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Barbecue Secrets

In Search of the Perfect Burger

Jul 8, 2009

This article appears in the latest edition of Calgary's City Palate, and I'm pleased to share it here.

North American society has nearly killed its beloved hamburger.

The anti-fat movement, which shamed us into using extra lean ground beef, robbed the meat of most of its flavour. And worries about E coli contamination led to stringent regulation that pretty much requires today’s restaurants to cook the life out of their burgers.

As a result, most fast-food burger patties are not much more than dry, grainy hockey pucks – charred, pitiful pieces of meat that, to be palatable, need to be overwhelmed by their toppings and shielded by their buns. Even real restaurants often resort to frozen, pre-maid patties.

That just ain’t right. Although there are some notable exceptions to today’s crappy, overcooked commercial burgers, it’s left to backyard cooks to keep the sacred tradition of the real, tasty, juicy hamburger alive.

And so, dads everywhere have developed their perfect burger recipe. This is the story of how I arrived at mine.

When I challenged myself to imagine the perfect burger, I couldn’t help but think back to my youth.

I remembered hot, juicy A&W teenburgers, delivered on a tray that hitched onto the window of my family’s two-tone ’56 Chevy, devoured by my brother and me in the back seat and washed down with long drafts of cold sweet root beer from heavy glass mugs.

And then there was my first Big Mac. At 49 cents when it came out in 1968, it was an expensive gourmet treat, the tallest and fanciest restaurant burger of its day. Its super-soft triple-decker sesame bun, two all-beef patties and combination of American cheese, iceberg lettuce, pickles, onion and special sauce sent my palate to new heights, and the red sleeve of 10-cent fries and cardboard cup of ice cold Coca-Cola were the perfect accompaniments. The Big Mac was the first burger I can remember where you needed to unhinge your jaw to take the first bite, which would always leave a trail of shiny juice running down your chin.

Of course, I can’t forget the homemade burgers grilled over charcoal briquettes at our family cottage at Alberta Beach – softball-sized lumps of charred ground beef laced with crunchy bits of chopped raw onion. After having the life squeezed out of them by dad’s spatula, those homemade burgers were almost as dry as the restaurant burgers of today. Luckily, it was a condition that was easily cured by a cold, clear bottle of Crush cream soda.

I recount these memories because, as with any classic comfort food, our best early memories become the Proustian references by which we judge every other burger we eat. The perfect burger is the one that comes closest to the idealized conglomeration of one’s remembrances of burgers past.  

It comes as no surprise, then, that Canadians are not adventurous burger eaters. A Harveys/Ipsos Reid survey in 2007 found that 61 percent of respondents order the exact same toppings on every single burger they eat, and the three most popular toppings are cheese, onions and ketchup. Interestingly, the distinguishing characteristic of prairie burger eaters is that we’re the most likely to eat naked hamburgers. Don’t mess with that Alberta beef!

But then there’s the other 39 per cent of us, who still want our burgers to hit that comfort-food nerve, but also need a little adventure and appreciate some extravagance now and then. One of my favorite adult burger memories is a lamb burger served with goat cheese and roasted red pepper on a toasted ciabatta bun at River Café in the spring of 1994. Another one that stands out in the current decade is the hilariously extravagant, Daniel Boulud-inspired $28 Feenie Burger, stuffed with braised short ribs and topped with a slice of seared foie gras.

On a hot August day in the summer of 2003, at the Canadian National Barbecue Championships in Whistler, B.C., everything I’d ever learned about what makes a great burger came together.

I knew it had to be juicy and tender, so I added a spash of cold water to the meat as I blended the seasonings into the ground beef with my hands, taking care not to overmix. (In this case I had no choice of meat, but the ideal would be to get your butcher to custom-grind chuck with at least 20 per cent fat content and mix it with ground pork or veal.)

I knew it had to be rich and unctuous, so I stuffed the patty with a frozen disk of butter that had been blended with fresh basil, mint and parsley. Freezing a log of the herbed butter made it easy to slice it into disks and also prevented overcooking. (James Beard used to put an ice cube into his burger patties to keep them moist and juicy.)

I knew it had to be smoky, so I cooked it over hardwood charcoal with a chunk of cherry wood thrown in.

I knew the toppings had to add richness, complexity and balance to the flavour and texture of the burger, so I slathered it with creamy, tangy Saltspring Island goat cheese, topped that with a filet of roasted red bell pepper that had been soaked in extra virgin olive oil infused with fresh basil leaves, and topped the whole thing with a dollop of sweet, shiny brown caramelized onions that had been flavoured with cinnamon, sugar and a touch of cayenne pepper.

And I knew the bun had to be soft and tender, but to add some extra flavour I brushed it with some melted herbed butter and toasted it for a few seconds on the hot grill.

That burger won first place in the burger category at the Nationals, so technically I cooked the best burger in Canada that year. What matters more to me is that, years later, my kids still think their dad makes the best burger ever.

