Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hamburgers And Stuff

I've mentioned this before, but it is important to me.  It is hard to discern the place a story ends, it is hard to figure the beginnings of a story as well. Somewhere towards the end is where we are in this one, or, maybe not.

I guess my grandfather, Gramps, a man I'd never met, my father's father, would never have guessed that the story he began in the 1930s would still be narrating itself to his great grandsons, grandsons who bear his last name and a pension for beef. It's a long sort of story with the smoke of cigarettes and charcoals and sizzling fat obscuring the heart of it. It is as true as an eighty year old tale can be. It is a story about Saturdays and ground beef and hands and tradition and fathers and stability. It is, as so many stories are, universal in its specificity.

From hamburgers to sliders.

When I was a kid every Saturday night we had hamburgers. Christmas on Saturday, hamburgers. Birthday on Saturday, hamburgers. Blazing Summer heat, blizzarding Winter cold, Saturday? Hamburgers. My Dad did it because his Dad did it. The reasons are lost in obscurity, diluted by time, blurred like a family recipe on an index card.

My Dad grew up on an experimental cotton farm where his Dad, a noted botanist, worked on developing long-strain cotton for the USDA in Southern Arizona on a Pima Indian reservation. Yes, that Pima cotton. That is all another story for another time, but, imagine how big the appetites must have been, how beefy the burgers, probably colossal on hand-baked rolls, grilled over mesquite coals, juicy and as flavorful as all the wild west.

I imagine the beef, hand ground, perhaps sirloins and chucks mixed together, formed by this man I never knew, being watched by his son whom I would later watch make the patties; twisting, flattening, smoothing the edges carefully, knowing that is where the burger is most vulnerable. I watch my boys watch me and imagine they are watching the same hand choreography my Dad watched. It pleases me, it pleases time, it pleases generations past as I hope it will please generations to come.

Nearly every Saturday night around here, I make “Sliders,” my take on the burgers of my youth. I originally made regular sized burgers, dressing one for the boys and then slicing it and giving each one half. They never loved them, I mean, they ate them, but, it was never a huge deal. One day a few years back - I was still in the restaurant business at the time and “sliders,” small-bunned sandwiches, steak, chicken, bbq and the like, were popping up on menus everywhere - one day I saw slider buns in the grocery store, I bought a package and I don't think I've purchased full-sized buns since. The boys got their own burger and that started it. They got what they wanted on it, dressed it like they liked and started eating two, sometimes three, at a sitting. Ownership is a wonderful thing.

Back when I was a kid, the burger we had was from a “side” of beef my parents would purchase every once and a while. It was local and frozen fresh in butcher paper and piled in the chest freezer right behind the ping-pong table. It was good beef, but, thawed, once-frozen beef is moist from the ice crystals formed in the freezer. I make mine fresh.  In fact I have changed a lot of things about the burgers of my youth, but, I've changed nothing about the spirit of the burgers, the essence of them, their heart.  Let me show you how I do it, show the boys how I did it, and, in so doing, show the future the past, which is always a good thing.

You'll need one of these with the meat grinder attachment (I know, cool, right):


The one I use was probably purchased in the early seventies and was used by my wife's grandmother.  I took it reluctantly but I am very glad I did.  It is built like a fortress, over-powered, indestructible, and very easy to use.  It was manufactured just at the end of the era where things were made to last.  It has all the attachments, a blender, a chopper, a mixer... it is a beauty.

So, you'll need some beef.  You could use sirloin, that'd be cool, you could use some steak, but, well... don't.  You could mix sirloin with chuck, that would be good, or, you could use chuck, beautiful, fatty, flavorful chuck:


You'll need to cut it into bits, my best solution has been strips, they slide right down the grinder and you have to feed fewer into the machine.  Use your steel, that long thingee in your knife rack, to sharpen up your blade, you'll be glad you did:

Now's the fun part, or one of the fun parts.  Grind that beef:

Oh, that reminds me, you will need a piece of bread, the heel works well, to feed into the grinder when you are done, it forces the last of the ground beef out and helps clean the thing out as well:

That's an important step, but, remember to get it before you start the grinding, and so is getting the whole thing good and clean, go ahead and do it when your done grinding as the meat sits in the fridge and chills a bit:

Alright then, everything is put away and the sliders need to be formed.  Go ahead and work the meat some and be sure to get the edges smooth without any cracks.  Forming the patties was my Dad's favorite part.  I can see him now, standing at the counter gazing into the deep backyard, making those giant burgers of my youth, they were probably a good third to half of a pound - as in they varied from burger to burger, as in they didn't cook evenly, as in... weigh the burgers.

