The year was 1974, I was 6 years old, and though I don’t remember much about that year, I do remember Char-Burger coming to town. The small building was fully built and towed on a trailer, moving slowly up the Silver Strand, to its final resting place at 1323 Orange Ave., between the Brigantine and the La Avenida Inn.
Char-Burger was my earliest burger memory. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost smell it now. The name Char-Burger told you everything you needed to know. The burgers were charbroiled, a relatively new way of cooking, a fast-food burger at the time. And you could smell them cooking from down the block.
Char is in fact flavour, which I learned after years of being a chef. It’s a flavour that was seared into my psyche at an early age and something I still strive to perfect. Here are a few tricks of the trade to make a memorable burger at home.
The 80/20 rule is good for burger beat; 20% fat means flavour. Always use fresh ground beef and try to avoid pre-made patties or those logs of hamburger meat that seem to make financial sense when cooking for a large group. Compressed, over-worked ground meat doesn’t make an ideal burger. Make a nice ball with the ground beef and press it down to form a patty. Just don’t press too hard. The less compact the patty, the better it will cook and taste. If you are using fresh ground beef, you simply need add seasoning to bring out its natural flavor. After the patties are made, add salt and pepper or use a seasoning like Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.
There are two methods for cooking a great burger: in an iron skillet or on the grill. Iron skillets can take high heat, and you want to have the skillet hot when cooking a burger. The flat surface gives the meat the best contact, which produces a good char. (Fun fact: Char is the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that browns food and git it a distinct flavor.) Start the skillet hot to get that char. When you flip the burger, turn the heat down to let it finish cooking.
The grilling method is ideal if you are cooking for a larger group. Grilling also gives you some additional flavor options. Adding wood chips to the fire gives burgers a great smoky flavor. Simply soak the wood chips, put them in a foil pouch and poke holes in it. Place the pouch to the far side of the grill and close the lid during some of the cooking time. If you have a rosemary bush, trim off some branches to burn to add flavor. Always make sure the grill is a hot as possible when putting on the meat.
Once the burgers are cooking, don’t press on them. It will make them loose moisture, and you’ll get dry burger. Place the patty on the cooking surface and chill. And only flip it once. When grilling, I give the burger a quarter turn half way through the cooking time on the first side. This will not only produce great looking grill marks, but it allows the grate to touch more of the meat giving a better char. Once you get a good char on the first side, flip the patty and cook until you get the desired temperature. Just like with the iron skillet, once you flip the burger turn the heat down or move the burger to a cooler area on the grill and let it finish cooking.
Now it’s time to add some fun toppings and condiments. Try a fried egg, caramelized onions, kimchi, shoshito peppers, arugula or pastrami. Condiments can include everything from bacon or tomato jam to horseradish sauce, béarnaise sauce, pesto, sriracha, mayonnaise, hoisin sauce and dijonnaise. If you choose cheese on your burger, the variety is endless. (While it may not be real cheese, Kraft Singles are still the best melting product on the market and what made the good old American cheeseburger famous.)
With all these great options, try making my favourite burger, the slider, It takes three or four to equal an average restaurant burger, so you have more opportunities to play with toppings. Plus, they cook quickly and consistently. The best buns I have found for sliders are King’s Hawaiian rolls – the size is perfect, they are readily available and come in four packs or by the dozen.
Burgers are part of the American DNA. Have some fun with them and take some chances.
• Clyde Van Arsdall IV is executive chef and general manager of the Neiman Marcus Café.