Better Burgers for Summer Grilling

Late May and early June in northern Wyoming are usually the doldrums for me.  Any chance to fish the pre-runoff conditions which sometimes provide a window to target hungry trout before the rivers get high and murky is gone.  And bird hunting is but a distant memory. These can be trying times for the dedicated sportsman or woman. But not so for me this year as Ann and I were more than a bit busy with the preparations for the wedding of our son Peter and his now wife, Bailey, here at our home in Sheridan.  And as with any good sized gathering of friends and family, much of my focus was on the food. 

I’ll not regale you with all the details, because we ate a lot of great food over the course of a week of preparations and during the wedding itself.  But I did want to focus in on a couple of items that I prepared more for the various family members who (thankfully!) came from as far away as the East Coast to pitch in and help us get ready, and later cleanup for The Event.  Specifically, I want to pass along my take on a couple of versions of burgers – fare that is perfect for feeding larger groups during summer weather when the grill is a constant, go-to source of heat for converting protein to juicy, tasty meals.

Venison Burgers

The first is a pretty simple variation of a classic in deer country everywhere- the venison burger.  If you think yours are just fine and anyone who doesn’t like venison shouldn’t be eating them in the first place – stop right here.  But if you’d like to make a burger that’ll have non-wild game lovers saying, “These are great!  What’s in them?” Read on.  This approach will work with deer, elk, moose, etc.

The biggest complaint I’ve heard about venison burgers is that they’re dry.  The second is that they have a “gamey” flavor. This approach addresses both.  Anyone who’s ever made burgers from wild game knows that you have to add fat to the mix.  The meat is ultra-lean with essentially no marbling.  Most people I talk to use either pork fat or mix pork shoulder into their burger.  For these burgers, I add the fat in the form of bacon.  After all, bacon makes everything better, right?  You can pick your preferred mix but I use 25%, or a 3-to-1 ratio of venison to bacon.  Why cook bacon strips to put on top of your burgers when you can incorporate it right into the patty?  Which brings me to key concept number 2. 

Regardless of the animal, the best burgers are made from meat you grind yourself.  And the sooner the burgers are grilled after the grinding, the better.  I freeze my burger meat in chunks or whole muscles and then defrost it when I’m ready to make them.  You can do this with a hand grinder, a Kitchen Aid mixer with grinder attachment, or a power grinder.  I promise you that the texture of a freshly ground burger is far superior to one made with meat ground, packed, and frozen last fall (much less fall two years ago!).  And if you take your animal to a processor, it’s far from a sure thing that the burger you get is from the yearling doe you harvested…

Which brings me to key concept number 3.  The texture of a great burger is on the loose side.  Over handling the ground meat will result in burgers that are too dense and chewy.  The other key to great texture is in the seasoning.  Venison patties should be seasoned well.  But DO NOT mix any prepared seasoning mix into your patties unless you are sure there is no salt in it.  I generally stick to seasoning with only salt and pepper, and I do so only to the outside of the patty.  Why?  Because the salt will play havoc with the texture by dissolving muscle proteins and turning your burgers into hockey pucks – firm and dry.  So don’t overwork the patties as you form them, and put the salt on just before they hit the grill.  For more on forming and salting burger meat, see Cooks Illustrated's tips.

The last thing you need to understand is that you don’t get great burgers – beef or otherwise – by dropping a bunch of patties on a grill that’s not yet fully heated and cooking them while also playing a game of corn hole.  Cook them on a hot grill, pay attention, and flip them as often as you think necessary to get good sear without overcooking or burning them.  I served these venison-bacon burgers to a mixed crowd from back east who for the most part had never eaten venison before and got nothing but rave reviews.  In fact, they went back for the leftovers for lunch the next day!

Lamb Sliders with Garlic Sauce

The other burger that I served up while we had a houseful of company leading up to the wedding was my lamb slider with garlic lime sauce.  This one is a perennial favorite and was one of the biggest hits of the week, even among those who claimed not to be lamb lovers.  I developed the recipe for the sliders themselves a few years ago and adapted a Cooks Illustrated recipe for a marinade/sauce for pork tenderloin.  The lamb burgers are great, but the sauce really makes these sliders awesome. 

Garlic-lime sauce

1 1/2 tsp grated lime zest

2 Tbsp. lime juice

2 cloves garlic, minced or grated on micro plane 

2 tsp honey

1 tsp fish sauce

1/4 cup veg oil

4 tsp plain yogurt

Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk lime zest, juice, garlic, honey, fish sauce, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Drizzle oil into mixture while whisking constantly. Whisk in yogurt.  Let stand ~ 1 hour to let flavors meld. If the sauce seems a bit thin, add more yogurt.  If you use greek yogurt, it'll be thicker to begin with.

Lamb Sliders:

2 lbs ground lamb

½ cup panko

¼ red onion, chopped fine

½ cup chopped basil

2 sprigs rosemary, minced

Zest from 1 lime

¼ cup plain greek yogurt

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together (except salt).  Form into small patties without overworking the mixture.  With patties laid out on wax paper on a flat surface, put a dimple in the center of each with your thumb or the back of a 1 Tbsp measuring spoon.  That will keep your small patties from turning into balls when they cook.  Salt to taste just prior to putting them on the grill.  Cook them on a hot grill being careful not to overcook them.  Medium is best.  Serve on slider buns and top with the garlic-lime sauce. 

Note that you can make this dish as normal size burgers, but serving them as sliders results in a better sauce/meat ratio per bite.