Steaks n' Burgers

I grew up watching my father grill everything from burgers to whole turkeys in the middle of July. I learned that as soon as Memorial Day weekend rolls around, Dad pulls out the grill and we start eating lots of charred stuff for dinner - at the beach, in the backyard, even when we go to Uncle George's for dinner.

What is it about our culture that seduces us into a grilling frenzy?

Memorial Day weekend is infamous for being rainy (and yes, this year is looking like no exception), but that doesn't stop any of us. We luvvvv our grills, and we'll grill anything - pizza, mussels, peaches - just to get a whiff of charcoal and a taste of smoke.

Wanna see how much we love our grills? Grill guru Steven Raichlen, who's penned several grill-centric books, including "The Barbecue Bible" shows off his seven favorite grills in the current issue of Food and Wine magazine. What does one do with seven grills?

We've got all summer to cover the grilling arena, and I'll devote one aspect to it every Friday in a regular feature called "Flames."

This week is a nod to burgers and steak -- and the burly boys who've been pestering me all week -- with a few surprises.

I'm a sucker for a grilled T-bone or New York strip, but at $15 and more per pound, my wallet can't handle it. Not until I discovered a little-known cut of boneless beef did I resume a grill ritual that I had long abandoned.

Meet the flat iron steak, aka the top blade, a surprisingly tender cut that comes from the shoulder area.

flat iron in marinade
A flat iron steak gets lathered up in a hoisin-based bath, spiked with other Asian goodies.

Here's what you need to know: The flat iron needs assistance from the marination department. Nothing tricky is necessary, and please don't goop it up with a bottle of Kraft barbecue sauce. You want to be able to taste the steak instead of the sauce, right? Good.

After grilling (which takes little time because it's only about an inch thick) and resting for a few minutes, run your knife lengthwise in the middle of the steak searching for a long piece of gristle. If you're dining with friends or a date, it's a nice idea to remove the tendon in advance, avoiding any uncomfortable stuck gristle in the throat mishaps.

One more thing: Cut the steak thinly, on a diagonal, against the grain, which helps with tender bites of beef.

Best of all: the flat iron is under six bucks a pound, which makes a steak dinner party a feasible proposition. I'll be waiting for your reports and the ka-ching you have left over to buy me a bottle of wine.

The Burger

I do love a burger made at home, but I find that most of us screw them up because we add too much stuff to jazz them up with flavor and whatever else we think will bring about a culinary miracle.

What happened to salt, pepper and olive oil, people? I also find that macho grillers tend to do shiatsu massage on ground meat, thus pounding out all flavor and texture into the ether. Easy, easy. Shape the patties, don't grope them.

Even when those burger balls hit the grill, everyone loves to handle them. Flip, flip goes another one. Leave them alone! Meat likes to be solitary and quiet over all that fire and smoke. Believe me, the less fussed with, the juicier the burger.

A few more notes:

Try buffalo meat for your burgers one of these days. A bit more expensive (more like buying a flat iron steak), but the difference in flavor is striking and more prominent on the tongue. Leaner than beef, a buffalo burger is lighter in texture and seems easier to digest.

If you can't find a decent roll to bookend your burger, try an English muffin for kicks. I love toasting them, then rubbing with a garlic clove for a little extra zip. Great crunch (and crannies, I suppose) as well as perfect size.

And of course, keep me posted on all grilling matters, in e-mail, during Tuesday's chat or in the comment area below.

Have a delicious holiday weekend!

By Kim ODonnel |  May 26, 2006; 10:22 AM ET Flames
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I always order those cheaper cuts of steak--flank steak, hangar steak, skirt steak, etc.--when I eat out because I love the flavor, but I've never been able to recreate it at home. I assume it's all in the marinade. But what IS that marinade? Mine are never quite as good. Any suggestions? And if it makes a difference, I don't have a terrace or a yard, so this'll have to be cooked on my old faithful black iron skillet.

