Happy Labor Day!: A Better Burger

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“Mom, they’re cooking like you!”

15 years ago on Labor Day, we hosted a barbecue for some associates of my husband whom we wanted to get to know better. One of the guests was a gentleman who cheffed for a local restaurant. We were only a few moments into enjoying the food when he exclaimed, “Oh my god! This is the best burger I have ever eaten.”

My husband replied, “Well, except for the ones you make, right?”

To our surprise, he said, “No, this is better than what I prepare at the restaurant.”

When he asked me later for my “secret”, I told him that I simply barbecue like my mother taught me — Korean-style: liberal amounts of green onions, garlic and ginger with reduced sodium soy sauce for tenderizing and a splash of sesame oil for taste and moisture.

Fast forward 15 years: We were at the store yesterday, shopping to once again barbecue today, and my son yells, “Mom, they’re cooking like you!”

Sure enough, in the prepared, ready to cook section of the market, the Labor Day weekend offerings were Korean-style burgers, chicken and kabobs. My son may have been surprised, but I wasn’t. Over the past eight years, I’ve noticed that many of the trendy cooking magazines and restaurants are incorporating more ethnic-fusion recipes into their repertoire. What people haven’t realized, though, is that those folks are simply catching up to how my mother and other Koreans in the United States have been cooking for over 40 years.

The difference, though, is that for some reason, the American “Korean” versions all seem to add sugar, which I simply don’t understand. It may be that the chefs believe Americans want their food sweet, but for my family, we stick to the way I’ve always made my burgers, with no sweetener added.

What’s nice about our Korean-style burgers is that it works for any type of burger, whether beef, pork, chicken, turkey, bean, or tofu. I’ve made them all, and always do the burgers get rave reviews.

What to know:

The Protein:

  1. Beef or pork: We don’t eat a lot of meat in general, maybe four times a year, if that. Overall, the consensus seems to be that eating too much meat isn’t good for you, healthwise. Sometimes, though, you do feel like a beef or pork burger, and in our case, if we do eat meat, we make sure the beef or pork is grass-fed and organic. Because we eat meat so infrequently, we figure it’s worth the additional cost for the splurge. If you want “healthier” burger, you should choose the leaner ground versions, but as a rule, burgers cook up moister if there is some amount of fat, so I often use the 85% lean version as opposed to the 93%.
  2. Turkey or chicken: If you’re going to choose ground turkey or chicken, the same rule applies as with the beef or pork. The leaner the turkey or chicken, the more likely that you’ll have a drier burger. It doesn’t mean you can’t use it, and I do, especially if we’re cooking for folks who need to watch their fat intake, but if your health is fine, an 85% lean version if fine to use over the 93%.
  3. Bean: If you are going to make a bean burger, I recommend starting with the canned versions. I know some folks don’t like canned foods, and as a general rule I don’t purchase many canned products. Canned beans, however, have the perfect consistency for burgers, and nowadays you can purchase varieties which have no salt and no sugar added to them. No matter which type of beans you choose for your burger, you’ll want to rinse them, drain them, and pat them dry before using them. Then it’s best to smash them with a fork over using a blender or processor. You want a “fresh” bean burger, not a “pasty” burger which is what you get with the traditional bean burger recipes.
  4. Tofu: Tofu burgers are really becoming vogue these days and there are many ways to make one. I prefer to use simply slice extra firm tofu and marinate them overnight in my mixture of green onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. If however, you prefer more of a “burger” style, you should use extra firm tofu which is well drained of all water and crumbled into a bowl and mixed with your other ingredients.

The Seasonings: For 16 oz of any type of protein, I usually chop up a whole lot of green onion. They’re usually sold by bunches at the store, and I use at least one whole bunch and usually two bunches. You may want less, depending on your tastes. Then I mix reduced sodium soy sauce, between ¼ to 1/3 cup with about 2 tsp of minced garlic, a tablespoon or two of minced ginger, and two to three teaspoons of sesame oil.

The Preparation: What’s important for all the burgers, is that you really don’t want to handle the protein more than necessary, so once you’ve put your protein into a bowl, you should mix all the seasonings together and add them at once to the protein. Then either using a spoon or your clean hands, only mix all the ingredient until the seasonings are more or less incorporated into the protein.

For meat or poultry burgers, you don’t need to add anything else. I gently grab about ½ cup worth of the meat mixture and loosely shaped the seasoned meat into patties. For the best cooking, you should make a little indent in the center of the burger, because your burger will then cook more evenly so the outer edge doesn’t cook before the inner, and your burger won’t puff up but stay uniform.

For bean and tofu burgers, you’ll find that you may need a binder. Not always, though, because sometimes your mixture clings enough to enough that nothing is needed. If you do need a binder, using an egg or tomato paste or either mixed with some bread crumbs works well. By bread crumbs, though, I don’t mean those masticated, fine crumbs you buy at the store. I mean taking some fresh bread slices and chopping them coarsely in your food processor. Trust me, you’ll taste the difference.

The Cooking: Okay, here’s my snobbery coming through: I think if you’re going to have a burger, of any type, you really ought to grill it. The taste is so much better. Only with grilling do you prevent the burger from steaming. If you must broil it in your oven, okay, but please don’t fry your burger in a pan. When the juices begin running out, your burgers will steam instead of achieving that nice crusty exterior and juicy center.

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