Man, oh, man. I need a perfect burger right now, don’t you? To help you hit that burger nerve, here are three of my favorite burger recipes, ranging from the over-the-top extravagance of my award-winning herbed-butter-stuffed burger to the comfort food flavour of what I call the Classic Dadburger Deluxe. I hope at least one of them is perfect for you.


Beef Burger with Herbed Butter Core and Caramelized Onions

Makes 4 burgers

This recipe won the burger category at the Canadian National Barbecue Championship in Whistler, British Columbia, in the summer of 2003. More than a burger, it is the Atkins equivalent of a jelly doughnut (if you forego the bun). It’s a life-shaping experience that should probably be accompanied by some kind of parental guidance message. Be careful to whom you serve this—your guests may stalk you until you cook it for them again.

11/2 to 2 lb | 750 g to 1 kg of ground beef, 20 percent fat content
1/2 tsp | 2 mL freshly grated nutmeg
4 1/2-inch | 1 cm discs of frozen Mediterranean Herbed Butter (butter whizzed in a blender with fresh herbs like bazil, mint, parsley)
1 Tbsp | 15 mL Dijon mustard
Championship Barbecue Rub (or seasoned salt)
4 hamburger buns
extra softened Herbed Butter for the buns
granulated garlic
1/2 cup | 125 mL chèvre (a creamy white French-style
goat cheese), at room temperature
2 large roasted red bell peppers, torn into quarters
Caramelized Onions (see recipe below)

Combine the beef and nutmeg in a large nonreactive bowl. Mix together the spice and the meat lightly with your hands, being careful not to overwork it. Split the meat into 4 equal portions and roll it into balls. Poke your thumb in the middle of each ball to create a hole and insert a frozen disc of herbed butter. Encase the butter in the burger as you shape it into a classic burger shape about _-inch | 2 cm thick, ensuring that there are no openings where molten butter could run out. (It may be helpful to dip your hands periodically into cold water to prevent the meat from sticking to them.)
    Coat the burger patties lightly with the mustard and sprinkle them with a light coating of the rub. Preheat your grill to medium heat. Either spray the burgers with vegetable oil spray, or coat the grill with oil. Place the burgers on the grill and cook for 4–5 minutes per side, or until the patties become firm, but not hard, to the touch.
    Remove the burgers from the grill, tent them with foil, and let them rest for 4–5 minutes. In the meantime, coat the buns with the softened herbed butter, sprinkle them with a little granulated garlic, and toast them for 30–60 seconds on your grill.
    Dress the burgers with a slather of goat cheese, a piece or two of roasted red pepper, and a dollop of caramelized onion. Inhale. (Note: Warn your guests that the burgers have a molten filling or they could be in for a shock! In any case, have plenty of napkins at the ready. These are very juicy burgers.)

Caramelized Onions

Makes about 1 cup | 250 mL

This makes a great topping for burgers but is also an excellent all-purpose condiment. Try it as an omelet filling or as a topping for grilled pork chops. Mix it with goat cheese and spread it on crackers for a tangy, sweet appetizer. It’s also a great topping on a planked round of brie.

2 Tbsp | 25 mL butter, olive oil, or a combination of both
4 medium onions, peeled and sliced into rings
1/2 tsp | 2 mL kosher salt
1 tsp | 5 mL sugar
1/2 tsp | 2 mL ground cinnamon
pinch cayenne

Heat the butter/olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and salt and sauté them until they’re soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne and continue to sauté the onions, stirring them regularly, until they are shiny and brown, about 15 minutes, being careful not to burn them (add a little water, if necessary,  to prevent burning).

Classic Dadburger Deluxe

Makes 12–16 patties, depending on how big you like them

This recipe will feed a crowd, or four teenagers. You can easily halve the recipe. If your kids are like mine and don’t like bits of onion and garlic in their burgers, substitute 1 tsp | 5 mL each of granulated onion and granulated garlic for the fresh variety.

For the burger mix:
6 lb | 2.7 kg medium ground beef
(or half-and-half ground beef and ground pork)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 head roasted garlic, cloves
squeezed out and mashed with a fork
1 Tbsp | 15 mL toasted sesame oil
2 Tbsp | 25 mL dark soy sauce or
Worcestershire sauce or a combination
1/2 tsp | 2 mL freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp | 1 mL cayenne
(or more, if you like more heat)
lots of freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs
1/2 cup | 125 mL cold water

To finish the burgers:
your favourite barbecue sauce
12 to 16 cheese slices (optional)
12 to 16 hamburger buns

Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper. Mix the burger ingredients together with your hands in a large nonreactive bowl. Wet your hands in cold water before you form the mixture into chunks the size of tennis balls. Flatten them into patties, placing them on the cookie sheet. Each patty will be about 1/2 lb | 250 g before cooking. Place them in the freezer for an hour to firm them up.
    Preheat your grill for medium direct heat. Take the burgers out of the freezer and grill them for 6 minutes per side, or until they are springy to the touch, glazing them on both sides with barbecue sauce. Top each patty with a slice of cheese for the last couple of minutes of cooking. Serve the burgers on buns with your favourite condiments.

