Hamburger, please!

Oct. 08, 2013 @ 11:51 AM

I’m not a fan of Hemingway. 
Growing up, I was something of a tomboy, and I still enjoy climbing the occasional tree.  But Papa’s work is so testosterone-drenched that by the time I finished reading one of his short stories I’d have a 5 o’clock shadow, and need to get my prostate checked.
But that manly all-Americanism is what made me think that his favorite burger might be something I’d enjoy.
Trawling the Internet for food articles, I had stumbled upon Ernest Hemingway’s best-loved hamburger. 
The piece began with the author, hands deep in a bowl of meat, mixing in onions, capers, and various ingredients. I stopped reading right there.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
That wasn’t a burger, it was meatloaf.  Chef Gordon Ramsay does the same darn thing. On his TV shows, whenever he makes a hamburger, it’s always stuffed with everything from eggs to bread crumbs to onion.
But, he gets a partial pass because he’s British. Those poor folks don’t know from hamburgers, bless their crumpet-loving hearts.
A burger isn’t a meatloaf, a meatball, or a Salisbury steak. It’s just ground cow muscle and fat. 
Yup; I said it -- fat. Fat doesn’t just add flavor, it’s also what makes a burger juicy.  Especially if you like your hamburger cooked past rare.  The more you cook it, the drier it gets.  A lot of people like theirs with a bright red center. As much as I love my steak still mooing, a burger with red insides is a profoundly unappetizing sight to me. My perfect burger has a crust on the outside, and the inside is just cooked through, but still juicy.
The type of beef is important.  If you buy it already ground, an 80/20 (80 percent lean, 20 percent fat) blend is just about right. If you choose to buy cuts and have the butcher grind it, or if you grind it yourself, you’ll need at least two different cuts.
You need something with plenty of fat, like brisket, or short ribs. Then something lean, for balance, like eye of round or even tenderloin. It’s best if the meat is cut into chunks and mixed together before grinding, so you don’t have to work the meat too much. When using pre-ground, I portion it in the package, and the only actual handling is to gently shape and pat the meat just tightly enough to hold together when cooking.
Your burger profits by similar benign neglect during the cooking process. Flip it only once, and DO NOT smash it with a spatula on the cooking surface. All that stuff that’s running out is juice and flavor. You might as well go to a fast-food joint and order a MacSliver burger. 
With seasoning, you have more options. I like salt and pepper only, to let the beef flavor shine. But if you must, you can use a spice blend. Although I’m a big fan of dry rubs as marinade being left on meat for as long as 24 hours, your hamburgers should be seasoned mere seconds before hitting the heat.
Grilled, cooked in a cast iron pan, or using something like a George Foreman grill (my personal choice) are good ways to go. If you’re unsure exactly how long they’ll take to cook, inserting a probe thermometer into the center of a patty set to your target temp will make them perfect every time.
Beef internal temperatures are rare –130; medium rare –135; medium – 145; medium well – 160.
The temperature of a solid cut of meat, like a roast or steak, will continue to rise after being taken off heat, at least 5 degrees or even more. A burger is smaller and much less dense, so very little carry-over will occur. Cook it all the way to desired temp.
Now you have a gorgeous, well-cooked canvas. This is where you can let your freak flag fly. Bread, cheese, toppings and condiments? The sky’s the limit.
All this burger contemplation has made me want one. I think I know what Petey and I’ll have for dinner tonight.
My favorite fixings?
Cheddar cheese, Hellmann’s mayo, a slice of tomato, and caramelized onions on a toasted Kaiser roll. What’s yours?
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is