The Food Lab Turbo: These Pimento-Jalapeño Cheeseburgers Will Knock You Out
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Regular old cheeseburgers are all well and good (and really, if you're doing them right, there's nothing regular or old about them), but having recently been exposed to the glory that is a pimento cheese-topped burger at Jeff Mason's Burger Time in San Francisco, I just haven't been able to get the idea out of my mind.
There's something about the way the caviar of the South (as pimento cheese is affectionately known) melts into a rich, oozy coating, its acidity and punch of pimento flavor accenting a thick and juicy grilled burger in a way that regular cheese just can't. Add some pickled jalapeño peppers in there in place of standard pickles and you've got yourself one hell of a fiery backyard treat.
There's really not much to say about this recipe that isn't immediately obvious from the title and the photos. It's a grilled cheeseburger slathered with pimento cheese and served with sliced pickled jalapeños. Ok, there's a little bit more to it than that—with simple recipes, the beauty is always in the details—but it's still pretty darn easy.
It starts with really good pimento cheese. The version I use here is based on Josh Bousel's simple recipe, which combines sharp cheddar with mayonnaise, chopped pimentos, and hot sauce. Depending on whom you ask, pimento cheese can vary from extremely chunky—Josh's recipe is straight-up grated cheese dressed with mayonnaise— to a mixture that's processed until nearly smooth.
I tried a few different degrees of chunkiness to top my burgers and found that the chunkiest mixtures didn't fare very well—the mayonnaise broke and dripped away, leaving you with a greasy sheen of half melted cheese. The best was a moderately chunky texture achieved by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor a few times.
For the burgers, I like to grind my own meat, or at the very least, have a butcher grind meat fresh for me. You need a thick, juicy burger to stand up to the cheese, and a thick burger is at its tenderest and juiciest when it's ground fresh and packed just tightly enough to hold together on a hot grill.
The standard rules for grilling burgers apply here. Shape the patties with a slight indentation to prevent them from bulging as they cook. Only salt the patties on the exterior (to prevent them from getting tough or sausage-like). Cook them hot and cover the grill to prevent flare-ups, and use a thermometer to make sure you hit that target temperature.
The one difference? A big ol' dollop of pimento cheese applied about a minute before the patties are done cooking.
Once it's applied, cover the grill again to prevent flare-ups and to allow the cheese to melt over the burger patties.
Like a good steak, your burgers should rest for a moment or two after cooking to prevent them from losing juices too rapidly when you bite into them.
That resting period is a good time to toast your buns and assemble your toppings. The order in which they go is not random! I pretty much always place my toppings underneath the patty—I suppose I should call them bottomings (not nearly as dirty as it sounds). This not only helps the burger stay together better as you eat it (toppings on top lead to a top bun that slips and slides around. This doesn't happen with the bottom bun), but it also creates a moisture barrier to prevent your bottom bun from getting overly soggy.
To bottom my burger, I layer on shredded iceberg lettuce (shreds are great for absorbing juices and creating a nice non-slip surface for the remaining toppings), slivered onions (I cut my onions from pole to pole for better flavor), a fat slice of tomato (so long as I can find a decent one—not always easy!), and a handful of those pickled jalapeños.
It all gets stacked onto a toasted Martin's Potato Roll, still the finest burger-delivery vehicle on the market.
Now, open wide, squeeze down, and take a bite, if you dare. But get ready, because you are about to not-quite-literally get knocked on your ass with an explosion of flavor.
This is the kind of burger that makes you wish that some enterprising late night infomercial maven would invent a belt-mounted napkin-dispenser holster.