The last large hurrah for grilling this season is upon us. If you're anything like me, that means you'll be manning the grill and flipping burgers for a hungry crowd depending on you to make the best of their day off from work. With failure not an option in the high stakes of backyard cookouts, some grilling burger tips are in store to ensure bovine excellence. While a few of these tips will likely be a recap of knowledge already dropped, there are a few specifics for burgers done over the flames that are worth bearing out.
I'm a huge advocate of home grinding—it's the best way to ensure the quality and fat-to-meat ratio of your burgers. After trying different meat blends, I've found myself solidly using chuck for both ease and flavor. At the butcher, you want to look for a piece of chuck that has at least 20 percent fat.
Back at home, take a two-step approach to the grind. First cube the chuck and send it through the grinder using the large cutting die. Then switch to the smaller die and send it back through. This creates the right size and texture and also ensures the fat is well distributed throughout the ground beef.
If you don't own a home grinder (the only good excuse not to grind your own), then there's no shame at all in having the butcher do this for you—same result, but minus the cool factor.
Size and Formation
I've gone up and down on the size scale for burgers and have settled on 1/3-pound patties as the perfect weight for burgers on the grill—it seems to provide a crucial balance to having a burger be medium-rare at the same time a nice crust has formed on both sides of the patty over high heat, plus they're the perfect size for Martin's Potato Rolls.
To form the patty, grab 1/3 pound of ground beef—this can be measured out by scale at first, but after a few, it's fairly simple to gauge the right weight by feel—and loosely form it into disc around 3/4 of an inch high by 3 1/2 inches wide. It's important not to overwork the meat while doing this, but just enough to form the patty and have the beef hold together.
With the patty formed, place a "dimple" in the middle using your thumb. This little step is incredibly helpful in keeping the burger from shrinking up during cooking.
Give the burgers a liberal seasoning of salt and pepper on both sides and it's time to tend to the grill.
Grilling burgers to perfection can be notoriously tricky. If we're talking a charcoal fire—and that's all I ever talk—variation in heat level from one space to the next on the grill can mean two burgers side-by-side won't always cook the same at the rate. To combat this, there's some tricks and general good grilling know-how to arrive at perfectly cooked burgers.
First, always set-up with a two-zone indirect fire—that's where all the coals are piled on one side of the charcoal grate. This arrangement will give a temporary safe haven for burgers engulfed in a flare-up, and with 20 percent fat, this is a common occurrence. Also, for those burgers that have achieved the perfect sear, but not the right internal temperature, the cool side can be used to finish up the cook without fear of burning the burger, just remember to close the lid in this case to give the meat the heat it needs to finish cooking.
Second is something I borrowed from short order cooks I've watched, which is to have a little heat-resistant bowl that can cover individual burgers. I use this quick cover trick mainly in two scenarios: to speed up the internal cooking and to melt cheese.
As previously mentioned, difference in coal temperatures can greatly effect how the burger is cooking. If I notice a burger isn't quite going as fast inside as outside—told by using an instant read thermometer—I'll give that burger a cover, which concentrates the heat around it to get things cooking faster, hopefully ending with a perfect temperature and sear. The good thing about this method over covering the entire grill is it can be done on a burger-to-burger basis, which keeps the rest of the grill open to tend to the rest of the burgers that may be cooking properly.
Similarly, if a burger is cooking faster than the cheese can melt, I also employ the individual-cover method to get the cheese to its creamy, gooey state at the same time the burger is done.
Making Good Use of the Grill
One of the great things about the grill is having the space and heat to make use of beyond the meat. I like to use this opportunity to butter the inside of the buns, then grill them to get a nice buttery, crisp crunch.
While I'm at it, I also like to grill a variety of toppings. Sliced and skewered onions are a favorite, which get a nice char and become crisp-soft on the grill. Grilled green chilies are another great and add a nice heat to the finished burger. Also think grilled pineapple, red peppers, eggplant—the possibilities are limitless!
With these burger grilling basics, you should be all set to impress this Labor Day weekend. I wish you all a great holiday and happy grilling!
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