I have Depression-era parents. That's why I grew up eating freezer-burned heels of bread and why there are spices in my mother's pantry older than I am. One useful culinary thing Mom did teach me, besides making braising liquid for pot roast with Lipton's Onion Soup mix (totally trailer, but so good), is to stretch my pennies by mixing egg and bread crumbs into ground meat when I make hamburgers. Not only does this make for a lighter, juicier burger, but they taste pretty fucking awesome when you liven up the grind with minced shallots, garlic, and chopped fresh herbs.
Out at Skagit River Ranch's annual Farm Day celebration in Sedro Woolley recently, a few Seattle chefs vied for the title of Best Burger. Skagit River Ranch is the 120 acres where George and Eiko Vojkovich humanely raise 100 percent grass-fed, certified-organic beef, pork, chicken, and eggs. Their meaty-tasting meat (good for you! High in omega-3, beta-carotene, and conjugated linoleic acid!) has developed a rather cultish following with Seattle's food- obsessed and is beloved by local chefs such as Maria Hines of Tilth. Hines and her sous chef, Jason Brzozowy, were Best Burger contenders, as was Craig Hetherington, executive chef of TASTE at SAM, and cookbook writer/radio commentator/local food hero Greg Atkinson. Judges included "Oyster Bill" Whitbeck, of Taylor Shellfish Farms, and Jill Lightner, editor of Edible Seattle.
Team Maria cracked PBRs ("To make the perfect burger, you need a lot of PBR"), sliced brioche rolls, and fired up the hibachi. (Deckless apartment dwellers, don't despair: "We don't even have a grill at the restaurant," confessed Hines.) The contestants were restricted to using beef, but otherwise left to their own devices. Atkinson took the easy out by using the Vojkoviches' burger patties (tasty, but too thin by my admittedly piggy standards) but scored major points for making his own buns—delicious, supersized kaiser roll–like things just soft enough to soak up meaty juices without residual sogginess (find the recipe here). Hetherington's secret weapon was the ultracaramelized, pureed Walla Walla onions he incorporated into his grind, making a decadent, delectable burger with a meat-loafy texture. Hines came out the winner for her plump, slider-sized burgers made with egg, cumin, red chili powder, cayenne, and duck fat, grilled to just medium rare. The garnishes—homemade ketchup (recipe here), jalapeño aioli, pickled shallots, and fresh cilantro—provided a fresh, lively, well-balanced spark that kicked ass.
Here's how your burgers can kick ass, too:
• Remove your ground meat (see sources below) from the fridge half an hour in advance. You're going to be adding stuff to it, and it'll bind better if the meat isn't too cold. Allow about one and a half pounds for four people. (Too much is always better than too little, and leftover cooked burgers are great crumbled into stir-fries, pasta sauce, or scrambled eggs.)
• Get yourself a drink (PBR not required).
• Dump the meat in a large bowl. Add one egg and one or two handfuls of panko or bread crumbs (homemade, store-bought, whatever). Kinda dry? Add another egg. Mix together with (clean) bare hands. (Egg adds moisture and acts as a binding agent, while bread crumbs make for less of a gut-bomb and get you more burger for your buck.)
• Wash your hands again. (A kick-ass burger does not come with E. coli.)
• Add one large minced shallot and at least three cloves of minced garlic. (Optional: a dash or four of soy sauce or Worcestershire.) Throw in a handful of chopped Italian parsley, chives, cilantro, or any fresh herb.
• Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and mix (using clean hands again) until all ingredients are well incorporated. Form into one-inch-thick patties by scooping the meat into your hands and patting into shape. (Resist the urge to fondle too much; this compacts the meat, making for a dry, tough burger.) Make a slight indentation in the center of each patty, because that's what my mom did to prevent "shrinkage." (I have no idea if this is true or not, but it makes you look like you know what you're doing.)
• Preheat your grill, flat top, or heavy skillet (not nonstick). Hines recommends mesquite coals if possible (Lazzari is a good, widely available brand). Have another drink while you're waiting.
• Lightly oil the hot grill using a damp rag dipped in cooking oil. Reseason burgers with a bit more salt before grilling—a step Hines says is "critical." If you're using a pan, add oil and heat to medium high, and, says Hines, "make sure you brown both sides." Try to refrain from cooking past medium rare if you've thrown down cash for good meat. Add cheese of choice at end of cooking and allow residual heat to melt (put on a lid for a minute to speed it along).
• Toast your buns. Artisan or Wonder Bread, they'll taste better and it'll help prevent condiment-sog.
• Have another drink. Eat. Enjoy. Make friends clean up.
If you're too fucking lazy to make your own, TASTE at SAM has a banging happy-hour special, with Skagit River Ranch beef sliders and frites for $6 (daily 3–6 pm, 1300 First Ave, 903-5291). Tilth's (awesome) house burger is duck sliders, $15 for three (1411 N 45th St, 633-0801).
SOURCES: Hamburgers are not the place to skimp on fat, whether you use ground chuck, sirloin, or round. Chuck is the most popular and economical, and it provides a good fat and flavor balance. Look for bright pinky-red color; avoid anything gray, leaky, smelly, or otherwise biohazardous. Do not buy preformed patties. (Saving a few bucks isn’t worth eating gussied-up pet food.) Skagit River Ranch’s beef can be found at farmers markets and Madison Market (www.skagitriverranch.com). Vashon Island’s Sea Breeze Farm raises happy, healthy burgers on the hoof in its “beyond organic” rotational pasture system; if beef isn’t your thing, they’ll bring preordered ground lamb to any farmers market they sell at (www.seabreezefarm.net). PCC sells pasture-raised, antibiotic-free lamb for $6.79 a pound and ground beef ranging from $3.99 to $5.99 a pound. And even if you buy the $2.99 a pound ghetto grind at QFC, it will be vastly improved by the addition of a truly excellent egg. Pasture-raised chickens snack on foraged bugs and vegetation, and the results are exceptionally rich, orangey-yellow-yolked eggs (also packed full of that healthy antioxidant crap).