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You don't have to be a rocket scientist to pat a ball of ground meat to make a burger. But you do have to use some care to get a cooked burger that is flavorful and juicy - not overdone and dry.
Whether you use ground chicken or turkey, ground round or sirloin, ground pork or buffalo, ground chuck or plain hamburger meat to make into perfect patties for the stovetop or the grill, you want to produce unfussy food with delicious flavors. You can even use ground lamb, veal, salmon, or fresh tuna.
Three cooking techniques lead to a perfect burger, says Jeffrey Starr, executive chef at Trinchero Family Estates in Napa Valley, Calif.
First, "don't overhandle the ground patty," he said, demonstrating his recipe for Kobe Patty Melts with Fresh Pickles for me when he stopped in Perrysburg in June. "That's the biggest mistake for the home cook. You don't want a patty that is tight-grained like meatloaf. That happens with the warmth of your hands, which melts the fat in meat or poultry; the less you handle it the better." And don't pat the burger back and forth.
That hot summer day, Chef Starr demonstrated his burger-making techniques on a grill in the yard at the edge of the parking lot of Heidelberg Distributing Co. in Perrysburg; we didn't have Kobe beef, the exclusive grade from cattle raised on a special diet in Kobe, Japan (and now premium herds in America). Instead, we used ground chuck. "But, that won't be a problem," the chef said. And it wasn't.
Burgers are very versatile, as his recipe shows.
The second technique for making a perfect burger is when putting the patty on the grill, "don't push down on it with a grilling spatula or you push the juices out," he said. Cook the burger on one side then turn it once, and cook it on the other side until done. Then remove it.
His final tip: "Use quality ingredients like good ground beef and fresh seasonal ingredients." He pairs Kobe Patty Melts with seasonal pickles flavored with red onion and red bell pepper and champagne vinegar. The recipe appeals to all ages. Then the hearty rye bread slices are brushed with butter and placed face down on the grill to sear and toast.
The recipe can even be made with ground buffalo. "Buffalo burgers have a wonderful flavor. Turkey burgers do, too," said Chef Starr, culinary director of the Sutter Home Winery Build A Better Burger National Recipe Contest and Cook-off. Contest entries range from the traditional to the exotic.
Certain flavor combinations create great burgers. "Think of the dishes you like that have nothing to do with burgers and convert them into a burger," he said. A sushi bar offers ideas: Combine the flavors of fresh tuna, fresh ginger, cucumber salad, and wasabi. With a grilled tuna burger, serve wasabi mayonnaise and cucumber relish.
One entrant in the 2000 contest won the grand prize with Hawaiian Tuna Burgers with Maui Wowee Salsa. The salsa was made with Maui onion, green onion, pickled ginger, cilantro, Asian sesame oil, soy sauce, and squeezed lime juice. The yellowfin tuna was chopped and breaded with panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs). The recipe is in the Build a Better Burger cookbook by James McNair (10 Speed Press, $17.95). Mr. McNair is head judge and chairman of the national contest, which began in 1990.
Mr. Starr, as contest director, said, "I get the ingredients for the 10 finalists of the contest." The annual event with cook-off will be Oct. 1 this year. Deadline for recipes is Aug. 26.
The Blade tested the recipe (from the cookbook) for Portobello Burgers, which have sun-dried tomato mayonnaise and patties made with ground chuck and zinfandel. While the wine mixed well, there was little discernable wine flavor in the burger. (This was the Grand Prize winner in 1994.)
Chef Starr recommends pinot noir with foods that have mushrooms. "It works with spiciness of burgers more than bigger red wines," he says. "It's a nice bridging wine. You can use it with chicken and beef." Move into the heavier reds of merlot, zinfandel, or cabernet sauvignon with bigger more robust-flavored foods, but not with spicy dishes. Spicy foods will make big wines taste strong. (See column.)
For the Build A Better Burger contest, you don't have to put wine in a burger recipe, although some cooks do; others use a wine reduction sauce to intensify the flavor in the burger. Some contestants even spritz wine with a spray bottle.
"In the unreduced form, it's hard to get enough wine in a burger to taste the wine flavor," the chef says.
When serving wines with burgers, he recommends cabernet sauvignon with Buttered Pecan Buffalo Burgers with Cabernet Cranberries and Herbed Mayonnaise. Gewurztraminer pairs with seafood burgers spiced with fresh ginger and Chinese five-spice powder. Merlot goes with Peppered Lamb Burgers with "Hot Tomato" Jam. For a turkey burger, look to pinot grigio. Shiraz goes with a Chipotle-Honey BBQ Bacon Burger with Gorgonzola Cheese.
Tips on how to build your own prize-winning burger, past winning recipes, burger and wine pairing suggestions, and an online entry form are available at www.buildabetterburger.com. The top prize is $50,000 for a beef burger, and $10,000 will be awarded for the best burger containing less than 75 percent beef. Deadline for entries is Aug. 26. Ten finalists will be flown to Napa Valley to compete in a burger-grilling cook-off on Oct. 1, which will be judged by a panel of chefs and food writers. The event is sponsored by Sutter Home Family Vineyards, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the California Avocado Commission. (Trinchero Family Estates produces the wines of Sutter Home, Trinchero, Montevina, and other brands.)
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.