With the approach of barbeque season, it’s time to talk about hamburgers on the grill.
A good sirloin or tenderloin of beef can be tender, juicy and succulent. But we’ve all had the experience of facing a solid mass of muscle and no hope of making a dent with either tooth or knife.
Enter the meat grinder — a useful tool. American ingenuity added a bun and sped up the production line until hamburger became synonymous with fast food. But the average fast food burger is about as juicy as day-old chewed gum. If it ever had any juices, they have long since been either fried or grilled right out of a layer of meat flat enough to qualify for letter rate with Canada Post.
A hamburger should be thick, thick, thick; we’re talking inches, not millimetres. It should be so juicy that you’ll need a towel just to keep your chin dry.
Let’s start with the meat. There’s hamburger and there’s ground beef. What we want is the latter. If you actually know your butcher (it’s an acquaintance worth cultivating), ask him to grind the meat twice for you, using round steak (rump works well too) and chuck in a proportion of about 4–1. This will undoubtedly cost more, but you will get to eat most of what you buy instead of watching it blaze merrily away as the fat is consumed by the flames.
But fat is not all bad. Rump or round steak on its own is too lean. Most of the flavour of beef and much of the tenderness comes from the fat content. A piece of good sirloin is “marbellized”, meaning it has small skeins of fat running through it. In the case of the hamburger, we can just toss a little fat in with the muscle and grind the lot together, thus achieving the same result.
I like to use an egg for each pound to bind the meat, though I’m told purists shun this (so let them pick the little bits off the bottom of the barbeque after the patty falls apart). But in the realm of seasonings I become a purist.
There is nothing quite like the taste of a well grilled hamburger, and it can stand alone. Not a grain of salt or a grating of pepper would I add. Form large patties and pat them into two-inch-thick circles. Now press these gently with the palm of your hand to flatten into one-inch-thick patties. (You can pretty up the edges.)
These should be grilled. No self-respecting hamburger would allow its delicate cheeks to be kissed by a frying pan. It’s the kiss of death. It sits there like a large sponge, reabsorbing all its own grease. Yuk!
Likewise, tossing your hamburgers on the flames so that they become “nicely charred” on the outside will get you tossed out of serious barbeque circles with a sniff of disgust. The heat should be only moderate so that the inside (remember, we are talking about a thick burger) gets cooked through while the outside develops a golden brown crust. Keep a small bowl of water nearby so that if the coals catch fire from the drippings, you can sprinkle some on to douse the flames.
Brush the grill very lightly with oil to prevent sticking and place your patties gently on.
Some backyard chefs seem to feel it necessary to stab away at the meat with those giant forks that barbeque salesmen thoughtfully provide. Every little hole breaks the crust and creates an outlet for those lovely, rich juices. Keep it up and you might as well dump it and head for the nearest fast food joint. You’ll get the same results. It is however, acceptable to put a tiny break in the crust to test.
It is also, in my opinion, an unnecessary practice to smear barbeque sauce all over the meat at this point. Most sauces have significant sugar content, thereby ensuring a burned surface. I’ve seen lighter-coloured hockey pucks!
If the meat is freshly ground and used within a couple of hours of grinding, a medium rare hamburger is great (the theory being that all those surfaces make a great breeding ground for bacteria if you let the meat stand for too long and then don’t cook it through). You’ll know the hamburger is medium rare when the first juices start to sizzle out through your tiny break in the crust.
It’s about now that the true mettle of the backyard chef is tested. Those first drops of fat invariably start to burn and you’ll soon have charred meat if you are not careful. Being vigilant for another minute or so will bring the hamburgers to medium well-done. This is the moment to lift them carefully onto the warmed or toasted buns.
Then it’s time for that first bite … ah-h-h… that first, juicy, dripping, delicious bite. Get the towels, hon, we’re having hamburgers tonight!
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