The Great Outdoors: Cookout Burgers

The grill is fired up, the beer is iced down, summer's full on. As hamburgers hit the grate, the smoke rises, flames shoot, and the sizzle soothes. Then I slide the spatula under a patty, flip it, and...the circle breaks into three pieces.

Sure, I could have formed the burgers into thick compressed balls, but that results in a crumbly-dry gray outside with a squeamish shade of pink inside. What to do?

Houston is the Hamburger Center of the Universe. Many burger joints here caramelize their patty crust on a searing-hot griddle. But that method forms a greasy aerosol cloud in my poorly-ventilated kitchen.

I decided to put cast-iron on the propane grill, even though I predicted it would be a disappointing compromise. But sometimes life goes better than expected.

I've found that the best uncooked hamburger is about five ounces, slightly more than four inches in diameter, made with 80/20 ground chuck. One pound of ground beef divides three ways, and 1¼ pounds splits four ways. I salt and pepper the beef, stirring it with a chopstick, to avoid over-handling. A two-cup Pyrex glass storage bowl is perfect for forming patties by lightly pressing the beef into the bottom. I remove the patty, round the edges, and rub a little dent in the middle, as the steam from cooking causes the center to rise higher than the edges.

It took five minutes to heat up a cast-iron comal or skillet on high heat. The comal only held three or four burgers, but 12-inch-square, and full-size 20-by-10-inch griddles are made by Lodge.

Once I dropped the burgers on the hot iron, they got a perfect brown sear in three minutes. They came right off when I slid the spatula underneath, no breaking. After three minutes on the other side, the quick-read thermometer read 145˚, and the beef was pink but safe on the inside. I prefer 155˚, still slightly pink, and juicy, so I cooked them four minutes on the second side.

There was a flaw--no grill marks on the burgers. Some guests may grumble, but when the beef is laid on a toasted Central Market Pain au Lait bun and decorated with condiments, as mine was, who cares about stripes?

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