It is raining cats and dogs today. Drat. Today is just the day I've chosen to cook up some steer, in my annual burger-on-the-grill party. And the downpour will not allow this to happen on my outdoor grill.
Am I disconsolate about the wash-out? Not at all! Because I have a hamburger secret:
I like 'em just as well when they come off a griddle or a frying pan!
I know this is heresy. I know that most people flat-out assume that the greatest cooking unit for a hamburger is the grill. The grill is storied as the heart of backyard burger parties, and it is featured in thousands of trendy restaurants across the U.S. reaching upwards to "finer" hamburgers. Believe me, I have no problems whatsoever with hamburgers on the grill. I love 'em!
What I do have problems with is the general attitude towards the grill's #1 alternative: the griddle, or the frying pan. "Griddle?" ask the grill snobs. "That's what you find at a cheap diner making burgers." "Frying pan?" they ask again. "That's what you use when you haven't made it in life and don't have a backyard."
And these are the positions I dispute. For I contend that the griddle/frying pan burger, though a different creature entirely, is also a beautiful thing.
For starters... let's consider what's so great about the grill. The extremely high heat a direct charcoal fire can generate cooks the beef quickly -- so you can gets lots of color and char on the outside, while keeping the inside rare. And the smoky, grill-y flavor added by that color and char is something magnificent.
However, sometimes this blurs the pure flavor of the beef.
To the grillers, the problems with the griddle/frying pan burger are these:
1) Not as much heat is generated;
2) The fire doesn't hit the burger directly; and
3) The environment doesn't create a smoky flavor.
But there are ways to think about the griddle/frying pan in a much more positive light.
Have you ever had a burger made at a burger joint with a broad griddle, the kind of place that has been flipping burgers on that griddle for 20 or 30 years... like Jackson Hole, in New York City? The flavor of the burger is transformed by a griddle like that -- because decades of use have actually changed the flavor of that steel, driven a record of beefy fat into it! And that taste of old fat subtly affects the taste of any new burger coming off the griddle. It adds depth, dimension, interest, complexity. It is absolutely NOT a taste that you can achieve on a grill over an open fire!
The best way to capture this at home is to designate a flat griddle, or a heavy frying pan -- cast-iron's a good choice! -- as your burger pan.
Nothing will help more in establishing the flavor of your pan than melting some beef fat in it, and letting it sit for a few hours before wiping it out.
A hunk of beef fat
Placing fat on the griddle
Melting the beef fat on your griddle
And the best beef fat of all... is aged beef fat! You can age your own: every time you have a steak, or a roast, just cut off a little bit of the extra fat. Wrapped tight, it will keep for a week or so in the fridge, definitely creating a deeper taste that substitutes for 30 years of griddle-cooking. When it's on the edge of funk... wrap it even tighter and put it in the freezer! Now you'll have an ever-ready shortening and lubrication for your burger pan.
When it's time to cook the burgers, give yourself another advantage: try to find hamburger meat with a wavy grind, a grind that keeps the shape of the beef strands that came through the grinder.
Chopped meat from the butcher without a wavy grind
Chopped meat from the butcher WITH a wavy grind
I contend that the wavy grind makes a big difference in the griddle burger. Since the finished product is not as "tight" as a finished grill-burger, texture is of supreme importance. If you buy wavy-grind beef, and get it home gently, without squooshing the beef together... and if you shape your patties extremely gently, so that the wavy grind is just holding together... you will have an amazingly delicate burger coming off your griddle, juicy and light.
Let's hit the pan, over high heat.
The beef fat ready for the burgers
The wavy-grind beef starts to crust on one side
The burger is carefully flipped
When you remove the burger, placed lightly buttered bun halves on the same griddle.
Buttered bun halves
And now the big question: how will you serve your perfectly griddled burger? Well, I must confess my purist roots. I like the meat cooked rare-to-medium-rare, when the sweet beefiness is at its height. And my thinking is: if you've got the sweet beefiness going, why muck it up with all kinds of sauces and condiments? I go with the two simple things that were my Dad's burger staples -- and mine, growing up -- ketchup and an exquisite slice of raw onion.
Classic griddle burger with onion and ketchup
Now, I eat burgers all the time with all kinds of stuff on 'em. But if you've never gone the purist route...try it!
Of course, the ultra-purist may complain that even the onion and ketchup is too much. And that's when I pull out my Mom's contribution: the ultra-pure griddle cheeseburger, which is the beefiest-tasting burger I know.
Do exactly what you've done for the regular burger. When the burgers are still quite rare...
Burgers on the griddle ready for cheese
...place a slice of American cheese on each one. Unfortunately, the processed cheese of today doesn't have as much dairy flavor as the old-time Kraft singles... so I add a little bit of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to boost the flavor.
Cheese slices with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano
Immediately cover the griddle or pan, if you're trying to keep the burgers rare...
Facilitating the meltdown
Prepare some good white toast -- golden-brown does the trick. Butter it lightly. Have the toast ready for the just-melted cheeseburgers (if you transfer immediately, some good red juice will pool up and drip into the toast).
Cheeseburgers on toast
I like picking up these open-face cheeseburgers with my hands, but for those protecting their shirts... a knife and fork may be welcome.
The combined tastes of beef, beef fat, butter and cheese are incredible; this is a burger to which I would NEVER add any sauces or condiments. This cheeseburger brings you as close to the beating heart of beefiness as you'll ever come.
And it's from a griddle, for gosh sake!
The incredible inside of the purist cheeseburger
For more stories like these, sign-up for free weekly emails at www.dRosengarten.com