Lamb Burger with Molten Goat Cheese Core

Makes 4 burgers

We North Americans eat so much ground beef that we almost forget what beef tastes like. When you eat a lamb burger you actually taste the lamb and it makes for a deliciously different grilling experience. The goat cheese stuffing adds an orgiastic twist. Don’t forget to freeze the goat cheese!

For the tzatziki:
1 tsp | 5 mL ground cumin
1 cup | 250 mL plain Greek
full-fat yogurt
1 Tbsp | 15 mL finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1/3 long English cucumber, finely grated

To finish the burgers:
Softened butter that’s been blended with some fresh herbs like mint, basil or flatleaf parsley
2 large fresh rounds of pita bread
fresh sliced tomatoes
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
1 bunch fresh arugula, washed and

For the patties:
11/2 lb | 750 g ground lamb
2 Tbsp | 25 mL chopped fresh mint
1 tsp | 5 mL dried oregano
1/2 tsp | 2 mL kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 oz | 75 g soft goat cheese (chèvre),
frozen and sliced into 4 1/2-inch | 1 cm discs
2 Tbsp | 25 mL softened herbed butter
kosher salt and freshly ground black
pepper to taste

To make the tzatziki, dry-fry the ground cumin over medium heat for 30 seconds, or until it becomes fragrant and browns just slightly. Transfer the cumin from the hot pan into a bowl. Add the yogurt, mint and cucumber, mix them together thoroughly, cover the tzatziki, and refrigerate it until it’s needed.
    Gently mix the lamb with the mint, oregano, salt and a few grindings of pepper in a nonreactive bowl with your hands. Divide the meat into 4 equal portions and shape them into balls. Make a hole in each patty with your thumb and insert a disc of frozen goat cheese. Carefully seal the hole and shape the ball into a patty 3/4 inch | 2 cm thick, making sure to cover the cheese with the meat. Season the outside of the patties with salt and pepper. Lightly brush them with olive oil and grill them over medium direct heat for 4–5 minutes per side, or until the internal temperature is 160˚F | 71˚C.
    Take the burgers off the grill and spread a thin layer of the herbed butter on top of each one (if you don’t have any herbed butter, drizzle them with a little olive oil—just enough to make them glisten). Let them rest for 3–4 minutes. Just before you’re ready to serve them, toast the pitas on the grill for 10–15 seconds per side. Cut the pitas in half, open them up, and stuff the burgers inside. Dress them with the tomatoes, onion, arugula,  and tzatziki.

Barbecue Secret
For extra-juicy burgers, add some cold water (about 1 Tbsp | 15 mL per lb | 500 g) to your raw burger meat before you mix it. For extra-tender burgers, don’t overwork the burger mix.

Hamburger History
We can follow the roots of the modern hamburger back to Hamburg, Germany in the 19th century, where cheap cuts of beef were chopped, seasoned, and served cooked or raw to the lower classes. The “Hamburg Steak” first appeared on New York menus in the mid-1800s, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was served in restaurants as far away as Walla Walla, WA. It’s a lot harder to determine exactly which American state’s residents first had the idea to create a sandwich out of that chopped beef steak to create the burger we know and love today—there are at least five different claims ranging from Wisconsin to Texas.

A Library of Burger Toppings
We’re all so used to iceberg lettuce, ketchup, mayo, ballpark mustard, green relish, and sliced onion and tomato on our burgers that we hardly notice them any more. Try these unusual toppings for a change and experiment with your own combinations.

• thinly sliced button mushrooms sautéed with a smashed garlic clove in butter and olive oil
• crunchy-style peanut butter, bacon, raw onion and lettuce
• an egg fried in butter, over easy, with a leaf of iceberg lettuce and a slather of mayo
• avocado slices, bacon and tomato salsa
• caramelized onion, roasted red pepper and goat cheese
• tomato slices, thinly sliced red onion and fresh arugula
• black olive paste and slices of hard-boiled egg
• brie or Gorgonzola cheese

The ultimate “special sauce” – Margie’s Chipotle and Roasted Garlic Mayo

This invention of Calgary caterer Margie Gibb is the best burger condiment I know, but it’s also great on just about anything.

11/2 cups | 375 mL mayonnaise
1 whole head roasted garlic, cloves squeezed
out of their skins
1 tsp | 5 mL finely ground cumin (preferably made
from toasted cumin seeds)
1 Tbsp | 15 mL chopped chipotles in adobo sauce
(add more chipotle if you like it hot)

Please all ingredients in a food processor and whiz them until they’re thoroughly combined.