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Super Bowl food questions you were afraid to ask: The noble hamburger

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Chef Eli Kirshtein joins us to tell you how not to screw up the most basic of basics, the hamburger. (Hint: add bits of delicious Andy Reid walrus meat to the mix.)

Ezra Shaw

To assist in the run-up to your Super Bowl festivities, we have enlisted Atlanta chef, consultant, and former Top Chef: Las Vegas contestant Eli Kirshtein to answer some basic questions about cooking. Today's basic thing you might be screwing up: burgers.

I have been asked to give a survival guide to basic culinary issues that tend to arise for sports-minded individuals during the Super Bowl time of year. Let's start with the most basic of basics, burgers, then take a few questions from y’all.


I put burgers into two basic different types: burgers you cook to temp (fat patties), 
and burgers you cook well done (skinny, patty melt types). Don’t be arrogant. If you like your burger well done, make thin patties and stack them up, as many as you want. This will really help prevent them from coming out dry.

For big patties, make them much wider than you think you should, like a good 4-5 inches across. This will help prevent them from shrinking up and becoming more than the shape of a ball.

If you want to cook them to temp. Here is a general guide for knowing when you are there (all temps are in Fahrenheit):

  • Rare - 120-130
  • Med Rare - 130-135
  • Medium 135-150.
  • If you go under 120, the thing will still be mooing.
  • If you go over 150 you're going to get something pretty dry. But do as you wish.

For the meat itself: you can go all out elaborate and grind your own. I recommend equal parts chuck and brisket for that, or buy something pre-ground. If you grind your own you can get creative also, add some bacon to the grind if thats your style, or a piece of Andy Reid’s walrus fat if you have good resources (I hear it tastes like a 13-year-old Philly cheesesteak covered in KC Masterpiece).

If you buy pre-ground I usually worry less about the cut and more about the fat content. Don’t go with lean meat, please. Get the one that has the highest fat content, since thats the whole point here: making it tasty and juicy.

Want to keep them from falling apart? Start by mixing the meat a little bit more with your seasonings. Developing a little "stickiness" will help them hold together a good bit more. Don’t over work it, but the extra mixing helps a lot.

In terms of cooking, there are two basic ways. The fancy way (and I think far superior way) is to do it over charcoal. I know it sounds clichéd, but the flavor is much better.

The other way, which is great in a tight home/fancy downtown loft type use, especially for a small number of people: get a panini press, or in a real pinch a Foreman Grill. Hell, maybe just because you're lazy and because it's an amazing creation, go with the Foreman. I know it sounds weird, but if you cook the patty directly on the press, you will get a nice crusty sear on both the top and bottom. Plus the cleanup is easy.

Either way don't be scared of the heat, you want a little bit of crunchies all over the patty. These are a good reference point for almost anything like sausages, chicken, etc. Same techniques, same results.

Lets talk about buns. The fancy way is to go to a bakery and get a nice beautiful brioche bun. The ghetto-ass dirty south style is to go get a potato bun at the quickie mart. I am personally more a fan of the latter. Make sure you get a potato bun and not just some generic brand of buns. I like Martin’s brand myself.

Do toast the bun. That will help keep the overall burger together. It's basic engineering.

When people are dressing up burgers they usually make the mistake of just tossing stuff on haphazardly. Think about what you want and get creative. I think you gotta have onions, cheese, and mayo. Those are my only mandatories, mainly as two of them represent adding more fat to it. You can get all fancy and put more fattening things on, also: think bacon, a fried egg, slice of foie gras, or another piece of Andy Reid. Pickles are nice too.

If you buy the pre-made burgers at the meat counter with weird cheese and nuggets of broccoli or whatever they put in it, I am not responsible for your burger sucking. You gotta realize that a great burger is about the flavor of the beef, not a bunch of other crap, so if it doesn’t add to to the fattiness and beefiness of the burger, cut it loose. -

Don’t be that guy. Don’t be the dude telling everyone in the house how you make the best burgers in the world. News flash: you don’t and most likely never will. If you make a good burger let it speak for itself; it doesn’t need to be an extension of your ego. In Atlanta it's Holeman and Finch's burger, in Napa it's Taylor's Refreshers, and in NYC it's possibly Burger Shack. But really, the perfect burger is a unicorn. It doesn't exist.

Misc questions from y’all:

RT @CowboyCane "how to cook a steak on a gas grill, because i don't have enough money for your GD Big Green Egg!"

Cook it the same way, just make sure you let it sit nice and long on each side to develop a good brown. Or just do it in a cast iron pan on the stove. Gas grills are kinda boo boo.

RT @TomFornelli "I have trouble understanding why non-Italians even bother trying to cook."

I have trouble understanding why people in Chicago think that deep dish is real pizza.

RT @PMGabby "how do you effectively scoop off the fat from your homemade stock (chicken, beef)?"

Actually a good question. Strain the stock and let it cool overnight and scrap it off the top, or if you’re in a rush, get a tall narrow container (think like a big gulp 520oz cup or something) and pour it in. The fat will rise to the top in a thicker layer and it easier to take it off. You could even use a turkey baster for that.

RT @Jordan_Clark "How can I cook pork cutlets in a pan and not have them turn out like shoe leather?"

Well, you’re almost for sure just overcooking them. Don’t be scared to serve pork medium, this isn’t the 1800’s and botulism really isn’t around that much any more. And also try brining them: they might end up with more of a "ham" like texture, but they will be juicier.

RT @tamattes "Cutting board sanitation! Wood, plastic, other?"

Very important: I go thick plastic every time. Clean well between uses with hot water and soap.

Eli Kirshtein is a chef and consultant who lives in Atlanta. You may also know him from Top Chef: Las Vegas. He can be found at Twitter at @EliKirshtein. He would like you to cook at home, and also not to kill anyone while doing it, and therefore encourages you to use online resources with sound information about cooking safely. Resources like this:

DJ Paul and Eli both wish you bon appétit!