These chili burgers compete head-on with the joys of a great steak. Juicily tender inside, and with a sealing char on the outside, there are huge flavors here. The secret to such stellar burgers? Just follow some simple rules.
It’s now a hundred years since the modern hamburger set out on its journey to worldwide popularity.
That globetrotting journey began in Wichita, Kansas — with the opening of the first White Castle restaurant in 1921. It sold small, square, 100% beef patties that were cooked on a grill over their own little pile of shredded onion. Along with sliced dill pickle, the patty, and its accompanying onions were served in a griddle-warmed, purpose-baked bun.
The restaurant’s early success triggered the world’s first fast-food chain, and the formation in 1924 of a corporation called the White Castle System of Eating Houses. This was the start of the ‘system restaurant’ where every link in the chain follows a strict set of guidelines — from how the food is produced, cooked and presented, to the staff’s uniforms and the premises’ architecture and interiors.
And what has happened to the burger in all those years since the early 1920s? Well, there are now so many different variations on the original theme that there’s no definitive way to make one. But, for me, there will always be just two choices involved in creating an outstanding burger — the beef and the bun. Plus, I add two extra smart rules to max out the flavor of these chili burgers.
Rule #1: Start with a trip to your butcher — great patties need great beef.
But not just any beef. Chuck steak is to burgers what sunshine is to summer. So, only ever chuck, and coarsely ground, too, please.
To produce the richness of beefy flavors that are a hallmark of every great burger, chuck has the essential, balanced combination of around 80% meat and 20% fat.
Here’s why that matters so much. When chuck is ground coarsely, those meat-to-fat proportions deliver ‘flavor flow’. Flavor flow? Yep. When you cook patties over searing heat — and I mean searing — the fat melts and its flavors flow juicily through the meat.
And then there’s another bonus from that type of grind — it gives a lovely, varied texture to your patties. They’ll have a slight, almost crumbly structure that’s contrasted by an interwoven silky smoothness.
Choose the right beef, have it prepared the right way, and you’re well on your way to making five-star chili burgers.
Rule #2: A few little extras bring out the very best in your beef for these chili burgers.
A fresh, good size, green serrano chili adds a great lift to this burger. Keep the heat to the fresh serranos — no additive chili powders or other fiery seasoning blends. Chopped fairly chunkily, it’ll give just enough heat to let you know it’s there, but it won’t quarrel with your burgers’ beautifully beefy flavors.
And, for me, those flavors really get the red-carpet treatment when they walk down it hand-in-hand with a little Worcestershire sauce. And by a little, I mean just three teaspoons mixed into one-and-a half pounds of your ground chuck. The only time you’ll notice that spicy, tangy sauce is when it isn’t there — and your burger tastes grand instead of exceptional.
My final addition to the beef for our chili burgers? Sun-dried tomatoes — the salty, velvety soft ones that come in a jar with olive oil. The deep, dark red adds an appealing color to the patties, but it’s their saltiness that I’m really after.
And there’s a very good reason for wanting that. Burger patties react badly when straight salt gets added to them before they hit the heat. It turns them rubbery. Simple as that.
Rule #3: The buns — choose wisely.
Buns are what distinguish a burger from a sort of hashed beef, meatloaf-y sandwich. A burger bun is a bun with a mission. Its task is to provide you with something with which to hold a hot, juicy, ground-beef patty.
The bun is an implement as much as it is an ingredient. It has a function. Anything that looks as if it might fall apart when confronted by a cooked patty, or turn gooey and then hotly cement itself to the roof of your mouth is a no-go.
And if the bun won’t hold up to a little toasting heat, then it’s going to be pretty useless at its job. Buns so thick that they prevent you from comfortably biting into your burger’s full cross-section are also out. As is anything vaguely exotic like brioche or, heaven forbid, the insanity of a croissant.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that form dominates taste. A soft, juice-absorbing texture must be matched by lightly chewy structure. You want a bun that’s honestly plain and definitely knows its keep-it-all-together place.
