In honor of National Cheeseburger Day this weekend, we talked to one of Long Island’s top burger chefs about how to make restaurant-style, and quality, burgers right at home.
Chef G wishes to remain anonymous (“I can’t let the boss know I’m giving away some of our secrets,” he says with a laugh), but this Long Island culinary staple isn’t afraid to deliver the decadence when it comes to helping out a home cook.
You want the highest quality beef you can afford here, and I use only grass-fed at this point, and organic. You don’t need to, but by now gras-fed is fairly easy to find in most markets here on Long Island, or if you know a good butcher, even better—that way you know it’s exactly what you want, and you can get it ground right there. If they can give you a mix of chuck and brisket, that’s something your friends will be talking about when you serve it to them.
Now, do not, under any circumstances, go for a lean mixture. I’m not kidding. This isn’t about watching your fat intake, it’s about watching how much fat you can actually get in there, and you want it to be a good amount. That’s where the juicy, drippy factor comes from. An 80-20 blend—that means it will contain 20% fat—is what most people use for a good burger, although I’ve been going with a 70-30. That’s why you’re always asking for extra napkins, which I think is a good sign. With that fat content, you can still cook a burger for somebody who wants it medium-well and it’s going to be juicy.
I don’t recommend over-seasoning a burger, especially now that you’ve got that great quality beef. That’s what you really want to taste. For each quarter pound burger, use a pinch of fresh-round pepper—get yourself a grinder if you don’t’ have one—a pinch of smoked paprika, a pinch of granulated garlic, a pinch of onion powder. Do not put any salt in there yet—we’ll get to that later, but do not put it in now! And be gentle, don’t overwork the meat. Gently mix it with your hands, cover it with plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge. That’s it.
First off, I like a bun that’s not quite big enough to fit the whole patty. That way, on your first bit, the burger takes the lead. Potato buns are a great choice, and you can give them a quick toast to firm them up just a little bit. At home I spread a little butter on there, but it’s great either way. If you want something a little bit firmer, try a fresh ciabatta roll—they can soak up a lot of that juice and still be soft enough to be part of every bite.
You want it to melt, ooze and complement the beef while also letting everybody know it’s there. I’m not afraid to say that classic American cheese is a wonderful choice, and they are my go-to. Cheddar and swiss are also winners, and you might be pleasantly surprised if use a double-crème brie.
First things first, just to get it out of the way—I am not a bacon-burger fan, myself. Bacon is an amazing thing, don’t get me wrong, but I find it tends to overwhelm the flavor of a burger too often. When I do use it, I crumble it, never a full slice, so it’s more an addition and not the main attraction.
If you’re going for a classic restaurant or diner feel, then it’s iceberg lettuce—two leaves, or you can shred it—a slice of fresh tomato and three pickle slices, so you get that crunch in at least three bites. Raw onion is fine, too, as long as it’s diced—there are few things tougher to deal with than a whole ring of raw onion suddenly in your mouth.
If you want to get creative, I think mac and cheese is a great topping, or a fried egg and some hash browns, sautéed mushrooms and onions and maybe some Marsala sauce, even a forkful of pulled pork with a zesty sauce. I love a traditional burger, but those are some other ways to go that people really love.
And as you know, I grind my own beef for burgers. You can find a butcher to do it for you, and you will see the difference, But that’s really easy to do at home, too. If you have a KitchenAid or another good mixer, you can get a meat-grinding attachment and go to town.
You can shape your patties by hand, but just be careful to not beat them up. A quarter pound to a third of a pound is the ideal amount, and then you gently form the patty and you’re done. Do not press too hard!
Once cooking, I suggest using a meat thermometer, so you can keep track of the burger’s internal temperature, and you’re also going to want to invest in a cast iron skillet, so you don’t always need to fire up the grill now that it’s going to be getting colder outside. A cast-iron skillet will allow you to sear at a high temperature, and will also give you something closer to the flavor you’re probably getting at your favorite burger restaurant. But I also love the flavor that comes off an outdoor grill!
Leave your meat in the refrigerator until the last possible minute—you want it to be chilled when it hits the grill or the pan, so the fat is still cold.
If you’re grilling, you need to make sure the grill is hot, around 375 degrees. Salt one side of your patty with sea salt and put that side down, then salt to top side and leave it alone for about three to four minutes—you’re going to have to learn your own grill to get the timing exact. Flip it and let it cook for about another two to three minutes—this should get you in the medium territory—the put the cheese on and cover it with one of those disposable tin pans, until the cheese melts.
If you’re using the cast-iron pan, get it up to medium heat, put a small amount of butter in the pan, sprinkle the patty with sea salt and put the salted side down. Sprinkle the top side with salt now, and then leave it alone. Don’t flip it or press it or anything else. In four minutes, flip it over and let it sit there for another three minutes. Now, put the cheese on top, splash a little water in the pan to create steam and immediately cover it.
When the cheese is melted, take the burger off the heatand put it on your toasted bun. Give it about a minute to rest, then top with your lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion if you’re doing that, and serve it up.