Monday, July 21, 2014

Medium-rare Burgers (Video)

YouTube Link: Medium-rare Burgers (grilled or seared)
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

Burgers in the oven?  Don't knock it till you try it.  I wish I could take credit for this brilliant method, but it was inspired by Kenji Alt's slow roasted steak method that was published in Cook's Illustrated in 2007.  It became a master technique for how I cook all meat to medium-rare.

How does this weird method work?
For even doneness, we want to do most of our cooking with air and not with metal or flame.  Metal is a great conductor of energy and air is not.  By transferring the energy to the burgers slowly using air, we ensure perfectly even cooking.  If we put the burgers directly on a baking dish, they'll be in touch with a metal object which will cook the bottom faster than the top.  It will also make the bottom surface damp since the moisture won't have a chance to evaporate and this will inhibit browning during the grilling or searing stage.  Since the burgers are thinner than the steak Kenji's recipe was optimized for (1 inch vs. 1.5 inches), I drop the oven temperature from 275F to 200F to ensure even cooking.

What's the fat percentage of the ground beef?
In the video, I am working with 85/15 from Whole Foods.  Ideally, it would be 80/20, but my health obsessed Whole Foods in MA doesn't carry it.  I've seen in at Whole Foods in other states.  Of course, I can stop by a regular supermarket and pick up 80/20 beef, but for medium-rare burgers, I choose my source of beef very carefully.  To tell you the truth, I think I got cheated out of some fat by Whole Foods this time.  85/15 means that it's at most 15% fat, so the actual percentage will vary batch to batch.  I could barely feel any fat on my hands as I was shaping.  Not a good sign.  But this method is so forgiving, even lean ground beef will taste good.

July 22 update on safety
Ever since this post, I've been getting a lot of e-mail about the terrible danger of my burgers, so here is the scoop on safety.

There is a difference between a med-rare burger and a med-rare steak. Bacteria is only found on the outside of the muscle and when a steak is seared, they die instantly. So if you like your meat cold inside, you are not taking any risk eating it that way. However, after you grind the meat, some of that bacteria ends on the inside, so an under-cooked burger is a tad risky. The question is how big is this "tad." You take plenty of risks every day. Driving is probably one of the biggest for an average civilian. How many people do you know who were injured in a car accident? How many people do you know that were injured with a med-rare burger? Of course, you could argue that you drive more often than you eat a burger. But let's look at some numbers. An average annual death toll from E. Coli is in the low 20s. An average annual death toll from automobile related accidents is more than 30,000. So in the grand scheme of things, that burger is unlikely to significantly change your risk of getting hurt.

To reduce the risk further, you could grind your own meat. This way, the grinder touches only a few pounds instead of a few hundred pounds of meat, which will reduce the risk of cross-contamination. You could take it even further and briefly sear the meat on the outside before grinding thus killing most of the bacteria.

Besides e coli, there are other, not so dangerous bacteria that grow on meat when it decomposes. My conclusion is to buy meat at a reputable place, keep everything (meat, grinder, bowls) extremely cold, and stop worrying.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to be alarmist, but I don't think what you are doing meets food safety standards. It is safe to eat medium-rare steaks and roasts because the interior of meat is generally considered to be sterile, and just about any cooking method will heat the very exterior to a high enough temp to kill any contamination. However for ground beef the recommendation is to cook it to 160F, which is clearly a higher temp than you are cooking those burgers. You don't know how the meat has been handled, and by grinding any surface contamination becomes spread throughout the meat.

There *is* a way to prepare safe medium-rare ground beef, which you can find online. In a nutshell you buy whole cuts of meat such as chuck, kill any contamination on the exterior, and then grind it yourself in a meat grinder or food processor.

Helen Rennie said...

You are absolutely right. FDA wouldn't approve of these burgers. If you want to make them completely safe, you should sear a solid muscle and then grind it yourself. The cooking method that I describe using a 200F oven and finishing with a sear would still apply and produce a wonderful burger.

But it's good to put the risk in perspective. Last time I checked, there were way more injuries and deaths from car accidents in the US than from e.coli. Thousands of restaurants in the US are cooking medium-rare burgers from pre-packaged ground beef and serving it with a little * warning you about the risks. I am yet to hear of a diner who got sick from a medium-rare burger and I know dozens of people first hand who either lost loved ones in a car accident of were severely injured. As long as you understand the risk, it's up to you to decide whether to take it or not.

nuh said...

How about chicken burgers? Can I cook it the same way as well?

Helen Rennie said...

No, please don't cook chicken burgers the same way. They need to be more cooked through in the US. I did have medium-rare ground up chicken dish in Japan and loved it, but they test their poultry much more thoroughly for salmonella than we do in the US.