The grilled hamburger is the quintessential summer food, and grilling has long been a favorite summertime activity for most dads. Even men who can't boil water without burning it feel the pull of the outdoor grill, and their ancient instincts awaken from their primal slumber at the thought of cooking meat with fire and knives.
For those who are new to grilling and barbecuing, we want to offer a few tips, tricks, and recipes for you to make the most of your summer grilling time.
The word "barbecue" originally comes to us from the Arawak (Haiti/Hispaniola) word barbacoa, which then became the identical Spanish word, which then became barbecue. It means "a framework for grilling meat and fish." The grill is the contraption you cook on, whether it's coals or gas, but it's also known as a barbecue. Even though the two words are used synonymously, you should also understand there's an important difference between grilling and barbecuing.
Barbecue is any kind of meat that's cooked "low and slow" with indirect heat and lower temperatures. Think ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, and so on. In the American South, "barbecue" refers to the food, not necessarily the cooker. Grilling is usually faster, done with higher temperatures, and directly over an open flame — hamburgers, hot dogs, and bratwursts are grilled over, well, a grill.
If you have never or rarely cooked outside, we're going to stick with the grilling since barbecuing is a little more complicated. You want to get a few bad burgers under your belt before you tackle $40 worth of spare ribs.
Assuming you've got your grill purchased, and you've settled on a side in the "grate debate" of charcoal versus gas, you're ready to start cooking.
Let's start with some cheeseburgers.
Before you start, lightly butter both sides of all the buns you're going to use, and then set them aside.
You can prepare your hamburger meat any number of ways: Mix in several spices; add chopped onions; mix an equal amount of sausage and beef (i.e. one pound of each); or make plain patties without any extra ingredients. Regardless of what you pick, your best bet is to pick ground chuck with at most an 85/15 meat-to-fat ratio.*
*You can get the low-fat ground sirloin options (90/10, 92/8), but those tend to dry out faster and fall apart while you're flipping them. If you're going to use the lower-fat beef, you're better off using a pan. Just put a cast iron pan right on the grill and let it get good and hot. Or buy a pound each of 80/20 and 92/8 and mix them evenly.
Form the meat into equal patties and mash them to spread them out. Don't make fat patties, make wide ones, because they'll cook faster and more thoroughly. Drop them on the grill and then leave them alone!
Let them sit about four or five minutes on one side, and then flip them, and cook them for about 5 minutes on the other side.
And then leave them alone again!
You're going to be tempted to squish them and squeeze them with your spatula, because all that grease spitting out creates flames, and you're going to feel like a badass with fire shooting up all around you. This is a mistake, because it will dry out the meat and you'll get a hockey puck instead of a hamburger.
After four minutes on the second side, you're going to squeeze one burger a little bit with your spatula. Pay attention to the juice that squeezes out of the meat: If it's red or pink, the burger is not well-done. If it's clear (or at least not pink), it's done. (If you're not sure, cut one slightly in the center and pry it gently apart to see if it looks done.)
Some people prefer their burgers done medium well, others prefer them well-done. And some people laugh in the face of food poisoning, and want their burgers to be medium rare. At the very least, your burger should be cooked to at least 160˚ Fahrenheit to avoid any food-borne illnesses; use an instant read meat thermometer to check your hamburgers' doneness.
After you've flipped the burgers the first time, add slices of your favorite cheese so it can melt in the grill's heat. Whether you're slicing up a block of sharp cheddar, using pre-sliced mozzarella, or just love the simplicity of Kraft singles, now is the time to add it for the fully melted effect.
Also after you flip the burgers, put all the buttered buns on the grill and flip them after 1 - 2 minutes per side, then remove them. (Do this with hot dog and bratwurst buns as well.)
Build your burger with pre-sliced onions, tomato, pickles, and any other condiments you feel like.
Also, it's a little-known, but very important fact that summer hamburgers have half the calories of regular hamburgers, so you can eat a second one without any guilt.
(Editor's note: Summer hamburgers have the same calories as regular hamburgers. But eat a second one anyway.)
Hot Dogs and Bratwursts
Hot dogs can go directly on the grill, with no preparation. It's hard to mess up a hot dog, but you can burn the bejeezus out of it, so be careful. (For a tasty hot dog sauce, cut one slice off an onion and dice it up. Mix 2 tablespoons mayonnaise with 1 tablespoon of mustard together and add the onions. Spoon onto a hot dog and enjoy!)
If you put bratwursts directly on the grill, they may burst or crack the skin and dry out. To avoid this, simmer them in a shallow pan with some beer first. This is called parboiling, and it prepares the brats for grilling. You don't need a full rolling boil, but they should simmer for a few minutes. Just pour the beer (or water) 3/4 of the way up the sausages and cook it on a low heat until the liquid is at a low-grade boil.
Brats typically cook over a medium heat, around 300˚ – 350˚F and take around 20 minutes to reach that 160˚F internal temperature. So if you're grilling brats with other meats, plan accordingly. Parboiling first will also cut down on grilling time quite a bit.
Also, unlike hamburgers, you can't dry out a hot dog, but you can easily dry out a bratwurst just by piercing it with a fork while it's on the grill. So don't poke it or do anything that pierces the skin. Use tongs instead of a fork to turn them over.
Having said that, watch out for little bubbles of liquid under the skin, because those will explode while you eat them and can get on your clothes. In that case, you'll want to pierce those bubbles with about a minute of cook time left so you don't cook out all the moisture.
Practice your outdoor grilling a few times this summer until you feel comfortable with managing burgers and brats, getting the feel for the right temperatures of your grill, cook times, and any idiosyncrasies. From there, you're ready to tackle steaks, fish, chicken, and even start barbecuing some ribs and brisket.
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