chopped ginger (fresh)
- 1/2 tbsp sesame oil
- 1/2 chili oil or Sriracha sauce (the original recipe calls for 1 tbsp of hot sesame oil, which I've never encountered, so I used a mix of "regular" sesame oil and Sriracha)
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 large leaves of butter (Boston) lettuce


- Mix all ingredients except salt in a large bowl with hands and form into 3/4 inch thick patties, making an indentation as described earlier.
- Season patties with salt and grill or fry as indicated earlier.
- Serve each patty on a leaf of lettuce.

Alright, so that's part one of our exploration of the noble hamburger. Next, we take to the streets in search of the best burgers made by other people, from the lowly "value menu" to some more high-end fare.

'Til then, NOM THAT BURG!


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