Best burgers: Quality meat, flavorful toppings

07/03/2013 6:30 AM

07/03/2013 6:31 AM

Despite the famous “baseball, hot dogs and apple pie” saying, there’s a good chance there will also be an abundance of burgers on the grill at most Fourth of July celebrations.

The hamburger is a staple of the American diet, particularly for summer celebrations given its easy grilling nature, and its popularity seems to only be escalating.

Angus O’Hara, head chef at the Galaxy restaurant in Wadsworth, Ohio, has an all-burger menu for the Galaxy’s sports bar. The menu includes more than 15 beef burger choices and turkey, tuna and black bean burgers.

O’Hara said the menu was inspired by the grass-fed beef being raised by the Leatherman family, who owns the bar. At their Circle L farm in Burbank, Ohio, the Leathermans raise Limousin cattle, a highly muscled French breed known for its lean meat.

The Galaxy is serving its Circle L Limousin beef in both steaks and burgers. O’Hara said quality beef, which is nearly as lean as chicken, is what customers want in their burgers.

“We try to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s going on and what people are asking for,” he said.

Chef Shawn Monday, who owns FlipSide in Hudson and Columbus, Ohio, said high-quality beef is the foundation for the selection of creative burgers on his menu and the one secret home cooks can duplicate when they head to their grills.

“We start with great ingredients, beef from local farms that is all grass-fed, never frozen, always fresh,” he said.

Monday said he found beef suppliers by visiting local farmers markets and getting to know the grass-fed-beef suppliers of the area, and that is something home cooks can emulate.

“Go to farmers markets and buy local and buy fresh, that is the most important thing,” he said.

Moreover, when the beef is high quality, it needs little more than just salt and pepper for seasoning, but how you top a burger depends on what your crowd is in the mood for, he said.

Monday said that, like the meat, high-quality toppings will produce a high-quality taste, and he advocates using toppings that pack a lot of flavor.

“Try smoked Gouda and smoked chipotle peppers,” he said. “Why use American cheese? Find some good 4-year-old aged cheddar cheese or an aged provolone with that nice saltiness to it.”

Monday said he prefers to top his burgers with some spiced pepper jack cheese and chili-spiced onion rings.

“I have learned to love spice in a way that I didn’t when I was younger,” he said. “We buttermilk brine the onions and then batter them in ancho chili powder and cayenne pepper and then fry them up. So the onion doesn’t vanish, use thick-cut sweet onions.”

Chef Mike Mariola, owner of the Rail in Akron, Ohio, said his restaurant prepares all of its burgers over an open flame, similar to home grilling methods.

In addition to local beef, the key to a good burger is making sure the meat is freshly ground, Mariola said.

“I like burgers that are a combination of round and chuck,” he said. “Avoid something ultra-lean. You want to go about 80 percent lean. You can go leaner, but a great burger is an indulgence, so if you are going to do it, do it really flavorfully with an 80-20 blend.”

For cooking, Mariola makes sure the grill is very hot and clean to produce the perfect sear and grill marks. Avoid the mistake of trying to flip burgers too often.

“That’s a mistake the novices will make that will ruin a really good burger,” he said. “The burger will release itself from the grill grates when it gets that sear that you are looking for.”

When it’s time to flip, the burger should not stick. Cook burgers for about five minutes on each side for medium-well meat and a bit longer for more well-done. But when cooking well-done burgers, cook over a lower heat to avoid burning them. Generally, to avoid any risk of bacterial contamination, ground beef burgers should be cooked to 165 degrees.

Once the burgers are flipped, resist the urge to use a spatula to smash the burgers, according to Mariola.

“Don’t squash the burger; it pushes all of the moisture out of it,” he said. “Allow it to cook on its own without pressing it.”

When Mariola finally eats a burger, he prefers classic toppings: cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion and bacon if he’s in the mood to splurge.

However, at the Rail, customers prefer more adventurous toppings. The best sellers are burgers topped with fried egg, bacon and Swiss cheese, as well as the burger named after Mariola himself, topped with a slice of fresh mozzarella cheese, a thick slice of tomato and basil pesto.

Mariola said either burger could easily be replicated at home, in addition to any gourmet burger once you understand the basics.

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