Perfect for Cookouts
May is National Hamburger Month. How appropriate! After all, Memorial Day arrives near the end of May — and in the US, that’s the official kickoff to summer.
Which means cookouts. And what better cookout fare than hamburgers? Add some sides of baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad (and maybe a decadent dessert) and you’re in hog heaven!
No burger tastes better than one cooked outside on a grill. The seared flavor that only a hot flame or charcoal can deliver is irresistible.
So don’t you think it’s time to hone your hamburger cookout skills?
Recipe: Grilled Hamburgers
OK, most of us basically know how to grill hamburgers. Take ground meat (beef, usually) and shape it into patties. (Or buy patties premade at the grocery or butchers.) Heat up your grill and slap on the burgers. Cook until seared, then turn and cook until done. Simple? Yes, it is!
But as always, I’ve got a few tips. Besides, if you haven’t hauled out your grill yet this season, you have a few things to think about.
This recipe serves 4. Double or triple as you please. Prep time (if you need to form your burgers) is 5 minutes. Cooking time — depending on how well done you like your burger, and assuming your grill has been preheated — is about 10 minutes. Leftovers, should you have any, keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator if well wrapped.
For the burgers:
- 1 pound ground beef (whichever grade you prefer; I think ground chuck delivers the best flavor)
- or 4 hamburger patties (this the way I almost always go; I like quarter pounders, but get them the size you like)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 hamburger buns
(All optional; mix and match as you prefer.)
- 4 tomato slices
- 4 onion slices (red onion is mild and tasty)
- 4 lettuce leaves (green leaf lettuce is prettiest)
- 4 slices of cheese (I prefer the packaged slices of cheddar)
- jalapeño pepper slices
- dill pepper slices
- pickle relish
- mustard (ballpark is my preference for burgers, but Dijon is also tasty — or whichever flavor floats your boat)
- thousand island dressing
- If using a gas grill, preheat 10 to 15 minutes before you want to begin cooking. If using a charcoal grill, start the charcoal at least half an hour beforehand; 45 minutes is better (to allow the briquettes time to reach peak heat, then begin to die down just a bit before adding burgers). I usually heat my grill on high, then turn it down to medium (for a gas grill) when I add the burgers. For charcoal, you can spread the coals out evenly over the surface of the bottom grill if you’re using the direct-heat method. Or rake them to opposite sides of the kettle for the indirect heat method — which is my normal way of cooking burgers. See Notes for more details.
- If using ground beef, remove from package and shape into 4 patties of a bit more than ½-inch thick (or thicker if you prefer). Handle just enough to form the patties; if you overwork the ground beef, it will result in a less tender burger. Some people like to add chopped onions to their meat. (Do so if you like, although I like to add my onion as a garnish.) Others like to add bread crumbs. But I say, hey, you’re not making meatloaf (or meat balls). I’d leave out the bread crumbs.
- Prep your garnishes. Wash, dry, and prepare tomatoes, lettuce, onion slices, and any other garnish you may be using.
- When the grill is ready (see Notes; burgers are often cooked by direct heat, but consider indirect heat), salt and pepper your burgers to taste, and place on clean grate. If your grate is hot — it should be — the fat in the burger will prevent it from sticking, so no need to oil your grill. If your grill has a lid, cover. If cooking on a gas grill, turn down to medium (see Notes).
- Cook for 4 minutes. Peek at a burger to make sure it isn’t burning. If it isn’t, cook for another minute, then flip (see Notes).
- Cook until done — usually another 3 minutes or so for medium (about 145 degrees when measured with an instant read thermometer). If you want it well done (165 degrees), total cooking time will be 10 minutes or longer.
- If you want cheese on your burger, cover each burger with a slice of cheese for the last minute of cooking.
- If you like your hamburger buns toasted, put them on the grill for the last minute you cook your burgers.
- Serve. I usually let people add tomato, lettuce, etc. at the table — everyone seems to like their burgers garnished differently.
- Gas grills are convenient and easy to use. But before you use yours, make sure you have enough propane! For most of us, a tankful will last the entire season — so now may be a good time to replace your tank.
- Before you use any grill, make sure the grate is clean. I like the bronze wire grill brushes that most hardware stores sell – the bronze is soft enough that it doesn’t scratch the grill.
- Charcoal grills are less convenient, but many people like them. (Full disclosure: I have both a gas grill and a charcoal grill.) To start charcoal, it’s easiest to use one of the “chimney” starters. The Weber brand is nice, and lasts quite some time, but the cheapies work too. You can buy these at Home Depot or Lowes, among other places. Charcoal is ready to use when all the briquettes have a coating of white ash. This usually takes at least 20 minutes, but half an hour is more typical. I always fire up the briquettes at least 45 minutes before I want to cook the burgers — the fire will be a bit less hot, which I find ideal for burgers.
- Charcoal briquettes actually have no smoke flavor of their own. The special flavor we associate with grilled food is actually the intense browning that the hot flame (or hot coals) cause. This is caramelization, otherwise known as the Maillard reaction. The “smoky” flavor is actually caused when we char meat (turn it black) — and this occurs both with a charcoal grill and a gas grill.
