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Build A Better Burger

by John Raven, Ph. B.

May is a great month to get out in the backyard and cook up the world's perfect dish -- the hamburger.

Oh yes, perfect. It contains all the basic food groups and can't be beat for taste and ease of preparation.

Hamburger History

The history of the hamburger precedes the golden arches by a few years. The first record of a hamburger is from 1890 when Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut, fried up some beef scraps and put them between two slices of bread for a customer who was after a fast meal.

In 1891, Otto Kausw of Hamburg, Germany, served a fried beef sausage patty topped with a fried egg between two slices of bread. The sailors who ate in his establishment took the news of the great delicacy back to New York where it became known as a "Hamburger".

In 1885, Charlie Nagreen was selling meatballs at the county fair in Seymour, Wisconsin. Sales were not too good. Charlie decided that sales were poor because meatballs were hard to eat while strolling around the fairgrounds, so he flattened the meatballs, put them between slices of bread and called it hamburger.

Were hamburgers invented in Texas?

The Texas connection comes in when Frank Menches of Athens, Texas, substituted a fried hamburger steak for the usual sausage patty in his sandwiches, and it was a hamburger.

A few years later in , Fletch Davis, also from Athens, revived the recipe, adding a slice of fresh onion to his hamburger. It proved to be so popular that he took his operation to the World's Fair in St. Louis, where it became the forerunner of today's burger. In Texas Fletch Davis is recognized as the inventor of the hamburger as we know it.

Today's traditional Texas hamburger comes off a black griddle. The best ones are made from hamburger that is hand shaped into the patty. There are a lot of store-bought frozen patties served but they are for the most part inferior.

The real burger is fried on the griddle. It's flattened to the max with a big, heavy-duty spatula, and most burger chefs have a large, wooden hammer that is used to really put some pressure on the patty. The patty cooks fast because all the juice is pressed out and the meat is in total contact with the griddle.

While the patty is browning, the bun is toasted on the side of the griddle. The assembled hamburger has sliced fresh onion, a slice of tomato, several slices of pickle and a leaf or two of lettuce. It comes with mustard. If you want mayonnaise, it's a special order. Everything is wrapped in paper and, if the hamburger was properly cooked and assembled, grease will soak through the paper before you can get it to the table. Along with some French fries or a bag of chips and a big RC Cola, no finer eating can be had.

Hamburgers from the Grill

The best burgers in Texas are made by the thousands in backyards over a grill full of hot coals. Nothing can beat that outside flavor.

Your selection of the meat for your burgers is the most important part of making a great burger. Most of what you find in the supermarket is okay. I'm not real picky so I usually opt for the ground chuck. It has enough fat in it to make it flavorful and juicy and, if it's fresh, there are no problems.

If you are on the picky side and want to cut down the fat content of your burgers, have your butcher custom grind you a few pounds. You want a little fat in it for the aforementioned flavor and juiciness.

A half pound of meat makes a good, big burger that is a meal. If you have delicate eaters, you might want to cut back to a third of a pound. The best way to get your burgers to come out all the same size is to find a cup or a scoop that holds the amount you desire and then use that to measure out the portions. Form the meat into a ball and then flatten it. If you have trouble getting the meat to stick together, mix in just a little flour until it holds its shape. You want the patty to be of equal thickness from edge to center so it will cook evenly. If the edges are flattened out they will char before the middle is done. I have had good luck using a tortilla press lined with clear plastic to flatten the meat balls. You can use your hands or a rolling pin or an empty wine bottle, whatever works for you.

Your selection of buns is important, too. You want fresh ones. Be sure you get the ones that are sliced all the way through. Some have a little hinge attached, and that always tears a big chunk out of the bun when you try to assemble it.

The buns can be toasted on the grill or just warmed to your liking. If you are going to toast them, give them a light coating of butter or olive oil before you put them on the grill. Buns left in the cooker too long will dry out, so watch it.

The patties should be seasoned with salt and fresh ground black pepper. They need to cook quickly over a bed of hot coals. Long, slow smoking will remove all the juices and you'll get a tough, tasteless patty. Turn the patties when the top side begins to ooze juices.

Regardless of what you hear from the media, a medium rare burger made from good quality meat will not send you and your family screaming to the nearest ER. Some folks prefer a slightly rare patty. Due to the thinness of the patty, it's difficult to use a meat thermometer on it. Best thing is to just cut a small slit in one of the patties and check the interior for color. Slightly pink is medium rare; gray is well done.

Hamburger Toppings

To assemble the burger, you need to have on hand: mustard, mayonnaise, onion slices or rings, ripe tomato slices, pickle slices and cold, crisp lettuce.

The real topper for the backyard-grilled burger is your favorite barbecue sauce. Brush the patties on the grill with your sauce just as they get done. The barbecue sauce will blend just right with the mustard or mayonnaise.

If you live nearby, call me next time you make burgers, and I'll come over and give you a free assessment of your product.

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