So you've got your grand Memorial Day weekend feast all planned, your spread of exotic, expensive victuals purchased and prepped and ready to be grilled and smoked and barbecued and so on. Brined chicken breasts and home-ground-spice-rubbed pork ribs and organic farm-raised fair-trade cockles; a rainbow cornucopia of vegetables and gourds and fruits and fungi all uniformly chopped and seasoned and ready to be stuffed into the festive holiday half-a-cow. And now you're looking for that last, special something-or-other, that one special signature dish to tie all these disparate elements together, wow your guests, and elevate your cookout into the annals of cul-de-sac hist—
Psych! That's bullshit. You're making cheeseburgers, because you are not an asshole.
The first thing to do, of course, is to make a fire in your crummy charcoal grill. This doesn't need to be thermite-hot, like when you grilled chicken breasts—you don't need an entire huge bag of lump charcoal, which is nice—but, still, a pretty hot fire is best. If you feel like you have enough control over the proceedings to shoot for what could be described as medium-high heat, then, uh, do that. Otherwise, I mean, as long as you're not planning on cooking your burger patties over a flashlight, you are still probably going to have good-tasting burgers.
While your fire is settling in, go back inside and prepare burger patties. And now, we pause for a word on burger patties. Another word. Another lot of words. Shut up.
So, think of all the television commercials you've seen for fast-food or "casual dining" chain restaurant burgers in your life. No, literally, think of all of them. Right now. How do they all, without exception, describe their burgers? They all use the word "thick," don't they? Come on in and try our thick, juicy, grass-fed Black Angus quarter-pound meat puck covered in Swiss cheese, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions, and 24 fluid ounces of Habanero-bourbon-flavored corn syrup, or achieve a similar effect by hiring a burly Scotsman to hit you directly in the ass with a sledgehammer! "Thick," right? They all say that. And they are all stupid.
Thick burger patties seem like a great idea when you're planning your cookout and you envision serving your guests these enormous showstopping burgers taller than their heads and them making big-eyed impressed faces and thinking about what a generous host you are. Thick burger patties seem like an even better idea when you're actually forming patties with your hands and, fuck, it's gross and tedious and you have to goddamn autoclave your hands just so you can take a 10-second nosepicking break without contaminating your brain with E. coli bacteria, and you just want to make, like, one giant patty the size of a large pizza and be done with the whole fucking thing.
And then you cook your enormous burger patties, and what do you get? Huge wads of unpleasantly undifferentiated pink mush, sheathed in not nearly enough crisply charred beef. Big boring slabs of cow-pudding that slide out of the far end of the bun whenever you try to bite them, and then avenge the grisly violence of their origin by unleashing raging torrents of rendered beef fat down your neck to saturate your shirt, and you have to spear them with a goddamn popsicle stick to get them to just stay the fuck in place, and this isn't like eating a burger at all but like some kind of humiliating goddamn Candid Camera segment and you hate it and yourself and everything. And then all your guests rise from their chairs in unison, shake their heads in bitter disappointment, and point at you in silence; you, the thoughtless grillmaster who ruined their Memorial Day, who never should have been trusted with the food in the first place, who, remember that time back in 1994 when he drove the lawnmower over a tree-stump and broke it and got a flying wood-chip stuck in Uncle Walter's buttcheek? God, he's always been a loser. We should go. Let's go.
(Also, you can't stack thick burger patties. Stacking burger patties is great.)
Don't do this to yourself. Make burger patties that are no thicker than your middle finger. Make them out of the 80 percent lean, 20 percent fatty ground beef so that they will still be juicy enough to grease up your face when you eat them. And, for the love of all that is good and decent, do not stuff your burger patties with a bunch of stupid bullshit.
Here is a way to make good burger patties. There are other ways to do it, but this one does not require any equipment other than your hands. They will not look like the perfect hockey pucks you get at restaurants, but they will taste great and that is what you will care about.
