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Want a perfect burger? Stop, don’t squash

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If you are one of those people who uses a spatula to squash down your hamburger when it starts sizzling on the grill, then you might want to know that you are doing it all wrong.

Chef and caterer Ben Tompkins recently told

The Royal Gazette that the perfect burger requires a gentle touch. If you get tough with your burger then that’s exactly how it will turn out — tough.

On a quiet Tuesday afternoon we had a chance to taste one of Mr Tompkin’s burgers and we can attest that the meat was juicy, and delicious with a light texture. Mr Tompkins teaches a regular cooking class at International Imports called Beyond Burgers, and he shared some of his grilling secrets.

“I think that the number one thing about grilling is don’t overcook things,” he said. “You don’t have to cook things until they are dead. The rule of thumb is that you put your hamburger on the grill. Leave it alone and then you turn it and then you take it off the grill. You have people who want to flip it, and squish and flip it again. Then they wonder why there is no flavour and it is tough and dry. You do not squash anything with the back of the spatula, particularly a hamburger.”

He said before starting your hamburger you need the right kind of meat. Avoid meat that is too lean.

“A lot of places are selling superlean hamburger that tastes like dried out cardboard with lettuce,” said Mr Tompkins. “You want meat with some fat. The fat cooks off as the burger is cooking. I also do chicken and turkey burgers. Those require a little more effort to make them stay juicy. I also do tuna burgers. That involves chopped tuna and just flash grill it.”

For a five oz burger, like the ones he cooked on Tuesday, grill the patties for about three minutes on each size. It would take a little more or less time depending on the size of the patty.

“The beauty of making your own hamburgers is that you get to pick what they are going to be like,” he said. “One of the most important things about making hamburgers is to not over work the meat. Just season it lightly. Toss the seasonings in with the meat and then loosely form the patties. A lot of times people want to squash them together into little baseballs. That toughens up the hamburger. You want to make sure they have a divot in the centre, because the meat is going to contract in the heat of cooking. That is why you sometimes start off with the ideal hamburger patty and when it comes off the grill it looks like a cricket ball. That is because you want to start with thinner and bigger because it is going to shrink and contract.”

He admitted though that burgers were a party food in his house, not something he ate every day.

“If I was having friends over and wanted to have something fun and casual we would have burgers,” he said. “I prefer a grilled piece of steak, chicken or pork chops. I am a chef so hamburgers are a lunch or party food. But every time I do have burgers for dinner my son, Noah, gets really excited.”

Mr Tompkins also teaches classes in barbecue, but he said barbecuing and grilling are two completely different animals.

“Grilling is cooking with direct, high heat,” he said. “With barbecue you are cooking the meat at low temperatures for a long time. It is basically smoking the meat.”

He said the grill is such a versatile tool you can do a lot more with it than just cooking burgers.

“If I was grilling chicken, I might make a marinade with sugar, salt, black coffee, peppercorns, and fresh lemon,” he said. “You let it sit in that brine over night and that fully saturates the protein. When the chicken goes on the grill it is full of moisture. That way you have a better chance of having a tender juicy product off the grill. I also like to grill fish in an oil and herb marinade. It doesn’t soak overnight but it is a coating. I use an oil and herb purée that creates a vapour barrier so the moisture of the fish remains inside the fish and can not cross through that barrier of oil.”

Grilled shrimp cocktail is another thing he loves to do with the grill. He tosses the shrimp with a little chilli powder, cumin, oil and lime juice. Then he sears one side of the shrimp on a really hot grill and then flips them over quickly and sears the other side.

“Take them off and let them rest and they will be cooked,” he said. “If you cook shrimp until it is curled up into a tight little ball then it is like eating pencil erasers. Shrimp can be really tender and delicate as it is, but when people cook it so hard they tend to kill it.”

Mr Tompkins caters six or seven different events monthly for everything from cocktail parties and barbecues to wine dinners and tasting menus. He started out cooking at Newstead, but left to finish his bachelor's degree at the Culinary Institute in upstate New York.

“When I came home my son, Noah, was about three years old,” he said. “He is 14 years old now. At that time I was still very gung ho. I thought I was going to take over the Fairmont Group. I thought, nothing is stopping me now. Then I had this epiphany that if I continued as a chef, it would be a pretty all encompassing job. If you are not at work, you’re thinking about work and if you are asleep you are dreaming about it. There is not a lot of time for family, social life and hobbies. At that moment I decided that maybe I wanted to have a little bit more from life than just a career. It was the right choice.”

He has now been catering full time for more than ten years, and teaches throughout the year. For more information contact him at 734-2433 or e-mail chefbenbear@hotmail.com.

Chef Ben Tompkins has some top tips for grilling burgers.
The yummy finished product by Chef Ben Tompkins.
Chef Ben Tompkins uses a gentle touch with burgers on the grill

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Published June 28, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated June 27, 2013 at 5:20 pm)

Want a perfect burger? Stop, don’t squash

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