Burgers beyond beef? New takes on the classic American hamburger

Is the humble, American hamburger destined to stay forever the same - a simple beef patty on a bun with pickle, lettuce and tomato on top?

We think not. After all, we are a country of freedom-loving innovators and entreprenuers, ready to reinvent ourselves and dream up everything from the self-cooking pan to the self-driving car,

With Independence Day on the horizon, we have come up with a few revolutionary twists for the home-grilled hamburger that will anoint you the new king of the backyard cookout. Drum roll, please.

This year, the bacon cheeseburger was deemed the most popular burger in America by Schweid & Sons for the second year in a row. No surprise there. But did you know that you can now get your bacon fully integrated into your grass-fed beef patty?

At both the Sonoma County Meat Co. in Santa Rosa and Thistle Meats in Petaluma, the butchers are feeding a demand for integrated bacon-beef patties that provide the best of both worlds: the flavor and health of grass-fed beef and the smoke and fat of ground bacon. Together, they create a moist, easy-to-eat burger that will drip down your chin, if not your arm.

“We have the ability to do different kinds of grinds, so we can grind a bacon burger ... and do 25 percent bacon,” said Travis Day, the new chef/owner of Thistle Meats, which carries only grass-fed meat. “It gives it more flavor and salt and that little smoky background, and it seasons it all the way through.”

For his bacon-burger patties, Day often blends the bacon with 65 percent beef brisket and 10 percent beef suet fat (located around the cow’s kidneys.)

“It has a good, beef flavor and it’s a soft fat, with a little bit more moisture and flavor,” Day said. “So it makes a nice, juicy burger.”

He also likes to serve it with an aioli made out of bacon fat, with the caveat: “Yes this is a fatty burger. People with a heart condition, please consult a physician before consuming.”

At Sonoma County Meat Co., butcher Rian Rinn uses his own bacon - the classic maple-chile flavor - to make a “smokehouse burger” that is one-third ground bacon and two-thirds ground beef.

“The beef is from Oak Ridge Angus from Knight’s Valley,” Rinn said. “It’s grass-fed and finished on non-GMO barley from (the Bear Republic’s) Racer 5.”

Using a grinder from Germany with a refrigerated head, Rinn breaks the beef down into smaller pieces through a three-step grinding process that is gentler on the meat. (The worst thing you can do to a burger is to work it too much.) Then he puts the meat in a press to make a flat, even patty.

The majority of the smokehouse burgers he sells are made in the 5.3-ounce size patty, which in his opinion, provides a better burger-to-bread ratio.

“I don’t want to have a giant meat wad,” he said. “You don’t want too much bread or too much meat. You want a good amount of meat, and a good tomato with lettuce and a bun, so the meat shines.”

At Thistle Meats, Day said he’s a big eater so he likes to make a burger patty that weighs 8 ounces, or about half a pound.

“I make it a half inch wider than the bun,” he said. “I don’t put the thumb imprint on top. ... when you don’t, the burger tends to plump and pull in, and it keeps the burger flatter.”

To cook the burger, Day heats up the grill to 400 or 425, then marks it on both sides for the char. Then he slides it over to the cooler part of the grill and lets it slowly come up to temperature for a couple of minutes, until the inside is warm but not overdone.

“That gives it a nice color on the outside,” he said. “Personally I like a medium-rare burger.”

Rinn cooks his burgers over Lazzari hardwood lump charcoal on a grill but doesn’t slide the burger over the fire until it has already reached its hottest point.

“The heat should be decreasing once you put it on,” he said. “Burgers cook quickly. Put two marks on one side, flip it, two marks on the other side ... and out the door.”

Both butchers tend to be purists when it comes to the burger “extras,” preferring brioche buns, some garlicky aioli and just a few condiments.

“As far as toppings, I don’t like a ton of stuff, but I do love a really nice, thick-cut tomato ... and I do like pickles, “ Day said. “The whole point of a perfect burger is that you are tasting this amazing beef.”

For the smokehouse burger, Rinn likes to top it with fresh mozzarella and add some lettuce for texture.

“The burger and cheese are soft, and the lettuce and bun are crunchy,” he said. “It should be wet but not too wet. You want to be able to get it into your mouth.”

When he and his partner, Jenine Alexander, serve burgers to friends, they always serve a big, green salad on the side and put out an array of condiments, including aioli, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, horseradish, dill pickles, in-season tomatoes, red onions, little Gem lettuces, and some mozzarella or sharp cheddar cheese.

