DON'T LET the fast food chains hold a monopoly on America's hamburger culture. A great burger is worth slowing down for.
For celebrity chef Bobby Flay, making the perfect burger involves treating "each component with the thought and respect it deserves." Flay has a new book on the subject ("Burgers, Fries and Shakes") and recently opened several Bobby's Burger Palaces, including two in North Jersey.
He counsels making wise choices on the type of ground beef, patty-making technique, cooking method, and bread and topping selections.
Start with the beef. Most chefs agree that ground chuck, usually labeled as 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat, is the way to go. That's because fat equals flavor and moistness. Going with anything leaner will produce a dry, tasteless burger.
Flay recommends purchasing meat from shops that grind it fresh daily. Stay away from pre-packaged or preformed patties, which Flay says can be inconsistent in freshness, texture and flavor.
Bruce Aidells, author of "The Complete Meat Cookbook," agrees that ground chuck is the way to go but says that for the ultimate burger you can grind your own at home using a food processor.
He suggests purchasing boneless chuck with the outer fat (called the fat cap) attached. Chuck meat often is sold with most of the fat trimmed, so you may need to ask your butcher to do a custom cut or sell you some extra fat.
Aidells recommends making sure the beef is very cold before grinding it. He even suggests chilling the food processor blade for 30 minutes in the freezer before starting.
Cut the meat and fat into 3/4-inch chunks and grind in small batches using the pulse function. Combine the batches and gently mix. Using this cut of beef and grinding in this manner should produce a ground beef that is roughly 80 percent lean.
When it comes to shaping the burger, both Aidells and Flay call for a fairly flat, uniform patty no more than 3/4-inch thick. Try not to overwork the meat or pack the patty too tight, or your burgers may come out tough or dry.
Flay takes the extra step of making a deep thumbprint in the center of each burger. This helps keep the burger from swelling into a football-like shape while cooking.
For seasoning, Flay sprinkles the outside with kosher salt and ground black pepper, sometimes a spice rub, too. But he never mixes into the meat any spices, condiments, onions, garlic or fillers such as breadcrumbs. Do that, and you've got meatloaf, he says.
Aidells finds that gently mixing kosher salt and ground black pepper into the meat itself gives the burger a superior flavor.
A great burger can be cooked in a cast-iron skillet or under the broiler, but a grill lends an unsurpassed smoky flavor to the beef.
Real lump charcoal burns the hottest and longest, and adds the best flavor, but if you are using briquettes make sure they are a high quality and made of hardwoods.
A gas grill is more convenient, especially when cooking just a few burgers. You can boost the smokiness with a few water-soaked hardwood chips wrapped in a foil pouch (poke some holes in it) placed directly on the flames. Wait until it is smoking, then cook.
Flay says that the perfect burger should be a contrast in textures, which means a tender, juicy interior and a crusty, slightly charred exterior. This is achieved by cooking the meat directly over very hot heat, rather than the indirect method preferred for slow barbecues.
He also advises flipping the burgers only once in order to give the heat a chance to form a good crust on the outside.
And as tempting as it is, says Flay, don't press down on the burgers with your spatula; it not only squeezes out the flavorful juices, but also can cause dangerous flare-ups.
To keep burgers from sticking, oil your grill grates with oil-soaked paper towels.
A good, sturdy spatula with a thin edge is essential for getting under the burger and easily separating it from the grill grates.