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updated: 5/11/2012 8:42 AM

Simple tips for great grilled burgers

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  • The hamburger from Rockit Burger Bar starts simply with Kobe beef. Chef Amanda Downing says fatty beef and a sprinkle of salt is all you need to create tasty patties.

       The hamburger from Rockit Burger Bar starts simply with Kobe beef. Chef Amanda Downing says fatty beef and a sprinkle of salt is all you need to create tasty patties.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • The hamburger from Rockit Burger Bar starts simply with Kobe beef. Chef Amanda Downing says fatty beef and a sprinkle of salt is all you need to create tasty patties.

       The hamburger from Rockit Burger Bar starts simply with Kobe beef. Chef Amanda Downing says fatty beef and a sprinkle of salt is all you need to create tasty patties.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Whether it's at a family reunion, company picnic or in your own backyard, chances are good you'll eat a grilled burger this summer.

According to the Weber GrillWatch, a survey of outdoor cooking habits the Palatine-based company has conducted for the past 23 years, 73 percent of Americans say they grill hamburgers most often. (Chicken comes in a distant second with 41 percent; steaks rank third with 40 percent.)

But will that burger be a charred nugget of its former self or a sandwich to remember? With some expert tips in your apron pocket you and your guests will be recalling your juicy, well-seared patties for summers to come.

"I like to keep it simple," says Amanda Downing, an Elgin native who runs the kitchen at Rockit Burger Bar. "I don't mix anything in (the meat). I want to bring out the natural flavor of the meat."

At the Wrigleyville restaurant and its sister eatery on Hubbard Street in Chicago, Downing starts with premium Kobe beef, though your favorite beef -- be it organic, grass-fed or traditionally raised -- can yield similar results.

"You want a higher fat content, because you want to keep it juicy, at least 20 percent (fat)," she says.

Others prefer to start with leaner beef, about 90 percent, and inject moisture and flavor with mix-ins like grated onion, chopped green chilies or diced tomatoes, as chef George Duran does in his Zesty Salsa Burgers.

While a big thick patty may look appealing on the plate, it's best to think wide and thin. Start with 8 ounces of meat and remember the patty will shrink in diameter.

"You don't want it to be too thick -- no more than -inch thick," Downing advises. "You don't want it to get charred on the outside and not done on the inside."

Another trick to ensure even cooking is to use your thumb to put a shallow indentation in the center of the burger. Or, use a small plastic deli container, the style with the concave bottom, to mold your patties into the perfect shape without a lot of handling.

Once formed, Downing refrigerates the patties to set the shape. Get the burgers out of the fridge about the time you fire up the charcoal grill (Downing's preferred method), or about 30 minutes before you plan to cook them. If you put cold meat on hot grill grates the meat will seize up and get tough.

Having a well-oiled grill -- pour cooking oil on a folded paper towel and using tongs wipe it, working toward you, across the grates -- and well-oiled meat will ensure the burger will not stick to the grill and fall apart.

"Sear the meat over direct heat (above glowing coals), then move to indirect heat," Downing says. "You want to give it a couple of minutes, two to four, on the first side. Don't pull it up too soon or it will fall apart."

She said the most accurate way to ensure doneness is with an instant-read thermometer. For a medium-cooked burger, that's 140 degrees; cook to 160 degrees and the burger will be well-done.

As for toppings, consider the burger a blank canvas. Try Downing's combo of date-spread, fried shallots and Brie or Duran's zesty salsa.

For a summer cookout, make an array of condiments available. Don't stop at ketchup and lettuce. Think fig jam, mango chutney, tarragon mustard, bacon bits and manchego cheese, and let guests create their own burger masterpieces.

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