It’s been a few years since I traveled from my home in South Louisiana to compete in Napa, California on the nationally televised Food Network Challenge. It was at the Sutter Home Winery Build-A-Better-Burger cook-off where, as a finalist, I cooked my Bluesiana Burger and won the respect of the judges. I guess that out of 9000 burger entries, first runner-up was pretty respectable.
With my experience behind me, I am often asked what I would do differently today in developing a competition-caliber Louisiana burger.
Ok, let’s talk burgers and my lessons learned.
Meat, bread, and other stuff — some might say burgers are pretty simple. To be honest, they are correct – a basic, plain and simple hamburger can often be memorable. Do you remember that hamburger your mom made for you while watching her from the kitchen table? Or how about dad’s backyard, pit-grilled burgers? Those were perfect – and perfectly simple.
So, the premise of my new Louisiana burger best is simplicity and focus on quality ingredients that elevate the basic experience. If truth be told, simplicity can take a lot of thought – and work.
First things first, the meat must be of exceptional quality. In my previous burger attempts, I went for store-bought 80/20 pre-ground chuck. While adequate, I now realize that commercial grinds lack flavor, needed texture, and the fat content varies. After long research and taste trials, I discovered the perfect burger is made from ground short rib.
The bone-in, English-cut, short ribs work best. I’ve tried lesser cuts of beef as well as expensive rib-eye and choice sirloin, but the short rib, cut off the bone, dry-aged overnight and ground with some added fat, proves most consistently flavorful. This burger meat is bold, beefy and flavorful with a hearty, textural quality that redefines the burger experience.
As for seasoning the meat, it is usually done in one of three different methods, and I implore you to use only one. First, many cooks add mega seasoning inside the meat before shaping the patties, and I suggest that is dead wrong. When cooked to medium rare, the interior of the burger should have a depth of beef flavor, not masked with excessive spice. Next, lots of pit masters add a sweet sauce while grilling, but that only works to either coat the meat with a sticky mess or, even worse, burn the meat to a charcoal hockey puck.
I recommend a third, and even simpler, option — apply a dry rub to the outside of the meat. This method creates an exterior crust that seals in the juices and provides a textural contrast. To stay true to the Louisiana roots of my new ultimate burger, I developed a rub that features an icon of our state’s culinary heritage – Community Coffee. That’s right, a dark roast coffee-based dry rub that adds depth of flavor and an umami-induced taste elevation. Finely ground coffee beans, when blended with garlic powder, Kosher salt, coarsely ground black pepper and dark brown sugar, creates a coating that balances out as a dark and rich, salty, yet sweet, peppery punch.
As for cooking methods, there is a majority opinion that the backyard pit or gas grill is best for burgers. I disagree. I recommend you take a lesson from your mom and fire up the stove and take out the heaviest and blackest cast-iron skillet you can find. Open flame grilling on hot grates creates two negatives that work against the perfect burger – burning and loss of juices. No matter how fast you sear, the juices will escape, and the resulting flare-ups will burn the beef. A hot griddle seals in flavor and protects the meat with a crusty exterior.
Condiment choices are vast in the many options and uniquely different directions to go; mustardy versus ketchupy sweet, hot and spicy, or even blandly basic mayo only. I subscribe to a variation of a Louisiana Creolaise sauce. There are many recipes for a Creolaise, but my version omits the horseradish and goes with three simple ingredients; mayonnaise, Creole mustard and a splash of hot sauce.
A personal note — I am not a fan of lettuce and tomato on a burger. I will always ask for it on the side or not at all. To me, these vegetables get in the way of the whole purpose of eating a burger. It sidetracks and derails the experience by adding a foreign element that misses the point of the beef-eating experience. No salad on my burger.
Onion is a different story. Tastes vary, but personally, my perfect burger will feature my version of caramelized onions called Cajunized onions that add a zest and depth of flavor that elevates the beef experience. By adding a sweet kiss of cane molasses and grilling on hot cast iron, the aggressive bite of the onion is mellowed and rounded out to a rich sweetness punched with Cajun spice.
Cheese is crucial, and the choice of cheese is one of the most important lessons learned through my burger competition experience. There are many cheeses that work, and work beautifully, in supporting the beef. For meltability, good ol’ sliced American is best, but it just doesn’t cut it for me in the flavor factor. For the answer, it’s back to basics again – cheddar cheese. Aged sharp cheddar, the yellow variety, has just that sharp twang that mellows out all the competing burger flavors and wraps it all up in a comforting cushion of taste. But, there is a trick to melting cheddar quickly and consistently, so pay close attention to the recipe instructions.
And what about the bun?
Bread should not be an afterthought, but I will be the first to admit that baking your own buns from scratch is an overreach for a burger outing. After all, it’s just a burger. I think basic is best, and I try to stay away from the alternative options of artisan loaves of sourdough, focaccia, ciabatta and the like. I have a source for a simple, soft and light – almost brioche-like — bun that I’ve found locally in my hometown. Do your research and find a good one that you can depend on.
So, it’s back to basics for me.
