Slow-Grilled Burgers with Sharp Cheddar, Spicy Pickles, and Charred Balsamic Onions

Tony writes: I’ve always loved the last meal debate (ie: what would you order/make for one final feast?). Kinda dark, but entertaining. As we start another summer of grilling, I couldn’t help but direct the question towards burgers (ie: “Sucks and all that this is going to be the last time you eat, but how would like your burger?”). Thinking in these terms helps sharpen the ol’ focus. I cook burgers every day, so I thought a little extra before deciding how I would direct each step in the process. Here it is, my greatest (last) burger:

I. Overview

1. Buy chuck:  Whether you’re grinding or buying pre-ground, look for cuts from the chuck (ie: the shoulder). It’s just the most flavorful part of the animal; tough, well exercised muscles that grind nicely. Round is too lean (and can taste livery). Sirloin sounds good, but has muted flavor. Fatty cuts like brisket or short rib are in vogue, but can be problematic on the grill (flare-ups). If you’re buying pre-ground, go with 85% lean; enough fat to keep the burgers juicy, not so much that you battle leaping flames.

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2. Grind (if you can): Part of this is food safety: for all the ghastly ground beef recalls, grinding whole cuts simply avoids this fate. But grinding your own is as much about flavor and freshness. The process is easy, even if you don’t have a grinder or grinder attachment. A food processor can also do the job (preferably one with a sharp blade – look for replacement blades at Amazon if yours is aging). Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes and stick in the freezer for 10 minutes to firm up (so it grinds nicely). If you’re using a grinder or attachment, just pass it through. I prefer one grind so the meat maintains a steak-y quality. If you’re using a food processor, you’ll need a bit more finesse. Add the chilled beef cubes in batches so they fill no more than 1/4 of the work bowl and pulse the beef until it’s coarsely chopped; it should take 10 to 15 pulses to get the meat about the size of little peas. Try packing the “ground” meat – with light force, it should form a patty; or else keep pulsing till it’s pack-able.

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3. Handle with care: It may seem trivial, but how you form the patties is important. A good burger should have a loose texture. Fat helps – it melts during cooking, like an internal basting brush. But packing the burgers gently ultimately ensures the right texture. To this end, use just enough force to press the meat into a patty and little more. Moisten your hands with a little olive oil, grab a ball (if you’re the exacting type, shoot for 5 oz – 6 oz.), and pack into a patty between 1/4- and 1/2-inch thick. I prefer relatively thin patties; their flat shape increases the surface area so the burgers cook more quickly and evenly and pick up more grilled flavor. Use the heels of your hands to gently flatten the burgers, and your fingers to round the edges.

4. Home-make the toppings: There’s almost nothing in a jar or bottle that you can’t best on your own (with the exception of Heinz 57 which Malcolm Gladwell accurately explains is almost impossible to match). My favorite burger toppings are all simple, but intensely flavored, the kinds of things you can throw together relatively quickly and then store in the fridge until you’re ready to grill. Below are two of my favorites.

5. Cook gently (“slow-grill”): The most common mistake that folks make with burgers is building too hot a fire. You want to cook burgers gently, so they get fine grill marks, but coast to a light pink doneness (or a juicy well done if you’re not sure who actually did the grinding and don’t want to tempt fate). A medium fire (with a surface temp of about 400F) is perfect: you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for about 4 to 5 seconds.

II. The Recipe (Serves 4)

Spicy Pickle Chips: Toss 1 English cucumber (about 1 lb, thinly sliced) with 1 tsp. kosher salt and 2 tsp. Sriracha and let sit for 10 minutes at room temperature, tossing occasionally. Toss the cucumber with 2 Tbs. white wine vinegar and let sit another 5 minutes before serving; or cover and hold in the refrigerator, mixing occasionally, for up to 3 days.

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Charred Balsamic Red Onions: Red onion’s high sugar content causes them to burn before they grill through. So grill them until they get color and then slowly saute with a splash of balsamic and some water until tender. To do this: toss 1 large red onion (about 1 lb., cut in 1/2-inch disks; skewer for easy flips if you like) with 1 Tbs. olive oil and 1/2 tsp. kosher salt. Grill over a medium fire until they get good grill marks on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to a small saute pan and set over medium heat (or right on the grill). Once the onions start sizzling, add 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar and 1/4 cup water and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions become tender and soft, about 10 minutes; add more water as needed if the onions start to stick or become dry. Serve immediately or let cool to room temp and refrigerate for up to 5 days before serving.

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– Slow-Grilled Burgers: Light up a medium fire. Form 1 1/2 lb ground beef into patties about 1/2-inch thick and 4 1/2 inches wide, gently pressing and spreading the beef while rotating it in your hands. Sprinkle each burger with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt each on both sides. Clean the grill grates well with a wire brush. Using an old dish towel, lightly oil the grates (this will prevent sticking and encourage grill marks). Cook the burgers, undisturbed, for about 3 minutes, until their sides start to darken and some juices rise to the top. Flip the burgers, top with thick slices of sharp cheddar cheese (about 5 oz. total), and cook about 3 minutes until the burgers become firm to the touch and the cheese melts. To check doneness, pull one of the thicker burgers to a cooler side of the grill and make a slit in the center; it should be light pink for medium. Sprinkle with a little salt, set on hamburger buns and serve immediately with the pickles and grilled onions.

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