Posted by: DC | May 26, 2006 11:11 AM

Great subject. But my goodness, you've avoided the biggest point of controversy: coal vs. gas. Or, since anyone with more than one taste bud already knows that gas ruins food, lump charcoal vs. briquettes.

And lighter fluid vs. chimneys, come to think of it. Not to mention all the different types of smoking woods! Clearly one summer's worth of columns will NOT be enough to explore the rich pageantry that is the grilling experience. :D

As far as marinade for a burger goes, I find that a quick pre-grilling dunk in a combination of a rich soy sauce (2/3) and Worcestershire sauce (1/3) is an excellent way to cut down on carcinogens and enhance the natural flavor of the meat.

Personally I prefer that the meat itself be left au naturel. It's particularly wise to avoid mixing in anything with much salt content, since that results in dry, juiceless burgers.

Lately I've been using 87% lean ground sirloin, the freshest possible, over a relatively low fire. The results have been excellent.

As far as bun replacement goes, I find that a lightly toasted plain or whole wheat bagel is a decent alternative, although it's best to find one with as small a hole as possible - and to go easy on the condiments! :D

Posted by: Peter Maranci | May 26, 2006 11:15 AM

Hey Peter, thanks for weighing on this meaty matter. As I mentioned, "Flames" is going to be a regular Friday feature in this blog, so be sure to fire away (geez, I guess I better stop it with these puns). I am a coal gurl, and I like to go as low-tech as possible. But I'd love to hear from others: COAL or GAS, kids???

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 26, 2006 11:18 AM

Hey DC: THAT marinade is a fab mixture of Asian condiments that I learned a zillion years ago in cooking school. You certainly don't have to follow it to the letter, but the idea here is to get you started. Marinades need a few key components: Fat, acid and intense flavor. However you wish to mix it up is your choice. Acids can be wine, citrus fruit, vinegar, for starters. And the fat part can be minimal in proportion to the acid and flavor. Please keep us posted on how you mix your marinade this weekend.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 26, 2006 11:20 AM

Hey DC, for a steak marinade you can try all sorts of things but what I've had success with is usually pretty simple stuff. Try red wine, a touch of olive oil and balsamic, garlic, dried herbs, salt and pepper. Or soy sauce, pineapple juice, garlic, ginger, black pepper. The key I think is to marinate something like flat iron at least 8 hours in my experience. So stay away from citrus or other strong acid for the marinade as it can make the texture weird. Although honestly a vinagrette style salad dressing is fine all on its own as a marinade. Flank steak does well with spice rubs that don't marinate for that long (like rub it on just before you fire up the grill and by the time the coals are ready, it's good to go). That's my opinion.

One thing I'd like to figure out though is how to deal with small charcoal grills when you want to do more than just burgers or steak. When you have small space it's hard to do indirect heat or varying levels of heat. Should I just do those types of things in the oven or on the stove instead? We can't afford a larger grill at this point - one day we will.

Posted by: Mary | May 26, 2006 11:28 AM

I second that emotion, Mary. Marinating red meat for too long can make it oogy. And by the way, I've marinated my flat irons for about 2 hours and got heavenly results, fyi. I have a small grill, too, and do stuff in batches. Cook the largest thing first, when heat is highest...and if necessary, add more coals. But you're right, it's a juggling act. Keep us posted on your adventures.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 26, 2006 11:52 AM

Personally I went to lump charcoal (aka "natural" charcoal) a very long time ago. You can really taste the difference.

Likewise, I use unbleached brown paper - supermarket bags are a good source, if they don't have too much printing on them - to light my coal chimney. The inks and bleach used in newspapers (even the WP) may not affect the taste, but why add unknown chemicals to your body when you don't have to?

But I have to admit that I'm a bit obsessed with this topic. :D

Still, there are people out there who are even more obsessed than I am. The person who runs the site listed below, for example, literally SORTS the contents of the bags of lump charcoal he reviews into large, medium, and small pieces, as well as "too small/chips/dust". And then takes PICTURES of them!

