Impossible! you may say, to have a well-done and tasty hamburger. I thought so, too, but was determined to try as my husband likes well-done hamburgers. If there’s even a hint of pink he will spit out the bite like it’s poisoned, scowl and call it “Raw!” Unfortunately, he also likes burgers with flavor, and in a well done burger all of the muscle has contracted as much as it can, squeezing juice and fat out of the burger right into the coals. Then there is fire, and the predominant flavor at that point — very strong — is char. At the Labor Day cookout using charcoal I was condemned both ways: first “Raw!”, and later “no flavor.” To overcome the no flavor criticism, I use a variety of techniques; to overcome charring the burgers I used the “reverse sear” technique, as explained by a friend. The result was a definite success, but they are still well-done burgers: well-done beef is never the time to skimp on salt, and melt cheese melted on top if at all possible to help lubricate the old taste-buds.
Of course I know an experiment shouldn’t try to investigate several variables at once, but I did it anyway, and it worked!!
First the burgers. I bought about four pounds of beef chunks at Sam’s. The meat contained a reasonable amount of fat (necessary for burgers to have flavor) and most of the meat was a nice deep red. Unfortunately, even though I used it within 24 hours by that time a few of the chunks were starting to grey at the edges. I pulled the meat out of the package, drained it for a few minutes and put in a bowl. Then I mixed in the following:
- Four slices thin bacon, cut into 1-inch sections. (added fat and flavor in the background)
- Umami Bomb, cooked in a small skillet until the anchovies have dissolved.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 anchovy fillets (strong umami flavor)
- 1/2 teaspoon Marmite (strong umami flavor)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste (to combat the grey color of well-done beef)
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce (strong umami flavor)
- 1 slice toast turned to crumbs (1/2 cup) (to hold in some of the flavor, juices and fat when the muscle fibers all contract like a squished sponge)
There was a slight anchovy smell to the raw mixture, but this does not continue to the cooked meat.
(My bowl is not dirty; I used it once with melted beeswax and it’s permanently discolored.)
Put all of the meat grinder workings, and the mixed meat, into the freezer at least 30 minutes before grinding. Grind using the larger holes so the meat is in visible chunks to enhance the flavor. Sharp cuts rather than smearing the meat requires cold, and this is critical to keep the fat in discrete chunks. If the fat smears when grinding, it is then in very small particles and will all melt out of the burger when cooked — especially a problem for the well-done burger. Think crispy bacon — the tastiest part of that fat stays with the meat.
Fill the charcoal chimney with charcoal and light it off before grinding the meat, so the charcoal will be ready when the meat is. Open the holes at the bottom of the grill first.
I was not entirely successful in keeping everything cold! I started to run cold meat through the icy meat grinder, but there was odd wobbling since I forgot to screw the housing down tight. Disassembled, cleaned and reassembled the now somewhat cool meat grinder, but the meat came out smeary! Disassembled, cleaned the slightly cool meat grinder and put the cutter in the right way. The cold meat grinder was not to be; the perfection ship had sailed. I got myself a beer. Ground the cold meat, and it looked pretty good.
Make the patties loose so there will be more surface area for browning and tasting when you bite into it, and also so the contracting of the muscles will be less coordinated resulting in a less tough burger. (I made the middle of the burger about 1/4″ thinner than the rest, the idea being that as the burger contracts it will tend to hump up in the middle so starting with a thinner middle should result in a flat burger. However, this was not needed for the loose burgers.)
The “reverse sear” technique calls for half of the grill to be covered in aluminum foul and half not. Then put all the hot coals on the side with no foil. The benefits of this technique are that the hamburger cooks slowly and uniformly, does not fall through the cracks in the grill, and does no leak fat on the hot charcoal causing fire and charring, and great clouds of smoke. It is a very civilized and controlled way to grill with charcoal.
- Put the burgers on the aluminum foil (three pounds of meat would have been right for my Webbler grill), put the lid on — holes open and over the burgers — and then leave them for eight minutes.
- Flip them and move them around so the less done ones go in the hotter places and more done ones in the cooler places. Sprinkle with salt or seasoned salt. Put the lid on and leave them for another eight minutes. Checking with a thermometer should be done for medium or medium-rare burgers as the times will be less.
- When close to the target temperature, move the burgers over to the hot side of the grill and sear both sides. This will only take minutes. Since the charcoal is cooler, and a lot of the fat has already exited the burger there should be no fire and char-taste. Pull off the burgers when seared and at the target temperature: 160 degrees F for well done burgers. Flip the burgers as you take them off and add a slice of cheese to the hot side immediately so it melts. (Some say to pull them off five degrees below the target, but I wasn’t going to risk being “Raw!” burgers, and I was putting them on a substantial cold ceramic plate.)
This is the instant thermometer I used, and I’m very happy with it. Temperature readings are almost instantaneous.
The burgers turned an attractive reddish color when they were seared, and the meat wasn’t totally grey. The taste was “worlds away” from my last effort, according to my main critic.
What I liked best about this method is that the charcoal behaved as it should. No torching up and charring the meat. During those eight minute breaks you can read a book, or if there are people over actually talk to them, as opposed to waving at them periodically from inside a hot grey cloud, all sweaty and distressed.
- A huge contribution to improved flavor was (I believe) the home grinding. This was also the most work (it would have been less had I been more familiar with my equipment). I used the larger holes and there were bigger pieces of meat in the burger than store bought. This also led to lighter burgers with more browned surface area, and I think the bigger pieces of meat also improved the texture and flavor. Unfortunately, it can’t be done ahead of time or the meat will flatten and blood may pool.
- The umami bomb and bacon significantly improved the flavor and color, and there was No fishy taste or smell in the final product. The bacon was only noticeable in mild whiffs, if you knew it was there.
- The depression in the middle of the raw hamburger was still in the finished product. I would not do that again, with home-ground meat.
Next time I try this I’ll cook some burgers to different temperatures: 155, 150 and 145 degrees F. Why didn’t I do this, this time? Because someone came to buy a dirt-bike and the dogs were barking and howling and jumping about like they were on Pogo sticks, I turned to look and there was a woman and small child smiling and waving — evidently (in the dogs’ minds) planning to attack me and take the meat. A bit of yelling at the dogs to shut up ensued which reduced them to growling for about two seconds before the barking returned. And then the moment was lost and all the meat was well done.