Summertime is barbecue time. Hence the shortage of restaurant reviews lately. I’ve been struggling this year because the San Luis Obispo area has been very mild, and the beach area I live near has remained shrouded in moisture, making my red oak left outside in the sun virtually non-combustible. I can’t get anything to light. I need a new fire strategy. But you can’t NOT barbecue around the Fourth of July, so I made a charcoal exception, invited friends over, and subjected them all to a burger experiment.
“Burgers,” you scoff? Yes, I am a burger fan. And by “fan” I mean “snob.” With a burger place on every corner, and even some gourmet burger joints popping up like Eureka Burger in San Luis Obispo, and Beach Burger in Oceano closer to me, why is it so hard to find a great one? Is it that much of a challenge? Now I’m not here to disparage their efforts – both the places mentioned are good. But I find to make a burger bionic, you need not only great ingredients, but great imagination and real knowledge of textures and moisture-retaining foods that won’t detract from the meat, but will add to the entire experience.
Steve Austin’s bionic arm didn’t rip his regular shoulder apart when he lifted a car. Think about it.
Burgers are the ultimate playground, because no matter what you do to it, it will likely still be edible if you cook it right. For this weekend’s concoction I started with the basics: three pounds of ground beef – some lean, some fattier – salt, pepper, Worcestershire Sauce and garlic powder. That alone is a good burger if seasoned correctly. Mix the amounts of each to your own taste sometime and try it.
To my “basic” mixture I then took a single linguica sausage. A delicious, Portugese spicy pork and garlic treat we get a lot of on the Central Coast cooked over oak. It is full of hot paprika, bright red, and specked with fat. Now for this burger, I chose the fully cooked variety. Why? Because I could dice it up finely and mix it with the raw meat, knowing that even if I cooked my burger to medium rare, my guests wouldn’t be getting undercooked pork with their undercooked beef.
You can’t have sausage without onion, so I finely diced a medium yellow onion (didn’t want anything with too much bite because we had plenty of that already), and mixed it in. It is there to add crunch and a little balance. If they carmelize on the grill, all the better. And then came the “secret” ingredient that made my lovely wife wince a bit when I first told her about it. Maybe a bit too enthusiastically. Candied carrot. Stay with me here. I took a single large carrot, diced it really finely (I dice everything finely in my burgers), put it in a microwave safe bowl, and put about 2 tablespoons of loosely packed brown sugar overtop. Cover, microwave two minutes, and voila – soft candied carrots.
I let them cool, and stirred them in, pressed baseball sized hunks into patties, and onto the grill they went. Because I had to break down with charcoal, I chose the one mixed with hickory, and cooked the burgers about 4 inches away. Now I am not one of those drop-and-forget grill guys. I believe you constantly move meat around for two reasons: first, you can ensure even cooking by moving to different spots on the grill and rotating the meat, and second, I’ve found (though may just be my imagination), that if you flip the meat every 5 minutes or so, the juice never runs out. Just my little trick. You may have other experiences.
The burgers took a while to cook. Maybe 15 minutes a side. But that was intentional. It allowed the heat to get into the middle of the patty and melt the bits of linguica fat, which permeated the burger. The sugars from the carrots and onion made the outside a wonderful burnt caramel color. And when I saw that the juices running out of the top were still pink but turning clear, I took them off and let them rest. Add stuff as you please, though my preference was sweet and spicy relish and ketchup, lettuce and tomato. Simple.
Experiment yourself. Share your recipes. Just remember to add some heat and consider balancing out with a little sweet. A modicum of crunch in your burger is good, and anything you can do to keep moisture in is a win. I’ve seen sauteed mushrooms do the trick. Dried cherries. Bacon. If you figure out something great, please invite me over.