burger grill

When you consider the power of food, the hamburger is at the top of the food chain. This hand-held icon began in America anywhere from the late 1800s to the early twentieth century. Many claim to have invented the hamburger, which showed up in food wagons in Connecticut, lunch counters in Texas, and a county fair in Hamburg, New York.

Either way, the ground-beef patty between two pieces of bread has evolved into an American culinary emblem. In the 1920s White Castle in Kansas began selling sliders, followed by the first McDonald’s in 1940. For decades the hamburger lived a mediocre existence as a cheap, greasy hot sandwich without much emphasis on quality of meat or toppings. As the concept of fast food expanded, so did the hamburger, gaining in importance in the American restaurant landscape.

In the early nineties, I spent a winter cooking in Los Angeles, where I noticed there seemed to be more burger joints and stylish burgers on menus than back East. There was also In-N-Out Burger – the first drive-through diner in California. They opened just eight years after McDonald’s but with a very different philosophy. In-N-Out grew slowly compared to other chains and emphasized real beef, fresh toppings, awesome fries, and happy employees, which meant great service. Sounds simple, but these ingredients created a cult following that has pushed them into a world of elite fast food, and I believe has helped push the burger to center stage on menus across the country.

Burgers are practically a requirement on every American menu, from your everyday family restaurant to the super upscale eatery with fabulously expensive toppings. Burger trucks and shacks have popped up everywhere, and it seems every celebrity needs to be in the game with a signature burger joint. The burger cannot be denied!

friends family grilling
On a relaxed summer evening, gather friends and family, make an open fire, add plenty of burger fixings, and you’ve got the ingredients for a great backyard summer picnic.

The two most important factors for a good hamburger, in my opinion, are the meat and how it has been handled. Many restaurants use preformed frozen burgers, which yield very little real meat flavor, and their texture is dense and chewy. Burger meat should come from a butcher and not from a sealed package labeled ground beef or hamburger. You have no idea when or where it was ground or what is in it.

Go to a market that has a butcher and ask when the burger was ground and what cuts of beef are in it. Also check the fat content; freshly ground hamburger fat gives the meat flavor and makes it juicy with a delicate texture, if cooked properly. For this type of burger you want at least 20 percent fat, even up to 30 percent. Freshly ground meat will also have a nicer texture when it’s not matted down in a container. Hamburgers are definitely not health food.

Jon Previant, executive director of the Farm Institute in Edgartown, says its Island-raised grass-fed ground beef is the most popular meat they sell. People like its lean, meaty flavor, though some say it can be an acquired taste. He explains the fat is different from commercial beef, which is fed a mostly corn diet that makes for a much higher saturated fat content. Local grass-fed beef is leaner and you want to cook it slowly. It’s rich and decadent. It’s a good alternative for those who want to indulge in burgers more often but worry about the unhealthy saturated fat that can come with commercial beef. It’s also nice to know where your food comes from and that it was raised humanely.

Though beef is king when it comes to burgers, menus have evolved to meet the needs of those seeking alternatives. You may see ground turkey, chicken, fish, lamb, veggie, and even black bean burgers. You can still enjoy that satisfying grip of a meal between your hands with great flavors and textures, just a different protein in the middle.

I have to admit our family consumes a lot of burgers in the summer. After a long day, it is just so easy to get the grill going and toss them on. Some extras make for a great summer party. With a few simple ground proteins, fresh toppings, and loads of condiments, you can throw a burger bash together in short order.

Planning your own burger bash

There’s a lot of flexibility with burgers. You want to tantalize your guests with some great combinations, but ultimately they can pick and choose from the options you present. Here’s a blueprint for a perfect burger bash, including a menu and tips for pulling it all together.

