Friday, August 1, 2008

Here’s the beef

Food for Thought


There's something about summer that inevitably calls for a backyard barbecue with good old-fashioned hamburgers as the stars of the show. Why not? They're easy, they're tasty and they won't break the bank account.

But, before we go ahead and serve up one more hasty version of this classic American meal, perhaps we should first ask ourselves one simple question: "Is my burger as good as it can be?"

If your answer is, "Yes, certainly," repeat the question and be honest the second time around. If your answer is, "No, maybe not," then read on, for even the most experienced backyard grill-masters are capable of occasionally churning out a charred hockey puck instead of a juicy, mouth-watering sandwich.

If you were brave enough to answer "no," perhaps you might start off on a new foot by rethinking what the hamburger really is, other than a portion of ground beef we slap over some heat until it's cooked to our liking. It may sound silly—to ponder the essence of cooked ground beef—but consider this: If burgers are so simple, so basic, why is it that so many of them are average renditions at best? And how come they seem to taste so much better here in the American West than in just about any other place on Earth?

In going through this brief but important process every few years, I always go back to 1977, when my family moved overseas to the suburbs of Paris. There, in the cradle of haute cuisine, nowhere could we find a really good hamburger. (At the time, American-style burgers were trapped in a gripping stereotype: They could be found at McDonald's.) We tried at restaurants and brasseries, and we tried at home, but somehow the essence just wasn't there. The burgers lacked flavor, were a little too firm and dry, and locals looked at you with scorn if you put tomato sauce (a.k.a. ketchup) on a piece of good meat.

Finally, we went to our local butcher and asked him what we could do to add some flavor and juice to our burgers. He looked at us, turned to glance at the cuts of 99 percent lean beef he was preparing to put in the meat grinder, and said, "I know. We could add some fat!"

Fat. Why, yes. It was brilliant.

So, he added some fat trimmings, ran the freshly cut meat through the grinder and sent us home. We were thrilled, eager with anticipation.

Then, the inevitable letdown came: The burgers were better than before, but just didn't taste like they did back in the States.

Perplexed, we continued our quest for some three years, and despite a few modest successes, we were never quite satisfied. Burgers and France just didn't seem to mix.

Then, a few weeks ago, I read in the news that burgers have become all the rage in certain circles of French cuisine—that the Gauls have adopted the concept hook, line and sinker—and it hit me. "Of course the French can do burgers," I thought. They just had to stop treating them as second-class food and start putting some tried-and-true knowledge behind their preparation.

So, if burgers really aren't as simple as they seem, what is it that separates the great burger from the merely good one?

There is, I would argue, no single, perfect way to prepare a hamburger. In the end, my perfect plate might be topped with some creamy blue cheese and Bibb lettuce, while yours might have bacon and a slice of heirloom tomato. Nonetheless, there are some guidelines that will help any aspiring chef get the centerpiece of the dish, the meat, prepared to perfection.

Here are a few tips to get started:

· Meat that is 15 percent to 20 percent fat cooks the best and tastes the best, but if your diet won't allow it, use leaner beef. Avoid ground beef from the cheapest cuts of meat.

· Don't be afraid to add seasonings to the meat. Garlic, minced onion, herbs or spices add flavor, and a touch of mayonnaise or an egg can add essential moisture.

· When forming patties or adding herbs or spices, don't overwork the meat. Be gentle and don't pack it tightly together. Try adding a touch of olive oil to your hands before you shape the patties.

· Patties can range from one-half-an-inch to 1-inch thick. However, remember that the thinner patty will cook more evenly but can quickly become overdone, while the thicker patty will not be cooked as evenly.

· Turn the patties several times while they're on the grill—they will develop a nice, brown crust. Try searing the meat before putting it on the grill—it can help retain the juices.

· Use medium-high heat. High heat will bring uneven cooking or overdone meat.

· Don't poke the burgers with a fork or press on them with a spatula—either can promote the loss of juices.

· Think outside the bun: Try matching your burger with toasted French bread or an English muffin. Or try some new, more interesting additions to the meat, instead of the old standards: Bibb lettuce or mixed greens (instead of iceberg lettuce), caramelized onions (instead of sliced red onion), julienned carrot or red bell pepper, grilled chiles or grilled green onions, or sautéed mushrooms.

· Take advantage of the wide variety of fine mustards on the market—I like Stonewall Kitchen's Bourbon Molasses Mustard.

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