If you’ve got friends and family coming over for the Fourth of July, chances are you’re going to be grilling some hamburgers.
“This is biggest week of the year for hamburger patty sales, right before the Fourth,” says Dee Dee Caldwell of Caldwell Farms, an organic beef producer in Turner. “Not everybody can afford to buy ribeye for 10 people, but they generally can buy hamburger patties.”
The last thing you want to do is serve your guests a dried-out, tasteless burger off the grill. To help your July 4th celebration go off without a hitch, I asked some experts for advice on how to grill the perfect burger. Who better to learn from than some beef producers, a pub chef, the owners of a burger-centric food truck, and a butcher?
Here, in addition to Caldwell, are the folks who offered some great tips for making unforgettable Fourth of July burgers:
• Gabe Clark, owner of Cold Spring Ranch, a grass-fed beef operation in New Portland.
• Ryan Campbell, executive chef at Bull Feeney’s in Portland.
• Jarrod Spangler, butcher at the Rosemont Market on Brighton Avenue.
• Dave Zino, executive chef at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
• Ben Berman and Jack Barber, owners of the Mainely Burgers food truck, who estimate they’ve sold about 10,000 burgers.
Most people like a juicy burger, and that starts with buying a quality meat with the right fat content.
The burgers you buy at Mainely Burgers have an 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio. If you want “decadent burgers,” Zino of the cattlemen’s group says, that’s the blend to choose.
If you’d rather go leaner — say, 93 percent lean — add a quarter cup bread crumbs and an egg white to the mixture, and that will help you form the patty, Zino added.
If you choose grass-fed beef, Gabe Clark says, you’ll get great flavor, but you’ll also have to be more careful cooking it because grass-fed beef tends to cook very quickly.
“Our grass-fed beef is not as lean as others,” he said, “but grass-fed beef can be very lean, and every lean beef will cook much quicker because all those juices are in part a byproduct of the fat. So the leaner the burger, the more you have to be careful of overcooking.”
Spangler recommends finding ground beef in the 70/30 to 75/25 range. Anything leaner “tends to get a little too dry for my taste.” At Rosemont, he sells a “burger blend” made of two parts brisket and one part de-boned short ribs that falls into that range.
“The fat transports the flavors,” Spangler said, “and if you get a little more fat in it, you’re going to get more of that flavor out of your burger.”
MIXING AND SEASONING THE BEEF
Season the beef with a little coarse salt and freshly cracked black pepper, and anything else you might want to throw in — some chopped garlic, paprika or even cayenne if you’d like a little more spice.
Almost all of our experts said to be careful not to overmix the ground beef when you’re mixing in seasonings and forming patties if you don’t want it to have the texture of a hockey puck.
“All that really does is make your burger tougher,” said Ryan Campell. “Season the burger properly, but don’t season too soon because a lot of times, when you put the salt in it cooks the meat a little bit — another thing that makes it tougher.”
Burgers should be seasoned no more than an hour before cooking.
“Make the burgers uniform so it’s easy to finish them at the same time, rather than guess and burn half of them,” Campbell said.
GRILLING THE BURGERS
When it comes to actually cooking the burgers, there are different schools of thought.
Spangler likes to keep one side of the grill really hot, another side much cooler. That way he can get a good sear on the burgers without overcooking them. Once he gets some color on the outside of the burgers, he moves them to the cooler side to cook through.
Zino suggests keeping the grill at a medium heat. If it gets too hot, you run the risk of charring the burgers on the outside while leaving them undercooked on the inside. If the grill is too cool, you won’t get proper browning to help hold the juices in.
All of our experts agreed on one thing: Give the burgers time to cook. Don’t get impatient and squish the patties with your spatula.
“Never, never, never press down on the patty when it’s on the grill,” Zino said. “I know we love the sound of the sizzle, but actually what we’re doing is we’re pushing flavor out of the burger and into the coals.”
Most experts said the burgers should only be flipped once. Let the grill do its job. Campbell said a good rule of thumb, depending on how thick the burgers are, is two minutes on each side for rare, three minutes on each side for medium-rare, and five minutes each side for medium-well.
“Let it rest rather than throw it onto a bun so quickly, which makes for a bloody bun,” Campbell advised. “It gives time for the juices to go back through the meat and settle, keep in more flavor.”
Zino said it’s OK to flip occasionally as long as you don’t overdo it.
“It depends on how thick you make your patty,” he said. “You don’t want to flip every 10 seconds because you’re losing a lot of heat that way.”
TOP IT OFF WITH FLAIR
Everyone has their own ideas for toppings. The owners of Mainely Burgers are known for their creative toppings, such as sliced green apple and maple mayo. (See sidebar for instructions on how to make their “Red, White, and Bleu Burger” for the Fourth.)
Gabe Clark’s favorite burger is seasoned with salt, pepper and either cayenne or paprika, then topped with pepperjack cheese, avocado and bacon.
“With burgers, you can have fun,” Clark said. “You can have blue cheese burgers. There’s spicy arugulas and things like that.”
Campbell recommends caramelized Vidalia onions or shallots, baby portabello mushrooms and flavored mayonnaises. To make a flavored mayonnaise, just toss some herbs — maybe basil or thyme — or even some roasted tomatoes, onion or bacon into a food processor with some mayonniase and process for 2 to 3 minutes.
“Really spicy stuff is not my thing, but pepper jack cheese has a nice little bite to it without being overpowering,” Dee Dee Caldwell said. “I think that, or just good old American sharp cheddar, are the two best cheeses to put on a burger.”
For something a little different, Zino suggests a tzatziki sauce made with cucumber, garlic and yogurt, or maybe a mango salsa. Or go Hawaiian by grilling pineapple slices and adding barbecue sauce to the burger.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at firstname.lastname@example.org