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In & Out of the Kitchen: Spices provide extra pow when throwing burgers on the grill

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
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Jeff Wilkin’s method for large, plump hamburgers includes steak and barbecue sauce mixed with the meat — and liberal splashes of marinade during the cooking process. (photo: Jeff Wilkin/Gazette Reporter)
Jeff Wilkin’s method for large, plump hamburgers includes steak and barbecue sauce mixed with the meat — and liberal splashes of marinade during the cooking process. (photo: Jeff Wilkin/Gazette Reporter)

Seems all bachelors — and bachelorettes — have culinary specialties.

Toasted cheese sandwiches, potato salad and deviled eggs might do for the former group. Barbecued chicken, chocolate chip cookies and chef salads may be offered by the latter.

I mastered the salad and deviling arts long ago. But I am especially proficient with spicy hamburgers for the outdoor grill. Now that spring has arrived and summer is approaching, there is no better time to sizzle ground beef over charcoal.

Let’s grill, not measure

I’ve put together a recipe that is both simple and satisfying. The best part is the absence of most measured ingredients. My cheeseburgers are always an experiment in mix-and-match spices and condiments.

The first thing to do is buy a good grade beef. Now, some chefs I’ve met over the years tell me that “fat is flavor,” and that might persuade you to buy a mix of 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat. But not me. I generally buy the 93 percent lean, 7 percent fat mix. Hamburgers topped with cheese will never be recommended by the American Heart Association, and I try to improve the odds for good health wherever I can. Even if it’s just a little bit.

All you really need is a big bowl; I like glass or porcelain over plastic. Two pounds of beef go into the bowl and I use two metal spatulas to break up the block. Spoons are OK, too.

Once the beef is crumbled, I throw in an assortment of spices. Sometimes it’s an Italian spice blend, other nights I’m more in the mood for Cajun blends. Or steak seasonings. Or Chicago-style rubs. It really doesn’t matter what name is on the bottle; as long as onion, bell pepper, garlic, parsley, paprika, basil, brown sugar and maybe a little dried tomato have been pulverized into powder inside.

I put two or three liberal shakes into the beef. After each shake, I toss the beef around the bowl with my spatulas, just to make sure the spices take their rightful spots in the mix. I’ve got an electric mixer, but prefer the old-fashioned way. It’s really quicker in the long run, because clean-up is easier.

Secret weapons

Once the beef is spiced up, I bring out my secret weapons — spicy brown mustard, steak sauce and barbecue sauce. I probably add about a quarter cup of mustard, but as I said, I never measure. I just point and squeeze for 10 or 15 seconds and then give the beef another mix. You’ll taste the mustard a little in the finished product, and I’ve found the yellow addition works terrifically as a binder.

I’m a little more careful with the steak sauce and barbecue sauces. While mustard is the liberal candidate in my recipe, the sauces take a much more conservative stance. I’ve learned from experience that too much moisture means soupy hamburgers, and soupy hamburgers often fall apart over the fire.

Occasionally, I’ll grate a little fresh onion into the mix. But I’m careful — again, I’m adding extra moisture.

Once the beef is mixed, it’s time to make patties. I use aluminum foil, folding a large sheet in half and folding that section in half once again. A ball of beef goes onto the foil, and hands behind the foil form a thick hamburger. The method is just more sanitary; I hate finger and palm prints on my dinner.

Depending on how thick you like your hamburgers, you’ll get four or six per batch. I like mine thick and big — someday, I’ll be able to laugh all the way to the emergency room.

Charcoal preferred

Cooking is pretty simple. I like to use charcoal when I have the time; I cover my grill, and I think the smoky fire adds flavor. There’s another reason I go with charcoal; I like to pour on a marinade mix while the hamburgers are cooking. It’s inexpensive and homemade. I take half a bottle of barbecue sauce, fill it with beer, give it a shake and I’ve got a frothy, feisty marinade.

Now if I’m cooking with my gas grill, the marinade might slide off onto the flame jets and gum them up. It’s a lousy clean-up job. But if it leaks onto the charcoal, no big deal. Might even add to the smoke. And what’s left of the charcoal is just going into a lawn clippings bag the next day, so there’s no mess, no problem. Splash on that marinade — most of it will cook right into the meat.

And man, I love that charcoal aroma. This year, I’ve saved some large pieces of apple wood from last winter’s firewood supply. I’m going to chop them into smaller pieces, and make some apple wood-smoked hamburgers and barbecued chicken this summer.

Check for doneness

I know some chefs warn you not to cut into the meat to check if your burger is rare, medium or well done. Yeah, I know you lose some juices, but I’d rather lose a little juice than bring a rare hamburger into the house. And by the way, these burgers cook big. It’s OK to cut them in half, right through the middle, for smaller servings.

For cheese, I’m partial to Swiss or port wine cheddar. It goes on at the end, and two minutes of melting does the job.

Other optional tops include tomato, lettuce or hummus. And a cheeseburger isn’t really a cheeseburger until it gets a splash of ketchup.

“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. For more food stories, check out the Food Forum blog.

 
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