Healthy grilling classics
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD
In homage to this summertime classic, here's the lowdown on properly handling a burger on the grill and how to make a healthy burger with the following recipes.
Every summer, barbecues from coast to coast are fired up and decorated with the all-Canadian grilling favourite, the burger. As it sizzles, it’s hard not to salivate at the anticipation of that first mouth-watering bite.
Too often this classic BBQ fare is hindered by excessively fatty meat and sketchy toppings that are bundled in a bleached-out bun—all notorious health pariahs. Plus, poor grilling techniques can leave your hope for juicy goodness foiled by a charred meatball as hard as a hockey puck.
So, in homage to this summertime classic, here’s the lowdown on how to properly handle a burger on the grill along with healthy recipes that are sure to wow a crowd.
Building a better burger
Tossing a hunk of rounded meat on the grill is not the hard part. Knowing what to start with, how to prep it for the flame, and how to grill it with the proper finesse are where most of us slip up.
To extinguish those charred burger mistakes, Elizabeth Karmel, author of Taming the Flame (Wiley, 2005) and Soaked, Slathered, and Seasoned (Wiley, 2009), tells us how to turn the barbecue burger from ho-hum to yum.
Use the right meat
Most restaurant and pre-made, store-bought hamburgers are fat bombs. The solution? Make your own. Karmel recommends using a mixture of 2/3 lean ground sirloin and 1/3 of a fattier ground cut like chuck. This would be the equivalent of about 80 to 85 percent lean ground beef.
“Some fat helps hold the meat together and keep it juicy,” says Karmel. Some of the fat will drip off during grilling but leave its rich beefy flavour behind. For the best results, ask your butcher to grind cuts for you on the spot and request a coarse grind.
Where’s the beef?
For crying out loud, there’s no law that burgers need to come from a cow. Turkey, chicken, ostrich, salmon, and even lentils can be healthy, toothsome stand-ins for beef when making burgers.
If you’re not feeling overly frugal, consider slapping sweeter tasting bison burgers on the barbie. Ground bison has more iron and a better fat profile than beef from down on the factory farm.
Keep them uniform
When making burgers, it’s wise to keep them uniform in size and thickness so they will cook in the same amount of time. Burgers should not be more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick or the outside risks charring before the inside is fully cooked. Plus, only mix the meat and ingredients together lightly until just blended. “Overhandling makes the meat tough and dense,” Karmel says.
While you’re at it, press your thumb in the centre of the patty to form an indentation about 1/4 inch (0.64 cm) lower than the surrounding meat. The meat will expand during cooking to fill the indentation, helping the burger remain flat.
If relying on lean meats such as ground chicken breast and grass-fed beef, Karmel suggests building 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick burgers around an ice cube to keep them moist in the absence of fat. Adding a bit of cheese, salsa, or compound butter to the centre can also moisten the meat from the inside.
Spice it up
Beyond salt and pepper, working spices such as cumin and chili into the meat can add a flavour wallop along with health-boosting antioxidant compounds.
Turn up the heat
Pre-heat your grill on high heat for 10 to 15 minutes, and then scrub the grate free of any crusty gunk to reduce sticking. Then lower the heat to medium for cooking. Gently coating the burger patties with oil will also help avoid sticking and the embarrassment of serving burger bits to your backyard guests.
Handle with care
Don’t violate the cardinal rule of grilling by pressing down on the burger with a spatula for that cool sizzle. This forces juices out causing flare-ups and drier burgers. “It’s best to cook burgers with the hood down for 3 to 5 minutes per side with only one flip,” adds Karmel. When small droplets of juice pool on top of the burgers, it’s time to flip.
Don’t think you’re in the pink if your meat isn’t. Poking your burger looking for crimson spots is no guarantee it’s safe to devour. Plus, this releases desirable juices. To ensure that you have stamped out dangerous bacteria but not over-grilled your burger into a hockey puck, use an instant-read meat thermometer and aim for internal temperature of 160 F/71 C (165 F/74 C for ground poultry).
According to University of Minnesota researchers, eating charred, well-done meat regularly can up one’s risk of getting pancreatic cancer. Carcinogenic heterocyclic amine (HA) compounds are created by the burning of amino acids in meats grilled at high temperatures and overcooked. Some studies suggest that marinating meats in spice and herb mixtures can significantly cut down on HA formation.
Let them rest
Before chomping away, Karmel recommends letting burgers rest for 3 to 5 minutes after cooking to help redistribute the lip-smackin’ juices.
Burger bun alternatives
The average burger bun, whether it’s white or multigrain, packs a whopping 200 calories and up to 400 mg of sodium. But who says burgers must be served in a bun? There are plenty of interesting alternatives.
Wrap your burger in