I usually go with about 80 to 85 grams, which is about three ounces or so.  Why?  Well, uh, the first time I made them I had a 2.2 pound chuck, divided by twelve and, there I was.  It seemed perfect so I still try to do that.  You've probably noticed that I have more than enough meat there in that giant bowl.  I freeze whatever is leftover for bolognase sauce or chili or, the very best, meatloaf.  I use the grinder for pork as well and combined it makes super moist, flavorful , meatloaf.  

Where was I?  Yes, I don't think the weight really matters, consistency does.  Dad's burgers were always good, because, well, meat, and I was a starving mancub.  However, some were sort of more done than others.

Next I pop the finished patties in the freezer, yes, freezer, for a few while I move ahead.  I don't want them frozen, but, I have found they hold their shape better when they start out firmer on a hot grill.  People will argue against this, and, usually, I advocate room temperature meat onto the grill or into a pan, But, these guys are small and that firmness seems to help.

Eating my Dad's burgers was the sloppiest damn thing ever.  Ketchup dripping, tomatoes sliding, and the bun as wet as a sponge but with no supporting structure.  There are two reasons for this.  The first I'll get to later but involved an onion slice sizzling on a burger.  The second is because the bun is, indeed, a sponge.

You must do this:

Toast the buns, or something.  Make the surface of the buns less susceptible to the wet, juicy mess it is trying to manage for you.  Your bun is your friend, respect it.  Now, ideally, you would have some help and someone could butter-grill the buns on a flat-top griddle to golden perfection.  Or, if you are not likely to have an assistant, you could grill them on the grill outside before you do the burgers, or during, even.  Be sure, if you do that, to always - always - buy to packs of buns because you will burn them at sometime and need more buns.

Here is what I have come to find easiest and time-friendly:

(Forget about the cookies.)  I slice the buns through - serrated knife - and spray them liberally with a spray oil and pop them under the broiler in the toaster oven, maybe six or so minutes.  I usually have to do two or three batches but, remember, the point is not hot buns, just brown them up somehow.  Oh, don't lay them out on the face you just broiled, steam will come up from them and make them soggy nulling your efforts, use a rack of some sort.

Especially in summer, my Dad made a plate of home-grown, thick-sliced tomatoes, leaf lettuce and onion slices as well.  This we called the "fixin's plate" and still do here.  I am sure that is what Gramps called it, the term echoing down the generations, trivial and essential at the same time.  Here is what mine usually looks like:

I do the "fixin's plate" as I broil the buns as the meat is chilling and the grill is warming up.  My wife thinks I am a poor multitasker, but, in the kitchen everything is happening at the same time, it's cool, we got it.

I refuse to enter into the gas or charcoal debate.  In my opinion, both are fine.  I have use both - a lot.  I have a gas grill now, so I heat it up, pretty hot with lid down.  I wire-brush the remnants of the last meal from the grill - salmon, chicken on a stick, beef on a stick, pork chops, ribs - and open it up and turn down the heat to around medium and I'm ready to go.  Ten minutes tops, I'd still wait another twenty for charcoal - 'nuff said.

Conflagrations.  Infernos.   Black smoke and raging flames licking the ceiling of a screened-in porch under which a sweating, somewhat enraged man tries to salvage blackening burgers.  Yes, memories.  Man, he flamed his old fifties patio grill up sometimes and, later, a Weber with a lid which, he contended, could quench the flames by depriving them of oxygen, which does indeed work, except, the second you lift that lid up that bad-boy will flame up your arm and singe your mustache... It's kind of funny, especially when the swearing and smoldering man is wearing socks and sandals.

Turn down the heat.  (Which isn't an option really on coals, I mean, you could push the coals around, or wait, or, you know what, get a gas grill...)

You see, the grease is what catches on fire.  Something sciency happens, and, apparently, all things have a temperature at which they ignite.  People study these things, it's science.  Keep the heat below that point and the fat drips down, sizzles politely, lets off some smoke and flavors the meat.

Which reminds me, it is still in the freezer.  If they are are frozen hard, don't sweat it, it'll be fine, just let 'em sit for a few minutes.  No, your coals won't die, you are using a gas grill.

Here they are out of the freezer, salted and ready for the grill.  You must salt them, LIBERALLY:


Let me tell you, you can add something else to the burgers here, some garlic powder, some onion salt, some cajun spice, whatever, but... don't.  Do that, if you must, to store-ground beef of questionable origins, not to the beautiful burger you just made.  Nope, just salt, and, if you must, some pepper, which I do... do.  Not too much.

Grilling.  Yeah, I can't tell you how to do that.  I have a talent for it, a gift, I am a "Meat-whisperer."  There might be a gene.  Either that, or, more likely, I have spent thousands probably of hours watching a grill, I better be good at it by now.  Grilling is time in, and, managing the heat.  Hot spots.  Learn them, deal with them.  Also, don't keep flipping the burgers, and don't you dare smash them.

You see how they are sort of all over the grill there, hot spots.  You'll learn.  Remember, medium heat and I promise the burgers won't flame up.  It's important.

So, we put cheese on ours.  I know, I know, I just said no others spices, but, I like cheese on mine.

I can't remember whether Dad put cheese on them or not.  I think he did lay some American down on them sometimes, but, not usually.  I use shredded mixed cheese, cheddar and, uh, white cheese.  It's the same we use for Taco Tuesday.

One last phrase in italics, those are the ones I need you to know.  Remember earlier I mentioned a sizzling onion.  Well, my Dad, called us to the table and one of the three boys would hold the platter of buns and he would lay the burgers, off the grill, directly on the bun.  One time, I was starving, and I grabbed one and laid an onion slice on the patty and it sizzled, like in a pan.  Yeah, don't do it that way.  Put the finished burgers on a platter lined with a paper towel or two.  Now, let them rest.  Five minutes at least.  You will be rewarded for this.  Here's what mine look like as they rest, happy:

Here they are rested and ready for the table.  This is the face of a well-rested burger:

When I was a kid, we'd eat those things, like, thirty seconds of the grill and the juices would run like a faucet, soaking the bun and the thin paper plate, running down your chin at a hundred and forty degrees.  It can sort of be disastrous, and really annoying.  The juice always got on your damn potato chips and made them all soggy as well.

I sometimes serve potato chips with ours, but I like french fries best, lots of them:

We like baked beans as well.  Here's the table ready to go, chips in this photo it looks like:

Well, that's what I do on most Saturday nights.  I don't mind grilling in the cold, so, I do it year 'round.  My Dad did them in the fireplace in Winter.  He had this contraption that held a grill and swiveled over the fire.  It was pretty cool, I can't find a picture of it, though.

Why?  Why do I do this?  I don't think I know.  I suppose it is tradition, but, that seems bigger than what this is.  This is just something I feel like doing, something, I dunno, maybe silly even.  Maybe, it is deeper than I know, some primitive man in me showing off my skills and hunting prowess.

Maybe I do it for this:

I guess I do it in a way to honor my Dad, his Dad, the past, the old ways.  Yeah, I suppose that might be it.

It's either that or the fact that they are the best damn hamburgers I have ever had, and so were my Dads come to think of it, and I think he said his Dad's were the best.  Mine are better...

Thanks for stopping around the kitchen today.  I gotta run, the burgers are in the freezer...

(One of my very first posts around here was called You Should Try The Purge and it was about an imaginary restaurant in the basement.  On the menu you was something called "Hand Burgers" and to this day I think that would be a better name.)


  1. Bill, I want to come over for dinner. Fantastic story to go along with your process.

  2. Don't like toasted buns thus they were not toasted in your youth, everyone did not like cheese so it was not added, garlic salt was added to mine as they cooked or they weren't burgers. Just sayin. Otherwise you have it right with a bit of poetic license

  3. Glad the tradition is being passed on.
    However, I want to know why it actually began.
    Enjoy your Saturday burgers.

    1. It began because my in laws lived in an area away form a lot of people on an Indian Reservation in AZ annd they always had hamburgers on Saturday night. Cooked outside in a picnic area in the summer and in the fireplace in the winter. My father-in-law worked for the dept. of Agriculture and people always said if the head of the department was there on Saturday he would get hamburgers. There were no restaurants within 20 miles and he would have been staying in the adjacent bunk house, so, I'm sure he would have. We took it from there and on to our children.

  4. Lovely story Bill...

  5. Just put chuck steak on my shopping list--and then took it off since I don't have a meat grinder. But these have got to be great even with market's ground beef! Thanks for this (AND for the Pima cotton story).

  6. You have grinded bread all together with meat. Is this good for the recipe? All though love to eat those burgers.