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Hamburgers: Grinding, Seasoning, and Forming
Included in the 1936 edition of the Joy of Cooking, and basically unaltered since, hamburgers are perhaps the easiest and most-loved grilling fare in America. With the rise of boutique burger chains from coast to coast, it seems like a good time to remember that the simplest, most basic things make the biggest difference when it comes to grilling the humble hamburger. The quality and doneness of the meat, the size of the grind, the chew and toastiness-factor of the bun, all of these contribute more to the burger experience than what you serve on top of it (though I’m a sucker for blue cheese, or any other cheese, pickle, or condiment you can think of).
So, to accompany the last month of good grilling weather, we at the Joy Kitchen will be reviewing the factors that make for a good hamburger, starting with, you guessed it, the meat.
I don’t want to proselytize something most cooks will consider inconvenient and nit-picky, but I can’t help it: do not buy your meat pre-ground or pre-formed into patties. Unless you happen to be grilling the exact number of burgers a package can make, you will have to discard or store the rest. Freezing ground meat is a fairly common practice, and I have done it many times. I stopped doing it years ago for a very simple reason: when the meat thaws, it exudes a bunch of moisture and has an off texture.
Another, more important reason: cross-contamination at the supermarket. Almost every outbreak of meat contamination I can remember has been traced to ground beef. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take those odds.
My answer? Buy a large roast of chuck, sirloin, or round (in order of preference, flavor, and fat content), remove any gristle and tendons, slice it into portion sizes appropriate for one night of burgers in your house (figure on 1/3 pound per person), freeze the chunks (wrapped in wax paper) in a large plastic bag, partially thaw what you need in the refrigerator, and grind it fresh. As you can see from the image of chuck roast, finding the connective tissue is not hard, nor is separating the muscle.
Beef can be ground at home in a food processor or in a meat grinder. Obviously, the grinder is the best option, as it guarantees a uniform texture. If you don’t have a grinder, cut the partially-thawed meat into cubes and place in food processor bowl. Pulse the processor on and off to prevent the beef cubes from becoming overprocessed. Stir the meat after several pulses. Use caution, as the food processor will grind the beef quickly, making it easy to overprocess the meat, resulting in ground beef that has a pasty texture. The best results occur when the meat is ground just until the larger chunks are broken down into pieces that are no smaller than 1⁄4 inch.
For those lucky enough to own a meat grinder, the process is much easier: cut the meat into strips small enough for the grinder shoot to handle and hit the switch (or start cranking). Again, be sure the meat is only partially thawed (this helps the grinder make clean cuts, yielding a better texture). I prefer using a 3/16-inch grinding plate for a nice, chunky texture.
Once the meat is ground, handle it with care: do not knead it or try to smash it into the right shape. Put it in a bowl, season with about 1 teaspoon of salt and black pepper per patty (for a nice beefy flavor, I sometimes add dried shiitakes at this point, ground to a powder in my spice grinder). Mix the seasoning in by pulling your fingers through the mixture. To form patties, lightly form a ball with 1/3 pound of meat and, on a baking sheet, let the ball fall from about one foot above the surface. Gather up the meat, flip it over, and let it fall again. Using your thumb and index finger, shape a ridge around the edge. This will add to the integrity of the patty and make the finished burger relatively flat (the center has a tendency to bulge during cooking).
At this point you can dust the patties with even more seasoning (chili powder, for instance), but I often let the chuck speak for itself. Assuming your patty is no more than ¾ of an inch thick, cook over a medium-hot grill for five minutes per side. Since the meat isn’t as pasty as store-bough ground hamburger, you don’t want to move or flip the patties any more than necessary. After getting seared during the first five minutes, they should release easily from the grate.
Though grinding the meat yourself is much safer, please remember that the USDA recommends cooking any ground meat product to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Just keep in mind that this guideline is designed to take into account the contamination-prone nature of store-bough ground beef.
Over the next month, expect more on burgers, homemade condiments, and grilling ideas from the Joy Kitchen. Happy grilling!