I find that impressive, as well as a little scary. I'm not connected in any way with that site, incidentally.

Posted by: Peter Maranci | May 26, 2006 12:14 PM

All this talk of grilling is making me sad. I just moved into an apartment building that doesn't allow charcoal or gas grills on the balconies. We are allowed to have electric grills though. I'm stumped--is cooking on an electric grill really any different than cooking on a grill pan on the stove-top? Other than that it is portable and can go outside? Please advise!

Posted by: Phoebe | May 26, 2006 2:57 PM

we have been experimenting with at home burgers and the VERY best most tasty super awesome recipe we have come up with: free range lean ground beef, add some chopped onions and a bit of olive oil and.....DELICIOUS. we tried reg (not free range) beef and the buffalo, but by far the tastiest was the free range at whole my mouth is watering!

Posted by: burger gal | May 26, 2006 3:05 PM

after ruining burgers and steak for years with a charcoal grill, my wife insisted on a propane grill.

Now food comes out properly cooked and I'm not waiting 40 minutes for coals to ash over.

Don't worry, Peter; if you come over, I still have a charcoal grill in the basement you can use. And I like my steaks rare, thanks.

Posted by: Tony | May 26, 2006 3:39 PM

I don't have 7 grills, but do have 3, and it's all because of the gas v. coal controversy (plus I like to smoke). I have my weber kettle for when I have the time, my gas grill for weeknights and my smoker for...well, whenever I can get in a relaxing Sunday. There are certainly pros and cons to the whole thing, but honestly, Peter, if someone grills you up a tasty pork tenderloin with gas, are you going to say no?

I certainly wouldn't.

Posted by: Grillin' Apprentice | May 26, 2006 3:58 PM

no contest for charcoal vs gas...only charcoal at our house.

Favorite marinade - balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fresh rosemary. Seems to be good for beef, pork, and chicken. no more then 2 hours on any

Chimney lights charcoal in about 10 minutes, no chemicals, no electric cord.

Still use kingsford charcoal, with hickory chunks for pork and mesquite for steaks.

Look forward to the columns all summer

Posted by: chet | May 26, 2006 4:46 PM

Phoebe, you have my sympathy; I've been there. My previous landlord eventually blew his top and forbade me from grilling. So we bought a house with a large back yard, and now I barbecue year-round...I've even barbecued during a New England blizzard, wearing a t-shirt.

But it was a pretty mild blizzard, and I'm a native. :D

So I'm afraid the only answer I have for you is to buy a house of your own. Although if the real estate market in your area are anything like it is around here, that may be a very difficult prescription indeed!

Posted by: Peter Maranci | May 26, 2006 8:52 PM

burger gal, I used to buy free range meat at Whole Foods too, but about five years ago I noticed that the meat seemed to have suddenly become very bad-tasting. I put up with that for several weeks, and then gave up on them.

I tried a local butcher instead, and got good results...but again, after a couple of years the meat suddenly got bad. I later found out that they'd switched from grinding their own to buying the same pre-ground meat that many supermarkets sell.

I actually have a meat grinder of my own now, but I've never been brave enough to use it. :D

About non-beef burgers; I've tried beefalo, turkey, and ostrich, and didn't care for any of them. I'd love to try beef with ground cherries mixed in - I've heard good things about that - but there's no local supply, and I don't know how the cherry mixture would react to flame.

My father became a vegetarian a few years ago, and so far hasn't found a pure veggie burger that works well on a grill.

Ethically, I like the idea of free range beef. But the price is prohibitive. I have a house to pay for, after all. :D

Posted by: Peter Maranci | May 26, 2006 8:59 PM

I made the olive oil/salt/pepper burger on Monday, and it was a huge hit. Thanks, Kim!

Posted by: Four-star Burger | May 30, 2006 4:58 PM

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