As an indication of how important it is to choose the right buns, the dedicated folks at Serious Eats have actually done a really detailed review of the different styles and brands.
Rule #4: Skip the ketchup and mustard. Make a spectacular relish for your chili burgers.
I keep this very simple indeed for these chili burgers. A little roughly chopped iceberg lettuce, a few small slices of dill pickle, just a hint of mashed garlic, few pinches of salt, and a squeeze of fresh lime. Lightly stir all that into some good mayo, and you’ll keep me a happy, burger-loving man all summer through.
Certainly, play around a little with the quantities until you find a mix that really suits your tastes. My recommendation, build up the flavors little by little until you have a relish that you’d happily eat all on its own.
Ketchup? Fabulous if you’re serving your burgers with fries. Otherwise, for me, it has no place anywhere near a burger that’s as good as ours.
Five-Star Chili Burgers With Homemade Relish
For the relish
- 4 heaped tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1/4 iceberg lettuce roughly shredded. I cut slices about ¼-inch thick first, and then roughly chop the lot.
- 6 dill pickles halved lengthwise, then sliced into 1/8-inch thick half-moons
- 1 clove garlic peeled and finely mashed or grated
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley finely chopped, stalks and all
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice approximately the juice of 1/2 of a lime
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
For the burger patties
- 1 serrano pepper halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4 inch slices
- 1 1/2 pounds coarsely ground chuck steak 6 ounces for each patty.
- 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 sun-dried tomatoes roughly chopped. Choose a variety that’s packed in olive oil, and only olive oil. If the sun-dried tomatoes are halved, use four halves.
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper I like it, but it really is optional
- Olive oil for very lightly coating the patties just before they hit the heat.
- Ground sea salt for sprinkling top and bottom on the lightly oiled patties – just before they hit the heat
Making the relish
- Gently stir all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. You might like to adjust the quantities – not too much – until you have a relish that perfectly suits your tastes.
- If you like, keep a little of the parsley aside to sprinkle on the top of the relish as a summery green garnish.
Making the patties: be cool, be quick and be gentle
- Cold is cool. Ground chuck with a good fat content needs to stay cold so that the fat only starts to melt when your patty hits the heat. For the very little mixing that’s needed, a steel bowl and wooden spoon will help keep the temperatures low.
- So, tip all the ingredients – except the olive oil and salt – into a mixing bowl. Now gently, and I mean gently, stir the mix just enough to bring all the ingredients evenly together. Good. Time now to form your patties.
- Divide the patty mix evenly into four. Gently hand-mould the mix into four patties that are no more than 3/4 inch thick and four inches in diameter.
- What’s really important here is to avoid compacting the patties too much. Use just enough hand pressure so that the mix holds together in somewhat flattish discs. A neat-edged, uniformly round shape is way less important than a lightly compacted patty.
- Now pop them onto a plate and let them chill in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes.
Cooking the burgers – and giving the buns a little toasting
- Heat the skillet* over a high heat for a minute or so until it’s really hot. As that’s happening, use your fingers to quickly spread a 1/4 teaspoon of olive oil over each patty’s top and bottom. Now sprinkle a good pinch of salt over each oiled side. Grand. Your patties are heading for that hot, hot skillet right now.
- Lay the patties into the skillet and let them sit on that searing heat for two minutes on each side. That will give you medium rare patties – each with a nicely charred, just slightly crunchy outside and a still just pinkish, juicy inside. Perfect. Don’t be tempted to fiddle with the patties as they cook, just let them be for those two minutes each side.
- Remove the patties and set them aside on a warm plate. It’s time to put a little toasted color onto the buns. So, slice each bun through its waistline, and add all four tops – cut side down – to the skillet and turn the heat to high. Leave them on that heat for 90 seconds so they just pick up a little toasty golden colour. Done. Turn off the heat and remove the tops from the skillet.
Serving the burgers
- Spread a generous layer of the relish onto the untoasted bottom of each bun. Lay a patty on top and then spread another kindly helping of relish onto the patty’s top. That’s it. Done! Serve at once with napkins.