Flipping over burgers

Spring is here, and for many that means the beginning of outdoor cookouts with that old American sta

Spring is here, and for many that means the beginning of outdoor cookouts with that old American standby, the hamburger.

Rainouts? Not to worry. There are plenty of restaurants, diners and taverns out there to fill the void on those less-than-nice spring days, with their own takes on this classic sandwich. Whether you like it plain, with cheese, bacon, mushrooms, or just about anything else, there’s an abundance of choices out there to satisfy any burger lover’s palate.

“It’s like summer on your grill, all year long,” said Claudia Bush, co-owner of Oliver’s Cafe in Glenville. The cafe’s burgers have won accolades from media outlets in the past 17 years the place has been in business, including Metroland’s Best Burger award in 2009. Oliver’s is known for its daily burger specials and “Cafe Burgas” such as the Italian Burger with mozzarella and marinara sauce, or the Russian Burger with Russian dressing.

Many other restaurants have their own specials. Scarboroughs Restaurant in Rotterdam has a host of creatively named ground beef creations, ranging from the “Jabba the Hutt” (with deep fried onions, portobello mushrooms, feta cheese and garlic aioli sauce) to the “Ingram Trail” (featuring deep-fried onions and a “fiery pony sauce”). At the Circus Cafe in Saratoga Springs, you can get a burger with jalapenos, guacamole or fried onions.

It starts with the beef

But it all starts with the basic ground beef patty, which in turn starts with good ground beef. Restaurateurs agree that the meat should be fresh and the patties should be handmade.

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“What is the secret? Fresh ground beef,” said Bush, who co-owns Oliver’s with her husband, Warren. “It’s never frozen, [and] it’s hand-packed.”

Circus Cafe, which opened in May of 2004, won the 2010 Saratogian Reader’s Choice award for best burger in Saratoga Springs. According to co-founder and co-owner Christel MacLean, the reason for their burger’s local popularity is the beef.

“We work with a purveyor out of New York [City], Hunt’s Point Market, and they’re a wonderful beef purveyor,” MacLean said.

The Fountain in Albany takes things a step further and grinds its own beef.

“We do a lot of stuff that a lot of restaurants don’t do — a lot of stuff here is homemade from scratch,” said Fountain manager Pat McAvoy. “We buy the beef — I buy it from distributors, depending these days on who’s got the better price, and we cut it up and grind it up.”

Angelo Menayias, owner of the Blue Ribbon Restaurant in Schenectady and a 43-year veteran of the restaurant business, insists on using raw ground beef for burgers within 24 hours. Menayias got his start in the U.S. at age 15 as a cook at the now closed fast food joint Wetson’s Hamburgers on Nott Street in Schenectady, having just immigrated from Greece.

“If you keep your hamburgers or your ground beef in your cooler for more than 48 hours and it’s not sealed, it picks up odors from other food and the taste is always a little bit different,” Menayias said. “So if you have, like, meatloaf with garlic, and you leave it there [with your ground beef] for like two, three, four days — eh, you’re going to get that. It’s not going to be the natural, good taste that we know.”

Not just any old ground beef will do, either. To cook a flavorful burger, there has to be some fat content in the ground beef mix. Oliver’s Cafe uses ground beef with an 80 percent/20 percent split of beef and fat. Menayias recommends at least a 7 percent fat content in the ground beef.

“A real lean burger, it’s a lot healthier for you, but it doesn’t taste as good,” Menayias said. “So a real good, tasty burger, it’s got to have some fat into it, because the fat is the thing that gives the flavor in the burger. So if you have a 100 percent lean meat burger, it doesn’t taste good — it tastes like paper.”

Seasonings are usually limited to salt and pepper before cooking. Juicy Burgers & More, which opened in Ballston Spa in 2008 and added a second location in Guilderland in 2009, uses Italian sea salt and fresh ground black pepper for seasoning. However, places such as Scarboroughs Restaurant in Schenectady and Oliver’s use no seasoning.

“We don’t season at all, so you get the full flavor of the beef,” said Scarboroughs owner Patrice Else. “It’s straight ground beef, char grilled.”

Easy does it with the spatula

Blue Ribbon burgers are cooked on a flat grill, and while this process would seem easy enough, there are certain tricks to it. Most importantly, the burger should never be pressed with the spatula, according to Menayias. Although it seems to make the burger cook faster, all it really does is squeeze out all of the juice, and thus the flavor.

“Many guys, many people, or many cooks, or many restaurants, they rush the burger to be cooked quickly,” Menayias said. “And what they do is they — especially if it’s well-done — they put weight on it, or they squeeze it with a spatula. And they squeeze the hell out of it for fast cooking, and what they’re doing, actually — the hamburger is not even cooked, but all the red, the blood, it’s being squeezed out of it, and it looks like it’s done. And if it is done, then it’s too dry, and all the natural juices are out of it.”

An important part of the cooking process is the seal that develops on the meat, which helps keep those all-important juices inside the burger. For this to happen, the temperature on the grill needs to be at least 350 degrees, but no more than 400 F.

“Like any other meat, if your fire or your grill surface is less than 350, then what happens to the meat — especially with a burger or steak — it’s not getting sealed,” Menayias said. “And when you try to flip it or turn it, it gets stuck on the grill. … What happens when the hamburger sticks, it creates open surfaces on the burger, open surfaces on the meat, like lines, because the sticky part stays on the grill, so it creates mini-holes, and all the natural juices drop through the holes.”

The chefs at Circus Cafe divide cooking time between a char grill and a flat-top grill, creating a mix of both methods of cooking.

“We start them on the char and finish on the flat-top, so it’s not that total char taste,” MacLean said. “You get the crunch from the char, but the juiciness from the flat-top. That’s really the secret of our burger.”

‘You have to cook with love’

Bobby Mitchell, owner of Juicy Burgers, started his small franchise with the goal of upping the quality of a typical fast-food burger. Although the restaurant is set up like a fast-food establishment, the burgers are cooked anywhere from rare to well-done depending on your liking. The burgers are cooked in a broiler, but Mitchell was tight-lipped about the actual process.

“There are things that we don’t do that we don’t believe in — certain cooking aspects that other people do that we don’t,” Mitchell said. “That’s our secret.”

However, he did reveal the most important ingredient in the Juicy Burgers recipe.

“You have to cook with love, or else it’s not going to be a burger, a good burger,” Mitchell said. “You have to have passion for what you do. You need to surround yourself with competent people. Without that, you don’t have a restaurant, and you sure don’t have a good burger.”

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