“The smokehouse burger is everything that I would want in a burger, without worrying about if the bacon is crisp enough,” Alexander said. “I eat it upside down, because the top bun is always thicker than the bottom.”

Charlie Palmer of Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg has a 50-50 ground bacon and beef burger on the menu at Charlie Palmer Steak in New York, and on Fridays, it’s 50 percent off.

“It’s quite popular,” said Palmer, who may also serve the bacon burger at his steakhouse in Napa when it opens this fall. “It’s super rich. ... you don’t need fries on the side.”

Whenever he’s cooking burgers for friends, however, Palmer likes to include a Portobello Burger and a Chicken Burger with Guacamole for those who may not want to eat a lot of red meat or want something a little lighter.

“The Chicken Burger is a lot more appropriate for hot weather,” he said. “It’s got a little spice to it, but it’s not overpowering ... and I tend to add a little more citrus to the guacamole than most, but it’s great because it cuts the fat a little.”

For the Portobello Burger, Palmer marinates the mushrooms in some herbs, balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, them grills them and tops them with provolone cheese. Then he adds roasted bell peppers and arugula on top.

“It’s not meat, but it is filling and has a nice texture that is meat-like,” he said. “It’s pretty tasty but healthier.”

The following three recipes are from “Charlie Palmer’s American Fare: Everyday Recipes from My Kitchens to Yours,” by Charlie Palmer.

Chicken or Turkey Burgers

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds ground chicken or turkey

1 large egg, room temperature

1 serrano or other hot, green chile, stemmed, seeded and minced

1/4 cup minced red bell pepper

2 tablespoons minced shallot

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground chile powder (not seasoned chili powder)

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

- Salt and pepper

- Olive oil to brush on patties

6 large brioche buns, split and toasted

- Guacamole (recipe below)

Combine the chicken or turkey with the egg, using your hands to blend. Add the chile, bell pepper, shallot, garlic, chile powder and cumin. Again, using your hands, mix well to blend. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat and oil the grill, or preheat a nonstick stove-top grill pan over medium-high heat.

Form the mixture into 6 equal mounds (so they cook evenly) and shape each into a patty. Using a pastry brush, generously coat the outside of each with oil.

Place the burgers on the grill and grill for 6 minutes. Turn and grill for another 5 minutes for well done.

Place a burger on each bun, top with guacamole, and serve.


Makes about 2 cups

2 large avocados, pitted, peeled and mashed

- Juice of 1 lime

1/3 cup chopped, seeded and peeled tomato

2 tablespoons minced red onion

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon minced and seeded serrano chile (optional)

- Salt

Combine the avocado with the lime juice, tomato, onion, cilantro and chile. Season with salt and serve.

Portobello Burgers

Makes 6 servings

6 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons chopped, fresh basil leaves

- Salt and pepper

6 thick slices provolone cheese

6 ciabatta rolls, split and toasted

6 roasted red bell pepper halves

4 ounces arugula, tough stems removed

Using damp paper towels, wipe the mushrooms clean. Place in a shallow baking dish, gill side up.

Combine the vinegar, oil, parsley and basil in a small mixing bowl, whisking to blend. Pour the vinegar mixture over the mushrooms. Set aside to marinate for at least 30 minutes or up to 3 hours.

Preheat and oil the grill or preheat a nonstick stove-top grill pan over medium-high heat. Remove the mushrooms from the marinade and place them on the grill, gill side up.

Season with salt and pepper and grill, turning once, for about 5 minutes or until charred and nicely browned on the bottom. Turn and place a slice of cheese on each mushroom and grill the remaining side for about 4 minutes or until the mushrooms are cooked through and the cheese has melted.

Place a mushroom on each roll, top with equal portions of the bell peppers and arugula, and serve.

The following recipe for aioli made with bacon fat is from Travis Day of Thistle Meats.

Bacon Fat Aioli

Makes about 3 cups

2 cloves raw garlic

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons whole grain mustard

- Juice of 1 lemon

11/2 cups bacon fat (soft enough to pour but not hot)

11/5 cups grapeseed oil

1-2 tablespoons water, room temperature

- Salt, to taste

Blend the first four ingredients in a food processor until finely pureed. While the food processor is going, start pouring in the bacon fat and grapeseed oil. As aioli starts to thicken, soften with small amounts of water until desired consistency is achieved. Add salt to taste.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or ?On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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