Ian Russo figures he's made more than 100,000 burgers since he opened Dirty Burger in Plainview in 2013. The chef's signature there is the spicy-sweet seasoning that he uses to "dirty" burgers, fries, wings and even shakes.
But Russo is also a classically trained chef with decades of fine-dining experience, and he knows that seasoning is only the icing on a burger that must be well sourced, well formed and well cooked to succeed.
Who better than the Dirty Chef to teach a master class to kick off the grilling season? Here are his top tips.
Get the right beef and use a mold to shape
Russo uses a blend of chuck meat that is 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. "It's the fat in the beef that dissolves as it cooks, keeping the burger juicy and moist," he said. "You could use a leaner blend, but it may turn out dry -- especially if you overcook it." As for chuck meat, "It's not too expensive and it's very flavorful. I've tried every cut, and every combination of cuts, but chuck is the best."
After getting the right meat, Russo is bullish on using a mold: If you want an evenly cooked burger that does not bulge in the middle, do not form it by hand; use a shallow mold. You needn't go out and buy a ring mold; Russo uses the lid of an industrial-sized jar of mustard, and your own pantry no doubt contains a wide-mouthed jar whose shallow lid measures around 4 inches across. The lids for those pint- or quart-size plastic deli containers will also work well. Line the mold with plastic wrap and load in the meat, evening out the top to be perfectly flat, and removing excess meat at the edges.
Let the bun guide your size
The perfect burger should be fractionally bigger than the bun it sits on. Since the burger will shrink as it cooks, form the patty accordingly. A raw 5-inch patty will cook up to a 4 1/2-inch burger. No matter the diameter, Russo's burgers are no thinner than 1/2 inch, no thicker than 3/4 inch. "Too thin and they cook too fast, too thick and the outside burns before the inside is cooked."
'Snow' the patties with kosher salt
Russo believes that the proper deployment of salt is the flavor key to any dish -- and any burger. "Without salt, you're eating in black and white," he said. "With salt, you're eating in color." He has developed a technique called "snowing" to salt evenly but sparingly: Place the patties on a rack set inside a half sheet pan (a shallow-sided 13-by-18-inch baking sheet), making sure there's plenty of room between them. Grab a big pinch of kosher salt (with a dry hand) and raise your hand about 18 inches above the patty. Gently waving your hand to and fro, release the salt onto the burger in an even shower. Then flip the burger over and "snow" the other side. "Using a rack is important here," he says. "If you use a plate, the salt will clump on the sides of the burgers."
Grill hot and don't crowd
Russo grills burgers at a temperature of 525 to 575 degrees. Once the grill (gas or charcoal) reaches temperature, he keeps it covered for 10 minutes with the top down. When it's time to cook, he said, "don't crowd the surface of the grill. There should be a couple of inches between the burgers or else they will steam."
Use the right spatula
For rotating and flipping burgers, Russo likes a heavy, offset spatula that is wide enough to accommodate the burger and whose edge is sharp enough to easily lift it from the grill. He prefers the control that a short-handled spatula offers: "It's like choking up on the bat," he said.
Flip and rotate
After an initial sear, Russo keeps his burgers moving on the grill. "If you let them sit in the same place, those nice grill marks burn and turn bitter." Once he places a patty on the grill, he waits for a minute or two until he sees the bottom beginning to brown. Then he smartly shoves the spatula under the patty, lifts it and rotates it 90 degrees. After another 30 to 45 seconds, he flips the burger over, waits another 60 to 90 seconds, then rotates it 90 degrees. Then he flips it back onto the first side. He'll keep up this flip, rotate, flip, rotate routine for four to five minutes total. When the burger is medium-rare, it will have shrunk a bit and feel firmer to the touch. "Don't be afraid to take a knife and look inside," he said. Or use an instant-read thermometer. A medium-rare burger will register 120 to 125 degrees.
Place cooked burgers on a rack and cheese generously
Unless you're putting burgers directly into buns and into the hands of your guests, when the burgers are done, place them on a rack set into a half sheet pan. "If you put them right on a plate or platter," he said, "they will steam and keep cooking and a lot of the juice will leak out." (If you use the same rack and pan as you did while applying the salt, make sure you clean and dry it between uses; you don't want raw burger meat touching your cooked burgers.)
After that, it's time for toppings and whether he's using American, Swiss or Cheddar, Russo uses two slices of cheese. "That much cheese together with the hot meat and the bread makes the whole thing more exciting," he said. He lays the cheese about a minute before the burgers are done and then covers the grill to facilitate melting.
Let guests fix their own burgers
For entertaining, Russo favors a burger-fixings bar that allows guests to garnish to their hearts' delight. Raw fixings include thinly sliced tomatoes and onions, shredded lettuce and baby arugula. Then he'll add jarred cherry peppers, pickle slices, bacon bits, blue cheese, guacamole, caramelized onions and canned chipotles in adobo. Along with mustard and ketchup, he always serves this roasted-garlic burger sauce.
ROASTED GARLIC BURGER SAUCE
Chef Ian Russo believes this versatile sauce -- essentially a roast-garlic aioli -- complements the flavor of a burger better than either ketchup or mustard.
8 ounces garlic cloves, 12 to 15 cloves (see note)
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
3 cups mayonnaise
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place garlic cloves on a square of aluminum foil and toss with a few drops of olive oil. Seal foil and bake until garlic is soft, sweet and mellow, about 1 hour.
2. Smash roasted garlic with a fork and add remaining ingredients. Blend until smooth. Makes about 3 cups.
Note: If you don't want to roast your own, you can also use 5 ounces of prepared roasted garlic.