Getting the most from your burgers and dogs

PARKERSBURG – Hamburgers and hot dogs may be standard fare for folks cooking out this Independence Day, but the way they’re prepared is what makes them stand out.

For Chef Gene Evans, director of culinary arts for West Virginia University at Parkersburg, a good burger needs to have some fat in it. He prefers an 80/20 or 75/25 lean-fat blend.

“More fat keeps the burger juicier,” Evans said. “The leaner blends, if you overcook them, they tend to dry out quicker.”

To retain that flavor, Evans suggests making patties early and keeping them refrigerated so the fat won’t melt out as easily.

“You should probably make the patties the day before, and then keep them well-chilled,” he said.

Chef Yancy Roush, with Yancy’s Five-Star Catering, prefers a leaner blend of meat, 85/15.

“It’s got enough fat content that it will not drip all of that … down into your fire,” he said.

Pressing down on the burgers should be avoided so more of the juice doesn’t squeeze out, Roush said.

To avoid overcooking – or burning – burgers on a gas grill, Roush recommends turning the heat on one burner up high, keeping the middle burner on medium and leaving the third one off. It also saves gas.

“Everybody fires all the (burners) up, and there’s no use,” he said.

The hottest burner should be used to sear the meat – “You’re going to kiss it on that flame,” Roush said – for about a minute-and-a-half to two minutes on each side. The patty should be then be moved to the second burner for two to three minutes on each side. Finally, he said, put the burgers on the third burner, which will still be hot – about 350 degrees, he recommends – then close the lid and let it cook two to three minutes.

On a charcoal grill, Roush suggests using a chimney charcoal starter to light the fire without using lighter fluid, which can sometimes impart a chemical taste to one’s food.

Roush said the starter should be about three-quarters of the way full of charcoal, with crumpled paper underneath it. Light the paper and let it and the charcoal burn 15 to 20 minutes in the starter before pouring the contents onto the resting coals.

“That right there will bring a grill up to 350 degrees for 45 minutes,” Roush said.

For additional flavor, wood chips can be used. Roush suggests soaking them for at least 15 to 20 minutes, although he prefers to do it for a full day.

“You don’t want to smoke (the meat) for more than 15 minutes, ’cause then they’re going to just taste like smoke,” Roush said, adding that pork can and should be smoked longer.

Evans said in addition to smoking, he likes to grill some Vidalia onions along with the meat.

“Slice them nice and thick and throw them on the grill,” he said.

Flavor can also be added after the cooking is done.

“What you want to do is brush everything with either olive oil or a nice Canola or vegetable oil, light,” Roush said.

Drawn butter can also be used, and the liquids can be combined with fresh herbs, chili powder, garlic or other items to contribute to the flavor.

For hot dogs, Roush recommends the same three-part cooking method he does with burgers.

Evans said hot dogs should be cooked on a higher rack if people don’t want them partially blackened.

“I kind of like the char on mine, so normally when I’m making my hot dog, I move it to the hotter part of the grill,” he said.

Evans prefers his hot dogs all-beef and kosher-style, which he says have a better overall flavor and a natural casing. But if he’s doing the cookout, he chooses bratwurst over hot dogs.

“I like to get my bratwurst raw, and then I usually poach them in beer,” he said. “Normally I will cook the bratwurst the day before then cool them down in the beer.”

He leaves the brats in the refrigerator in the beer, before tossing them on the grill to char them.