Grab a wad of cold ground beef. Very gently roll it between your hands once or twice, just until it meets the most generous impressionistic understanding of the word spherical. Gently press it back and forth between your palms until it is flat and (basically) disc-like and not thicker than your middle finger. Is it roughly the circumference of the palm of a not-ridiculously-huge grown man's hand? Yes? Sprinkle it with some Worcestershire sauce, grind some black pepper onto both sides of it, and set it on a plate. There. Do that some more times. A pound of ground beef should make you four or maybe five of these. You'll want to make enough for each eater to have at least two of them.
Now, if you did this in advance—say, the night before your cookout—or if your fire isn't quite ready for cooking yet, cover the burger patties with plastic wrap and stick them in the refrigerator. Unlike with steak, it's good for your burger patties to remain as cold as possible right up until they hit the grill, so that you can char them on the outside without turning them into particle board coffee table coasters.
Is the fire ready? Grand. Before you slap the burgers on there, brush them on each side with some cooking oil (or spritz them if you've got spray oil); now, grill the burgers on one side for a couple of minutes. Just long enough for them to get charred and tasty-looking and holy-shit-burgers-I-want-a-burger-smelling. Then, grab your trusty spatuala, flip the burgers over, top them with cheese, and stick a lid on the grill.
Now, about that cheese, which belongs on the outside of your burgers and not on the inside no matter how furiously you rend your fucking Zubaz pants over it. (Rend away! Fling your wraparound shades to the AstroTurf and rage-stomp them to atoms! Your tantrum changes nothing! Cheese goes on a burger. Cheese does not go in a burger.) Use what you like, here, cheese-wise. More precisely, use what your guests like. The proper way to determine this is to walk among them, before you put the burgers on the grill, point the spatula at their respective sternums, cock a stern eyebrow at them, and say, "Cheese?" If they respond in the affirmative, raise your other eyebrow so that both of your eyebrows are raised together, and say, "What kind?" When they tell you, narrow your eyes slightly, nod mysteriously, and repeat their choice back to them in such a way that they feel ever so slightly unsure of whether they answered incorrectly.
If they answer in the negative, ask them to leave. If they laugh at this request, call the police.
Swiss cheese is wonderful on a burger; cheddar's great too, and crumbled blue cheese is just swell. You know what else is tasty on a cheeseburger? Rubbery safety-cone-orange American cheese food flaps. Don't be ashamed if that's what you really want. Slap those flaps on there with pride! What matters is whether the final product is tasty to eat.
You only need to leave the lid on the grill for a minute or two, just to let the air in there heat up and melt the cheese on your burgers. Now, take up your mighty spatula once again and get the burgers the hell off the grill and onto a big plate or serving tray, taking care not to pile them atop each other (which would cause the melty cheese to get all fucked up and ruin your entire life).
Set the burgers aside for a moment. Now, peel a bunch of hamburger buns most of the way open like big bready clamshells and toast the buns, open-side down, for 15 seconds or so on the still-hot grill. Until they're browned and toasty. Nice. That was a good idea you had. Now quit congratulating yourself and get them off the grill before they burst into flames.
There. Your cheeseburgers are done. Open a bottle of ketchup and a bottle of cheap yellow mustard; stick a butterknife into an open jar of mayonnaise. (Yes, damn you!) Pull apart a head of lettuce, thinly slice a big red onion; if you can get tomatoes that are worth a damn, slice some of those, too. And! Open a jar of little circular dill pickle slices. Serve.
So, assemble your cheeseburger how you want, of course. The very best possible way to do it is to spread mayo on one side of the bun and mustard on the other, then put two of your thin cheeseburger patties in there and top them with, in order: ketchup, three pickle slices, several large leaves of lettuce (enough to produce some real crunch when you bite down), and a slice of tomato. Close the bun. Place the cheeseburger on a crappy paper plate; plop a heaping scoop of potato salad next to it. If there should happen to be some baked beans and/or corn on the cob nearby, welcome them aboard as well. Open a beer. Take a deep breath. Prepare to savor. It's going to be over very quickly.
Happy Memorial Day.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Illustration by Devin Rochford.