Food for Thought
Ground and Browned
Burgers from scratch
Now seems like a good time to point out how easy it is to grind your own burger in the food processor. Grill season is starting, pink slime is everywhere and, for once, wouldn't it be nice to have a burger that isn't basically mystery meat? While most households don't have meat grinders, your old La Machine or Cuisinart can get it done like a champ.
The process is about as simple as making a smoothie. Cut a burger's worth of meat—beef, venison, lamb, turkey, emu or any other dark meat—into 1-inch cubes. Put the cubes in the food processor, along with spices and fat (if necessary). Push the "on" button. Run the blades until the ground meat gathers into a ball and bounces around the chamber like a Mexican jumping bean on Red Bull. It will take between 10 seconds and a couple of minutes, depending on the meat, for this to happen.
Food processors aren't as good at cutting through sinew and connective tissue the way a real meat grinder can, so be wary of tougher cuts like stew chunks, shoulder and flank, and forget about the likes of neck and shank.
Do yourself a favor and include chopped garlic, salt and pepper in your home-burger. If you're using lean meat, consider adding some kind of fat, like olive oil or bacon. Chopped onion is good, too. Spice powders can be mixed and matched, but be careful: Not all combinations are going to taste good.
I've applied several sausage recipes to my home-burgers with mixed results. My interpretation of bratwurst burger, alas, sounds more epic than I found it to be—though in fairness, I didn't bathe my burger brats in Old Milwaukee.
My favorite burger seasonings are a clove of chopped garlic and a pinch each of salt, black pepper, fennel seed, celery seed and nutmeg per patty. I like adding this modified Italian sausage mix to deer meat and chopped pieces of top-shelf bacon or side pork. Bacon integrates better with other meat if you chop and add it while still frozen.
T-bone burger is either a waste of a great steak or the greatest burger you ever ate, depending on who's cooking.
Speaking of cold meat, if you're in the market for grass-fed beef or buffalo right now, frozen is a much better option, provided it's been packaged correctly. Frozen is typically cheaper than fresh, and this time of year you don't want to eat fresh grass-fed beef anyway. The animals are skinny in winter, thanks to a diet of dried hay and whatever they can paw at through the snow. This is OK in the natural order of things—that's just life on the high desert. But economically, cattle just aren't worth slaughtering this time of year unless they're fat on grain. On the other hand, no beef is better than from a cow that was finished on green grass and dandelions. That's what you can get, even in winter, with frozen grass-fed. And it's a myth that fresh meat is intrinsically superior than properly frozen meat.
Cheap cuts of steak, like flat iron or round, are good choices for home-burgers. Sirloin burgers are popular in many restaurants. T-bone burger is either a waste of a great steak or the greatest burger you ever ate, depending on who's cooking.
I make my patties on the thick side. Cooking meat over wood coals is ideal. But it's almost as good to simply broil the burgers at 500° in a cast-iron skillet, which holds heat and cooks the patty on both sides, so no flipping is necessary. After five to 10 minutes, a thick patty will begin contracting into a more rounded shape. Then it's ready.
You could use a meat thermometer to check if it's done, but I just break the burger in half and look. If it's raw in the middle I put the two pieces back to cook more. It's going to be further deconstructed anyway, because when I eat a burger, I tear it apart as I go, adorning the bite-sized pieces with any number of condiments. These include homemade ketchup, Vegenaise, chopped onions, chopped roasted green chile, avocado, tomato slices, bacon, sautéed mushrooms, roasted garlic, and pickled peppers and cucumbers, to name a few.
I like to slather my broken chunks of burger with ketchup and mayo, sprinkle them with chopped onions, and attach or balance whatever else I can to them. I then follow these burger bites with nibbles of other condiments and sips of wine, beer or coffee, depending on the time of day.
While I respect the hamburger sandwich and have enjoyed my share, it's important to remember that it's not the only game in town. And personally, I have bun-related issues. For one, the hamburger sandwich gets progressively uglier and messier as you eat it. This isn't a deal killer, but it's not exactly a bonus.
And I don't want to alarm anyone, but a big, bun-bound burger—or any other big thing you might attempt to put in your mouth—can break your face. A group of Taiwanese dentists is campaigning against supersized fast-food meals, citing an increase in jaw dislocations attributed to burger lovers fighting their own anatomy and opening too wide for their own good. More than 8 centimeters—about 3 inches—in a food's height, and you're biting into the mandibular danger zone, says professor Hsu Ming-Iung of National Yang-Ming University in Taipei.
If you must use bread, and I know you probably will, consider open-faced burger bites. A toasted slice of bread can hold a lot of condiments. And even if we differ on the pros and cons, I think we can all agree that the less bread you eat, the more room you'll have in your belly for the good stuff.
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