Order a hamburger at a restaurant? Not me. They never measure up to my expectations. Yes, I will sometimes eat them when served at a picnic, but my preference is grilling them at home, and that’s a rare treat. This way I know exactly what they’re made of, how they’re made, and can let the juices dribble down my chin without worrying who’s watching, or how many napkins I use.
Let’s face it, it’s all about the meat. I’ve heard, read, saw and tasted so many different approaches from the pros, and non-pros alike. But in the end, you are the one who is going to eat it and therefore it should appeal to your tastebuds. Well, as you certainly know by now, Russ and I like things spicy, and that includes our grilled burgers.
As mentioned, there are a lot of ways to make a good hamburger patty. They can be made out of ground beef, pork, lamb, sausage, turkey, or more. They can be stuffed full of garlic, cheese, spices, peppers, or virtually anything small enough to fit inside. But this blog centers on the plain, unstuffed beef burger. Simpler is usually better in our humble opinion, and it all starts with making the perfect patty.
Fresh ground meat creates a more tender burger because it was never compacted tightly together, so let’s start with the packaging. To make exceptionally tender burgers you need to grind your own meat or buy it from your grocery store freshly ground. If your hamburger was stuffed into meat tubes it was already compacted too much and will never make a great burger. You want to still be able to see the individual strands of meat still loosely intact after coming out of the grinder.
Next, you want to make sure it is the right cut which is fresh ground chuck. Ground chuck will typically have the perfect ratio of fat to meat, which is 80/20. Now 90/10 may sound like a good idea because it is healthier, but it will be too dry to make a good burger, so I often compromise and use 85% lean, as we did here. Burgers need some fat to be juicy. Adversely, you also don’t want anything fattier than 80/20, if there is too much fat the burger will shrink excessively during cooking and you will end up with hockey pucks in a pool of grease.
Measure each portion to weigh approximately the same size—we prefer an 8-ounce patty. Then simply, but not too firmly, press down to form the 3/4″ high round patties leaving the edges slightly loose so you can still identify the strands of meat made from the meat grinder. This is a sign that you succeeded in not overworking the meat. The strands will separate more easily from each other when you take a bite than if you squished and squeezed the meat together. This is what makes your burger so tender.
Many aficionados swear by the act of slightly depressing the center of the patty to push a little extra meat towards the edges to produce an even patty without a bulging middle. Sometimes I do this, most often I don’t, and we rarely end up with protruding centers once cooked.
Note, there are no bulging middles to these babies.
Oh, and when it’s time to grill, for Pete’s sake don’t press the patty while cooking, just don’t do it! You are not making it cook faster, you are squeezing all the life and juice out of it, guaranteeing you will end up with a dry burger. Only flip it once which allows the burger time to build up a charred crust which adds flavor, and it is easier to time doneness—which depending on your thickness, will be about 8 to 10 minutes total for a medium finish with a slightly pink interior.
The burger will be charred on the outside, but still juicy and moist on the inside if you don’t squish the juices out.
The bun you choose makes a BIG difference in how great you burger tastes. You simply want a bun that feels light and squishy. A heavy, dense bun will steal the show from the tender burger patty. One of our preferences is soft, 100% whole wheat buns which not only taste good, they add 5 grams of fiber!
To toast or not to toast? That is the question. Russ always toasts his buns saying the heat lightens up the texture allowing the texture of the tender patty to be the star of the show and the bun doesn’t get as soggy from the juices. Me? I like mine untoasted which just seems to work better for my tastebuds…
You can top your burger with whatever you want. But we’re talking a spicy burger, so that’s where we’re going here. First, we season the patties with a spicy rub, in this case it’s what we also use on Russ’ famous Baby Back Ribs. We got the rub recipe from our Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly, consisting of a lively mix of herbs and spices including paprika, chile powder, cayenne pepper, garlic powder and cumin among others.
About one minute before the burgers are ready, lay a slice or two of cheese—in this case Jalapeño Jack—on top of each burger, close the lid, and let the cheese melt, then remove the patties from the grill. Note: the chef may request a slice of said cheese to munch on while he/she mans the grill… just sayin’…
Once those burgers are done, spread some Dijon mustard and ketchup (or Sriracha if you dare) on the bottom half of your toasted (or not) bun, position the patty, then top with a large slice of heirloom tomato, sliced red onion and hot pepper rings. (Your mouth should be watering right about now.)
The final touch is the lettuce. The best lettuce in our opinion is either red/green leaf or Bibb lettuce which all have better flavor, better texture, and a more pleasing appearance than romaine or ice burg varieties. Crown with the top bun and your ready to chow down. Yes, it’ll probably be too tall to get your mouth over the entire stack of lusciousness, but OMG the mess is worth it, and you have lots of napkins handy, right?
All of the photos show the fixings for 3 burgers, but the recipe below is for four servings.
Spicy Grilled Cheeseburgers
- 2 lbs. 80-85% lean loose ground chuck, formed into 4, 3/4″-high patties (they should measure just slightly larger in diameter than your buns)
- Spicy dry rub mix*
- 4-8 Jalapeño Jack cheese slices
- 1 very large heirloom tomato, cored and cut into 4 thick slices across the equator
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup hot pepper rings, moisture removed
- 8 large leaves from Bibb, red or green leaf lettuce, rinsed and dried
- Dijon mustard
- Ketchup or Sriracha
- 4 100% whole wheat hamburger buns, or bun of your choice
- Heat one side of grill to very hot.
- Form four 8-ounce patties from the ground chuck being careful not to smush together to tightly and leaving the edges a little rough. Sprinkle both sides of each patty with your spice rub.
- Slice the onion and tomato, prep the hot pepper rings and lettuce leaves and place all on a platter for the table.
- Very important: oil the grates of the grill with a vegetable oil. Place the patties on the hot, oiled grates and leave them alone for 5-6 minutes. We usually oil the grates again right next to the burgers, and then flip them onto the newly oiled area for another 3-4 minutes. (It’s a real good idea to use grilling gloves when oiling the grates so as not to burn yourself.)
- If you are toasting buns, place them on the direct heat for just a minute and then move them to the side or onto the higher rack.
- Place the cheese slice(s) on each patty in the final minute of cooking and close the lid so the cheese melts.
- Spread the mustard and ketchup on the bottom half of each bun, top with cooked cheeseburger, then add onion, hot pepper rings, tomato slice and lettuce leaf followed by the top half of the bun. Dig in!
*Spice rub recipe available from The Complete Meat Cookbook by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly.