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Flipping for Burgers

Martha Stewart Living, June 2005

A rough-hewn hamburger sizzling on the grill seems as American as an image as the rippling Stars and Stripes. Yet seasoned meat patties are common beyond our borders, too -- particularly in much of Asia and North Africa. Grinding beef, lamb, pork -- even chicken and fish -- is a universally beloved way to pull together meats, herbs, and spices. The simple method works because when you compress a number of ingredients into shape, you meld and concentrate their flavors. What's more, grilling outdoors, a technique popularized by the Mongols many centuries ago, turns out to be the ideal method for searing juicy flavor into a burger.

Combining and even grinding the ingredients yourself allows you to control the richness of the burgers, and to a greater extent, the quality of what goes into them. A food processor will work for many tasks, but you might also consider investing in a basic iron meat grinder (available at many cookware stores). The tool quickly breaks down beef, poultry, and fish into tiny morsels, and is easy to clean. When buying meat and making your burgers, keep in mind that while lean patties sear and firm beautifully, it's important that the mixture not be too lean; a certain amount of fat or oil will be needed to hold the burgers together and keep them moist, tender, and meltingly flavorful as they cook.

The best burgers have a degree of char from the grill -- maybe even a little crunch to the outside -- as well as a softer, gently cooked interior. This textural contrast (and others, provided by a crisp garnish or a toasted bun) can add nuance, making the burger more than just a UFO-shaped meat loaf. Adding a hidden surprise inside, like some cheese, sauteed onion, or halved grape tomatoes, can loosen up the same old patty. In fact, there are any number of ways to give the standard burger an upgrade. Give some a try. They might be just the thing to make grilling burgers a two- (or even three!) time-a-week event.

Try these great burger ideas:

Stuffed Beef Burgers
Shrimp and Cod Burgers

Grilling Tips
Burgers are fairly forgiving on the grill, and they cook quickly, which is helpful when you're serving a hungry crowd at an outdoor party. Still, following a few tips will ensure the best, tastiest results every time.

Be Prepared
Have a longhandled, flexible metal spatula, spring-loaded tongs, and serving platters ready before you start to grill.

Go Natural
Use natural chunk charcoal; ignite with a chimney (instead of starter fluid) for the best flavor.

Preheat the Grate
Light fire, place grate on grill, and heat for 15 minutes before cooking to foster searing and grill marks.

Add Smoke Flavor
If desired, scatter 1/4 cup chipped hardwood such as cherry, apple, or mesquite (soaked in water for a half hour and then drained), over hot coals. For a gas grill, you can buy a stainless steel smoker box to hold chips; it fits between burners and grate.

Shape Patties Right.
A burger that is an even thickness will cook more uniformly than one that is bulging.

Stop Sticking
Brush the burgers with oil to prevent sticking. It can be helpful to brush the grate, as well; take care, however, when brushing a hot grill, as flareups may occur.

Stay Safe
Don't mix cooked and raw meats on one platter. Keep the area clean using paper towels. After cooking, scrape the hot grate with a wire brush to remove stuck-on food.