Tastes of Texas: Burgers and Fries

A dash of liberty and a sprig of justice to taste.

Happy Independence Day, y'all! Today all across the country people are taking a break from their every day lives, spending time with friends and family, and celebrating our nation's independence.

It's true that July 4th means different things for different people and everyone has their own traditions, but one constant that seems to permeate all of them is food, and lots of it. Some have to smoke that brisket, while others thaw out the last of the deer meat left over from hunting season and chicken fry it up, yet many just keep it simple with burgers on the grill. It's the latter of these that we're concerned with today.

There are very few meals as quintessentially American as the cheeseburger paired with a mound of fries. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn't cooked up a burger some time in his life, which actually presents somewhat of a problem: The burger has become a run-of-the mill item for many cookouts. I think to the number of times friends and I were having people over, though we hadn't properly prepared to entertain.

Invariably, someone suggests, "Let's just throw some burgers on the grill." I begrudgingly go to the store, grab some lackluster, pre-made patties, cook them with little fervor, and contemplate my culinary existence as my guests wolf down a product I am in no way proud of. Not today. Not on the 4th of July. Today, we burger like we're about to cross the damned Delaware! Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!

The Burger

The first thing you need to do for a great burger is pick the right ground beef. If you go to the store and buy anything that is already pre-shaped into a patty for this endeavor I swear on George Washington's grave I will find a way to revoke your American citizenship, or at the very least I'll send you a sternly worded letter. The best burgers are made from beef you've ground yourself, but if you haven't the luxury of owning your own meat grinder, never fear.

I personally believe the best burgers are made from ground chuck which is approximately 80 percent beef and 20 percent fat. This ratio gives the burger enough fat to keep it from drying out like ground sirloin or (shudder) lean ground beef, but it isn't so fatty that the burger shrinks down to nothing during cooking. Ground round is also a solid choice which is about 85/15, meat to fat. Regardless of which option you choose, be sure you buy ground beef that is loosely packed like this, not tightly packaged in a tube. We'll get to the reason for this shortly.

Once you have your meat you need to shape your patties by hand. The trick to shaping a good hamburger patty is to handle and press the meat just enough where the meat will stay together during cooking, but not so much that the burger becomes pressed and dense. This is why I suggest avoiding the ground beef packaged in a tube. When the beef is handled too much and the patty is too dense the texture of your burger suffers, so handle the meat as little as possible. Additionally, make a small depression in the middle of each patty. Often, when flat burgers are put on a hot grill they will become round in the middle and not lay flat. This depression fixes that issue and ensures you won't have rounded hamburger patties. Make each patty 1/3 to 1/2 pound, about 3/4 of an inch thick.

When it comes time to season the meat, as always, put what you like on it. Personally, I like garlic salt, black pepper, and onion powder on one side, and lemon pepper on the other, but ultimately it's all about personal preference. Many people like to season all of the hamburger meat all together and work the seasoning into the meat before making their patties.

The logic behind seasoning throughout is that the flavor permeates the entire burger instead of just the outside layer. I'm not a fan of this approach for two reasons. First, it goes against my "handle the meat as little as possible" principle illustrated above. Second, I like the seasoning on the outside of the patty to help form the crust as the meat sears. In any event, once your burgers are seasoned, let the meat come up to room temperature and preheat your grill to medium high heat.

As I stated in my post on steak, be sure you let the grill fully preheat before you throw the burgers down. Unlike cooking a steak, however, you don't want the grill as hot as it will get because you need to cook the burgers more thoroughly. While I love a medium rare burger, the internal temperature goes against USDA guidelines for safe ground beef, so I won't recommend it to y'all (wink). Throw the burgers on the grill and cook them until they are about medium to medium-well.

Throughout the cooking process there are a few things to keep in mind. First, ground beef has fat in it, fat will drip onto your coals or gas fire, and that will cause flare ups. A little flare is good; it helps to form that sear that we like so well. A lot is bad. Very bad. You want to be conscious of this and try to let just a little flame kiss the meat periodically. If there is a big flare up, get your burgers out of that cooking area and onto a cooler part of the grill or upper rack, lest you end up with charred, overcooked hockey pucks. Second, don't be afraid to flip and move the patties as often as you like.

There is an old notion that you are only supposed to flip meat once, but studies have shown that is the opposite of what you should be doing. I still utilize the former method when cooking steaks because I like a rare to medium rare steak, and one turn is all you need to reach that temperature and achieve a solid sear, but it's not necessary with burgers. Finally, you want to keep a close eye on the juices coming out of the patties. At first you will see a red liquid seeping out of the top of the burgers, and later in the cookout that liquid will become clear. Once this happens you'll want to pour about 3-5 drops of Worcestershire sauce on the burgers which will add more flavor and will help keep the patties moist. Finally, just before the burgers are ready, toss your favorite cheese on the patties to melt.

Serve with your favorite toppings on a toasted bun. Protip: no burger is complete without grilled onions and jalapenos. They really take things to the next level. Be sure to serve your awesome burgers next to a big mound of homemade...

Fries

In many social circles I've discovered that people are averse to homemade fries, and I've never understood why. The process, broken down into it's most basic parts, consists of little more than chopping potatoes and frying them in hot oil. That said there are a few tips I can offer to help your fries come out perfect.

First, chop your potatoes into long, medium thickness fries and soak them in water for about 10-30 minutes. Soaking potatoes draws out a lot of the starch which ultimately improves the flavor of your fries. Be sure you dry the fries thoroughly, though, or your oil will boil over when the water hits it.

When it's time to fry the potatoes I recommend using peanut oil. Peanut oil has a great flavor, and it has a higher smoke point than other oils. Regardless of which you choose, fill a deep pot about 1/2-3/4 of the way and heat the oil to about 325 degrees.

That temperature may seem low to many of you, and your intuition is right. That is lower than the frying temperatures you often see, but therein lies the real trick to producing perfect homemade fries: fry the potatoes twice. The first time, you cook the potatoes for about 5 minutes at 325, until the potatoes are a pale, translucent color. The second time you increase temperature to 375-400 and fry the potatoes until they are golden brown.

This method will produce fries that are fully cooked and fluffy on the inside, yet crispy and aesthetically pleasing on the outside. When they're ready, sprinkle them with a little salt or season-all (Cavender's Greek seasoning is stellar here) and serve along side your perfect burgers.

Be sure to pair this meal with a tall glass of freedom. The Founding Fathers would be proud.

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