- Charring breaks down the surface of the meat, leaving carbon. Although a little bit of this can be tasty, too much isn’t. More important, there’s evidence that that this charring can cause cancer. What’s happening is that two chemicals — polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) — are produced. These usually form when the hot fat hits the fire, flaring up and charring the underside of the meat.
- Although these chemicals are most commonly formed when grilling, you can also produce them from other cooking methods. Char your toast? Guess what — you’ve created the same chemicals. However, grilling tends to produce more of these chemicals because of the high heat and longer cooking time.
- The solution? Either use indirect heat, or lower your heat. Or both. To use indirect heat in a gas grill, just turn off one of the burners when you add the burgers — and turn the other one (or two) burners to medium. This should be enough heat. The grate will be hot enough to cause “grill marks” on one side of the burgers. Some people recommend flipping your burgers (or other meat) often to avoid charring. This is the healthiest way, but I only flip my burgers once. I think the flavor is better, and the risk of cancer is small. But let your judgment guide you.
- With charcoal, rake your coals to opposite sides of the kettle, and put your burgers in the center part of the grill.
- What if you want “wood smoke” flavor? As I said, charcoal briquettes don’t produce this. And obviously gas doesn’t. How to create it? Get some aromatic woods chips (I like hickory; others favor mesquite, cherry, whatever), and soak them in water for about half an hour. When you begin grilling your burgers, drain the chips and place on top of your hot coals, if using charcoal. With a gas grill (you can also do this with charcoal), simply put the drained chips in a tray that you make out of aluminum foil, and place on the grate. As the chips heat, they’ll produce smoke.
- Bad news: It takes time for the wood smoke flavor to penetrate the meat — at least half an hour. You’ll get little, if any, smoke penetration in the short time it takes to cook burgers. So I never bother with this when I have burgers on the grill.
- With my grill at medium heat, I find that the first side of my burger usually cooks in 5 minutes (sometimes 4, sometimes 6). I peek at it after 4 minutes, as discussed in Step 5, to see how it’s coming along. To do this, just slide a spatula under the burger and lift it an inch or two to see how it’s browning. If the burger doesn’t release from the grill, it isn’t cooked enough. Don’t force it — let it cook longer until you can easily slide the spatula under the hamburger patty.
- For safety reasons, you should consider cooking your burger until it’s well done (to kill E. coli). For flavor reasons, I prefer mine medium.
- I’m lazy, so I like to buy my burgers pre-formed. Sometimes the grocery burgers are huge, though — closer to half a pound than a quarter pound. Although that’s fun, it’s really too much meat at one sitting. Not that I’m complaining, but it’s very filling.
- Beef is traditional for burgers. As noted above, I like chuck for its flavor (which comes from fat). If you want a leaner burger, every market sells these.
- You can also make burgers from pork, chicken, buffalo — you name it. There are vegan and salmon burgers on the market for those that don’t eat meat.
- Packaged slices of cheese are convenient and also often less expensive than bulk cheese. Plus they’re the perfect thickness for a burger.
- Some people prefer grilled onions (rather than raw) on their burgers. Simply sauté onions in some olive oil until they turn brown. They’ll begin browning in 8 to 10 minutes, but it takes a good 20 or 30 minutes before they’re deep brown. And longer than that before they’re mahogany. To speed the process, add some sugar to the pan with the onions. The sugar sticks to the onions and caramelizes, turning brown.
We’ve Got Your Memorial Day Cookout Covered
Burgers may be the star, but it’s not a cookout without a host of sides. French Fries and burgers are made for each other, and that's my normal go-to combo when I'm having a burger. But come cookout time, I often look for something else.
Potato salad is a classic, and in the past I’ve written about 3 popular versions: French Potato Salad; American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad; and German Potato Salad with Bacon. For cooking the potatoes, I have some nifty tips in my Potato Salad Basics post.
Another classic side dish is Baked Beans, and later this week we’ll discuss a quick version of them. Made with canned baked beans and bacon (among other things), this recipe is so good it’ll have you coming back for seconds (or thirds).
And what’s a cookout without coleslaw? Next week we’ll cover the creamy variety, which is what most people think of when they hear “slaw.”
You’ll need something to wash all this down, of course. Nothing beats a burger and a beer, but if you prefer another beverage, Pimm’s Cup is the way to go. A Pimm’s Cup has a bit less alcohol than a brewski or a glass of wine, and it’s extremely refreshing — great for when you want more than one. It’s the best hot weather drink I know.
But what about dessert? When I was growing up, the traditional Memorial Day (and July 4th) cookout dessert for my family was “Black Cows” – also known as Root Beer Floats. Haven’t had one in a while? Me neither! I’m looking forward to writing that post.
So this week and next Kitchen Riffs will be covering all the cookout basics you’ll need to celebrate Memorial Day in style. Prepare your appetites.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Baked Beans with Bacon
French Potato Salad
American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad
German Potato Salad with Bacon
Potato Salad Basics
Barbecued Pork Steaks
Pineapple, Coconut, and Carrot Salad
Gin and Tonic Cocktail