While I don’t foresee entering any more competitions, I can assure you my best burger days are ahead of me. For me, cooking is a journey of discovery and sometimes you have to go to the mountaintop to see there is a simpler path to your destination, even if it does take some extra work to get there.
- ½ cup dark roast whole bean coffee, finely ground
- ½ cup dark brown sugar
- ½ cup kosher salt
- ½ cup garlic powder
- ½ cup coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- ½ cup Creole mustard or coarse-grained mustard
- 1 tablespoon hot sauce
- 2 large yellow onions, peeled
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more if needed
- 1 tablespoon sugarcane molasses
- 1 tablespoon Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 pounds bone-in short ribs
- ½ pound beef fat, cubed
- Kosher salt
- 4 hamburger buns, split
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 8 slices sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 (12-ounce) bottle of beer
- In a mixing bowl, add coffee, brown sugar, salt, garlic powder, and pepper and mix well to combine evenly. Cover and move to the side.
- In a mixing bowl, add the mayonnaise, mustard, and hot sauce. Stir together until combined. Cover and refrigerate.
- Slice the ends off the onions and then slice horizontally into medium width rings. Separate the rings.
- In a wide, heavy cast-iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the olive oil. Add as many onions as will fit into the skillet without over crowding. The key is for the surface of the onions to connect to the bottom of the skillet. Cook the onions rapidly moving them around the pan until they become translucent and then remove to a platter. Complete in stages with the rest of the onions adding more oil and butter if necessary.
- Add all the onions back to the pan and add the cane molasses. Increase the heat to medium-high and continue to sauté as they take on a caramelized, browned appearance and you begin to smell the rich onion flavor. With your spatula, scrape the bottom of the pan and keep the onions from burning. Lower the heat if the onions are cooking too fast. Continue cooking until caramelized. Add the Cajun seasoning along with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat and keep the onions in a warm place.
- For dry-aging the beef, begin two days before. Remove the short ribs from the package. Rub them with kosher salt and place them meat-side down on a wire rack over a tray lined with paper towel. Refrigerate uncovered overnight so the salt will remove water from the beef.
- The next morning, remove the tray and discard the soaked paper towels. With a dry cloth, remove the excess salt from the meat. Place the short ribs meat-side up on the tray and return to the refrigerator uncovered for 24 hours or overnight.
- Remove the tray and place the short ribs on a wooden cutting board. The short ribs will be drier with the beef more dense and concentrated with flavor. With a sharp boning knife, remove the meat from the bone making sure to retain all the fat. Carefully remove all silver skin and tough sinew from the meat. Cut the beef into 1-inch cubes of even size. Refrigerate the meat.
- Remove the extra beef fat from the refrigerator, cut into small ½-inch cubes and refrigerate.
- When ready to grind (or food process) the meat, remove the grinder or container and blade from the freezer and assemble for use. Remove the meat and the fat from the refrigerator and combine the two being sure to distribute the fat evenly.
- Begin the first grind as a coarse grind to combine the meat and break down the pieces. After you have completed grinding it all, inspect the ground meat to pick out any hard pieces or sinewy cuts. Place the ground meat back into the refrigerator so that it becomes ice cold.
- Once cold, return the meat for another grind to achieve a smaller grind which is more typical of store-bought ground meat. Once completed, move the meat to a cutting board and shape into 4 (8-ounce) patties.
- Sprinkle the top side only of the burger patties generously with the coffee dry rub and place on a platter. A trick I learned along my burger adventures is how to prevent your burgers from having that dome-shaped middle after cooking. Simply, press your thumb into the middle of the seasoned top side of each burger making a slight depression. Once cooked, the burgers will be perfectly smooth on top.
- Preheat a large heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the patties to the hot pan with the seasoned side facing up. Once the meat hits the flat surface of the pan do not move it, and certainly do not press down on it. Let the meat cook for 3 minutes on the bottom side. With a flat spatula, flip the burgers over to the seasoned side and continue cooking for two minutes more to yield a rare burger with juices running. Don’t worry if you are not a rare burger fan, there will be one more round in the skillet to cook longer to your desired degree of doneness. For now, remove the burgers to a warm platter and let rest for at least 5 minutes.
- Place a large pan on low heat. Lightly butter the inside top and bottom buns. Place the buns cut-side down in the pan and toast until just brown. Remove the pan from the heat and keep warm.
- To assemble the burgers, move the buns to a cutting board. Slather the bottom half of the bun generously with the Creolaise sauce.
- With a lid handy, place the large cast-iron skillet back over high heat.
- Meanwhile, place a portion of the caramelized onions onto the seasoned top of each of the four burger patties. Once the skillet is hot, add the burger patties topped with the onions back to the pan and cook to your desired degree of doneness. Quickly place two slices of cheese on top of the onions on each burger patty. Immediately pour a splash or two of the beer into the sizzling hot pan and quickly cover. Over the next 30 seconds, the beer will begin evaporating into steam that will bring the cheese to a perfect melting consistency. Turn the fire off and remove the cover.
- Move the burger patties to the waiting bottom buns and cover with the top bun. Serve with more ice-cold beer along with hand-cut french fries.
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