Follow these pointers for burger bliss (or find it at Saison). (Photo by Rob Hendricks)
There’s a specific heart pang felt when what was supposed to be a juicy burger turns out as a hard slab of brown (or black) nothingness. We’re not going to let that happen to you. Behold, grill master: the path to meaty perfection with tips from Saison executive chef Adam Hall, and from me, a grill-obsessed food pseudo-scientist.
1. Hit up a butcher
Sure, you can get 80/20 ground chuck from wherever. But do you really want to? Do yourself a favor and pick up some local, grass-fed, pasture-raised beef. You will never go back.
2. Get a head start
“If that cookout is Saturday, start on Friday with the burger prep,” Hall says. “I think a portioned burger needs to set overnight to hold up well … If we portion a burger and then directly cook it, it tends to break apart, which can overcook the burger due to stress fractures from the heat.”
3. Don’t salt the meat before you form the patties
This makes the difference between tender and hockey-puck tough; salt breaks down protein and causes meat to stick too desperately to itself. When you do use salt, don’t use iodized. Instead, go kosher (salt) for excellent grain size and even dispersal. “Use only salt and freshly toasted and cracked black pepper,” says Hall. “Also, season more than you’d think. Burgers love salt!”
4. Where there’s a grill, there’s a way (but there are others, too)
If you’re grilling, be sure to keep the temperature low; throwing burgers on a ripping-hot grill melts away all the tenderizing fat and produces a hard, dry, charred piece of sadness. “I think the best burgers are cooked on a flat top or a skillet,” Hall says. “The burger basically bastes in its own fat, further flavoring itself.”
5. Accessorize appropriately
Bells and whistles aren’t necessary in the flavor department, but know your textures: Choose iceberg lettuce over green leaf for crunch, pick the ripest tomato so it will meld easily into each bite, and slice onions thinly to keep them from overpowering the meat.
Breaking Down the Burger
What is a burger? In its purest form, it’s high-quality ground meat that’s formed into a patty, seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked.
A burger is not a mix of onions, peppers, eggs, breadcrumbs, mustard, other ingredients and ground meat. That is called meatloaf.
A burger should be good enough to eat plain, or with simple accoutrements, and should never require additional ingredients blended into the meat or smothered with ketchup; if you have to do that, it means your meat isn’t good enough. Get it out of here.
Here’s what it comes down to: high-quality beef. A good burger should be a blend of very flavourful cuts (chuck, sirloin, round, hanger or brisket), medium-ground and gently mixed — you want the burger to hold together, but like pie dough, if it’s overworked it becomes tough; if it’s underworked, it falls apart.
Give heed to the style of beef – this refers to grass-, pasture- or grain-fed and how it is aged. Local, farm-raised beef that has been dry-aged will always have a bolder, beefier flavor. Grass-fed or pasture-raised (mostly grass with some grain) makes for more complex tones — and don’t forget the fat content. Because fat is flavor, aim for ground beef that’s at least 20 percent fat. If you don’t want the calorie splurge, eat a smaller burger with the correct fat content. Less fat will yield a dry, mealy burger versus a nice, juicy one. –Tanya Cauthen of Belmont Butchery