That American favorite has hit the big time, with its endless variations - not all of them beef.
Liberated by the low carb diet craze, the burger has stepped out onto the food scene with pizazz.
This year's Oscar winners dined on In-N-Out Burgers, from a family-owned chain that prides itself on fresh ingredients and quality beef, at a black-tie Academy Awards party. Four-star chefs feature burgers on their menus, and snappily designed burger shops have proliferated; one in New York City fronts as the lobby for a nightclub.
There's even a documentary film showcasing some of the best hamburgers in America.
"The American palate has grown up over the last 20 years," said Dave Zino, acting director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's culinary center. "(Consumers) are looking for bold flavors."
For the home cook seeking to expand his or her repertoire, three cookbooks celebrating the versatility of the burger were published in the past few months:
Burgers: 50 Recipes Celebrating an American Classic by Rebecca Bent with Tom Steele. (Clarkson Potter, 2004, $16.95).
Great Burgers by Bob Sloan (Chronicle Books, 2004, $14.95).
Burgers Every Way by Emily Haft Bloom (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004, $19.95).
"It's the iconic American sandwich, really, the definitive American food," Bloom said, interviewed recently. "On any given day, millions of Americans are eating burgers - even if you're not eating beef."
All three books begin with the classic beef burger and explore its variations. The authors also offer alternatives for the beef-averse: mouthwatering chicken, lamb, turkey, veal and fish options.
Basically, Bloom said, "Anything you can bind together, from vegetables to Kobe beef, is a burger."
George Motz, director of the film Hamburger America, spent 21/2 years traveling the United States in search of the best burgers, focusing on eight establishments that have been continuously operating for at least 40 years.
"(The film's subjects) saw it as truly an American food item, something they can make from scratch," Motz said.
By following a few simple suggestions, the home cook can make burgers just as juicy as those found at the best restaurants.
First, start with fresh beef. It doesn't necessarily have to be the more expensive cut of sirloin. Bloom says that ground chuck is a better choice because sirloin loses its fat and juices, especially on the grill.
Mary Young, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, recommends trying one of the leaner cuts of beef for the saturated-fat conscious.
"The leaner versions of ground beef show how little fat is in ground beef," she said. "There's 11 grams of fat in ground turkey, compared to 5 grams in 95 percent lean (beef)."
Of course, the leaner cuts will be drier, but adding a sauce or some wine to the meat will help make it juicer.
When preparing the burgers, the key is not to overwork the meat or the patty will become too dense. Just work the meat gently.
Zino recommends that salt be added after the patty has been browned because salt brings out the juices. Seal the juices in, then add salt.
The patty should have a uniform shape, no matter how thick.
"Use a more cylindrical, less oval shape for even thickness to get a nice, moist burger throughout," Bloom said. She compared the shape of the perfect patty to a hockey puck, formed by using your thumbs to sculpt the sides.
When putting the meat to the heat, any pan that conducts temperature evenly will do. A well-used cast-iron skillet adds flavor, but a nonstick pan is fine. Avoid using too high a temperature, or the outside will burn before the inside is done; on a grill, the coals should be hot, not flaming.
Zino said a half-inch patty should take 11 to 13 minutes and a three-quarter-inch patty 13 to 15 minutes to cook through for a medium burger. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site says beef should be cooked to 160 degrees.
Using a good offset spatula, flip the burger just once midway through cooking. Do not press down on the burger. The sizzle may dazzle your guests, but that appealing sound is the flavor fizzling. The noise is the byproduct of the fat and juices dripping onto the coals, leaving a drier burger.Caesar Salad Beef Burgers on Garlic Crostini
1 pound ground beef (95 percent lean)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Salt and pepper
4 romaine lettuce leaves
1/4 cup freshly shaved or grated Parmesan cheese
For the Garlic Crostini:
8 slices sourdough bread (about 4 by 3 by 1/2-inch)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, cut lengthwise into quarters
Total preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes.
Combine ground beef, minced garlic and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl, mixing lightly but thoroughly. Lightly shape into four 1/2-inch-thick patties.
Place patties on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill, uncovered, 11 to 13 minutes to medium (160 degrees) doneness, until not pink in center and juices show no pink color, turning occasionally.
Season with salt and pepper, as desired.
Meanwhile, brush both sides of bread slices lightly with oil, as needed. Place bread around outer edge of grid. Grill a few minutes until lightly toasted, turning once.
Remove bread slices from grid. Rub both sides of each slice with a garlic quarter.
Place one lettuce leaf on four of the bread slices; top each with a burger.
Sprinkle evenly with cheese; cover with remaining bread slices. Cut burgers in half, if desired.
Makes 4 servings.
Cook's tip: Use a vegetable peeler to quickly shave Parmesan cheese.
Nutrition information per serving: 349 calories, 9g fat (4g saturated), 69mg cholesterol, 523mg sodium, 35g carbohydrates, 2g fiber, 30g protein.
Source: National Cattlemen's Beef Association.Tex-Mex Burgers
1 pound ground chuck
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (wear gloves when preparing)
1 cup Spicy Tomato Salsa (recipe follows)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 soft corn tortillas
1 ripe avocado, pitted and sliced
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Preheat a broiler or charcoal or gas grill to medium-high heat.
Using a wooden spoon (or your hands, if you are wearing gloves), mix together the ground beef, jalapeno, 1/4 cup of the salsa, and salt and pepper in a large bowl until the ingredients are evenly distributed.
Form into 4 patties, a little flatter and greater in diameter than a usual burger shape. Broil or grill them, flipping once, until cooked through, about 4 minutes on each side.
Place tortillas in microwave, two at a time, and cook on high for about 20 seconds. Arrange each burger on a warm tortilla and top with the avocado slices, shredded cheese and additional salsa. Alternatively, wrap each burger and the toppings in a tortilla like a burrito.
Serve with additional salsa on the side, and red beans and rice, if desired.Spicy Tomato Salsa
12 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion
1 tablespoon seeded and minced jalapeno chili pepper (wear gloves when preparing)
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients in a small glass bowl.
The salsa may be used immediately for the burgers, but chill it for at least an hour if serving it as a dip.
Makes 4 servings.
Source: Recipes from "Burgers Every Way" by Emily Haft Bloom (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004, $19.95).