Step-by-step burgers

tina miller

Advice from chef and writer Tina Miller : Advance prep is a must if the cook is to have fun at the party.

meat: Beef, with all its fat, has terrific natural flavor. For non-beef burgers, which tend to be much lower in fat, push up the flavor with minced veggies or herbs. You can mix in soy sauce, scallions, a little sesame oil, lime, onions, peppers, and spices (except salt and pepper, which go on top when cooking). Try not to over-handle any ground meat – yes, fish is meat – to help keep the texture light. Gently shape your burgers with your hands.

cooking: The great outdoors on a charcoal grill or indoors with a heavy pan or griddle – it’s up to you. I like both, but in the summer it’s all about the outdoors. Wherever you choose to cook, controlling the temperature is key. I like to start out hot to sear, then slow it down to finish on medium heat to keep the juices inside, making a tender and juicy burger. Always season just before cooking; do not mix in salt and pepper as this will change the texture. Also, try not to flip your burger over and over. Once your burger is on the heat, let the first side get a nice crust around the edges before flipping once.

the bun: Like the hamburger, expectations for buns have stepped up, and many high-end restaurants make their own soft white or brioche buns. When cooking on a griddle or stovetop, you must butter and grill your bun or at least toast it. There is nothing worse than a store-bought bun that is cold. Putting hot meat on cold bread is never a good start.

cheese: American cheese is most definitely not your only choice. Cheese can run the gamut, but I think the cheese should complement the other toppings – and not overpower. Of course if you are having just a burger on a bun, then stronger cheese may be better. Anything extra creamy, such as Swiss, Cheddars, blues, Muenster, and Monterey Jack cheese, will melt nicely.

vegetables: Consider cooked vegetables like onion, mushrooms, and peppers, or raw vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce or greens, avocado, pickles, and raw onion. I prefer a crunchy lettuce like romaine or iceberg to add that great texture.

condiments or other toppings: Ketchup, mustard (yellow, gold, brown, sweet), mayo that you can jazz up, spicy pickled relish, dill or sweet pickles, hummus, guacamole, barbecue sauce, fried egg, bacon, and more.

construction: Unlike a sandwich, the cheese on a burger should be melted on the hot meat. To construct the perfect burger, you want the flavors and textures to complement each other. Though it’s fun to add a lot of ingredients, too much leads to a mess. They should be assembled just before eating, so feel free to get your guests involved in the final stage. They can even concoct their own combos of favorite toppings.

Seven burgers from heaven

skinny burger

The Skinny: This beef burger is topped with orange cheddar, sliced dill pickles, red onion, tomato, crunchy iceberg lettuce, ketchup, and mayo on a grilled English muffin. This is for the burger purest or your friends from out west who are craving In-N-Out. This is the classic burger that I cook at home, hence the English muffin – my father always had them around. They are a bit denser, resist sogginess, and hold up well.

Mexi: This beef burger with mild queso blanco cheese gets ramped up with some sliced jalapeño and zesty lime guacamole, and gets sweetened a bit with cherry tomato and ketchup salsa. Bring on the napkins – so worth it!

All That: What isn’t good with a fried egg? Turns out nothing! This beef burger with a fried egg, crispy pancetta, Swiss cheese, tomato, garlic mayo, and lettuce is no exception. The egg adds a creaminess with the melted cheese, and the pancetta adds the salty bacon effect you love with eggs.

Lambo: Ground lamb is rich and tender. It boasts a nice meaty flavor and when topped with minted goat cheese, sautéed spinach, and garlic, this becomes a decadent meal.

Kicker Turkey: Turkey needs to be played with a bit, or it can be dry and plain. I mix it more like a meat loaf so the added ingredients enhance this turkey burger. Add minced red peppers and scallions, a dash of soy sauce, and top this burger with curried Indian relish mayo, ketchup, and purple slaw. No longer the pale cousin to the robust hamburger.

Tuna YaYa: This is not your everyday burger. It uses fresh local tuna, and less is more. You do not need huge half-pound burgers here: Combine about 4 ounces of diced yellowfin tuna with fresh ginger, cilantro, and soy sauce. These are very delicate, so be sure to have a well-oiled hot grill. Place burger atop fresh Island pea shoots with some lime zest mayo – and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

man burger

The Man: This is for someone who wants a big, juicy, greasy beef burger. Top with bacon and sliced portobello mushrooms sautéed in bacon grease with onions and red pepper; then add a kick with tangy blue cheese.

Note for vegetarians: Any of these burgers can be made with a veggie patty, and vegetarians can choose their favorite parts of each burger. A veggie burger topped with a fried egg, sautéed spinach, and salsa? Yum!