There's no better way to kick off the grilling season than with burgers - easy, affordable and endlessly versatile. It's hard to grill a truly bad burger; the charbroiled taste covers a multitude of sins. But with a little know-how, you can turn a good burger into a great one. We've collected some crowd-pleasing recipes. And here's a crash course in burger-ology that will ensure grilling success.
The classic cut for hamburger is chuck, which has great depth of flavor and a good percentage of fat, anywhere from 15 to 20 percent. A leaner mix, e.g. sirloin, may become dry if cooked beyond medium-rare. Many of the recent beef-bacteria cases have centered on ground beef processed (and, in many cases, formed into burgers) at large, industrial meat plants.
It's safer to buy meat where it is ground on the premises. It's also perfectly acceptable to buy a few chuck steaks and ask your butcher to grind them for you.
It's not necessary to add any flavorings to ground beef (that's called meatloaf), but a generous sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper on both sides of the patty will work wonders.
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When forming the burgers, use a light hand; a compressed mixture results in a dense, lifeless burger. The more even the shape, the more evenly they will cook. Since burgers have a tendency to bulge upward as they cook; make a shallow depression with your thumb on each side before grilling. By the time it is cooked, the burger will be flat again.
Burgers are best grilled over high heat, otherwise you never get a good exterior char. Cooking times will vary according to the heat of your grill and the thickness of your burger, but here's a rough guide, courtesy of "Bobby Flay's Burger, Fries and Shakes" (Potter, $25.95): For a 3/4-inch-thick burger, rare will require about 6 minutes total cooking time; medium-rare, 7 minutes; medium, 8 minutes; medium-well, 9 minutes; well, 10 minutes.
Very thick burgers - say, more than 1 inch - are a challenge, since the inside may still be raw when the outside is nicely charred. If you like your burgers very rare, this isn't a problem, but if you like them more cooked, remove them from the grill when the exterior looks good, then cover them with foil. Over the next few minutes, they will continue to cook.
Once it goes onto the grill, step away from the burger. Do not attempt to move it for at least 3 minutes or else it will not develop those impressive-looking grill marks. Also it is less likely to stick if you let it develop a crust before attempting to flip it.
Do not press down on the burger. Yes, it's tedious watching burgers grill, but pressing the burgers with your spatula to relieve boredom will rob them of the very juiciness you are trying to achieve.
Rolls with hard crusts will yield a sandwich that is too hard to bite through, but almost any other bread can be used to cradle a burger, and a burger can be shaped to accommodate any bread, even if it is rectangular or wedge-shaped. Classic buns, seeded or naked, are hard to improve upon, and the yellow-hued potato bun has its fans. Challah rolls and their more upscale cousins, brioche rolls, work well with elaborately dressed burgers, such as the blue-cheese-topped one below. Small pitas are nice with Mediterranean-themed burgers, as are flatbreads, which can be split horizontally. All breads benefit from a light toasting on the grill.
If you plan to top your burger with cheese, do so about a minute before the burger is done and cover the grill so it will melt. American cheese is the classic topper, but almost any nongrating (e.g. Parmesan, pecorino) cheese will work. If you plan to grill anything after you remove the cheeseburgers, brush down the grates to clear any melted-cheese residue.
THE BIRD BURGER
If burgers are made from white-meat chicken or turkey, they are likely to be unpalatably dry. Dark meat is a better bet. To keep the burgers from sticking, brush them with oil just before grilling.
Poultry burgers must be cooked all the way through; an instant-read thermometer aimed at the burger's center should read 165 degrees. One way to achieve this is to cover the grill while the burgers cook. Or, once the burgers are nicely done on both sides, remove them from the grill and cover them with foil. Over the next few minutes, they will continue to cook.