Brewery Vivant is nestled in the very eclectic, very vibrant Cherry Hills business district where an ensemble of local merchants and restaurants line the brick-laden Cherry Street. Many of Vivant’s patrons bike or walk to the brewpub’s monastic environs or outdoor patio for its Belgian-inspired draft beers or to down its famous burger, ground fresh with bacon, and which is served up on a pretzel bun. (Even though many locals claim it’s the best burger in the city–notwithstanding Grand Rapids is home to Stella’s Lounge, whose burger was named best in America by GQ Magazine–it’s French and Belgian dishes are the brasserie’s best-kept secret; and a brasserie is a French word for “brewpub”, and not–as you may have guessed–a woman’s undergarment.) It was here that I spent two days manning the grill, cooking up (mainly) burgers and steaks under the supervision of now-head chef Chris Weimer, all in an attempt to buttress my budding grill skills. As this coming weekend might be the first really good grilling weekend–one of our favorite past times in Michigan–here are the trade secrets I’ve gleaned over time for bringing out the very best in burgers and steaks, some of which I picked up during those two unforgettable days on a professional grill.
First I want to share my conviction that heritage burger can be nearly–or just–as edifying and delectable as a heritage steak. This should be encouraging news for those who want a more affordable way to experience the delicious, fuller flavors that heritage meats offer. Beef which is primarily pasture-raised, as has been mentioned in prior posts, tastes of the land on which it is raised. The cattle transform the herbs, grasses, and minerals present in the soil into flavorful beef–provided, as well, that you have a rancher or farmer well-versed in the art of pasture-raised beef. The particular breed of cattle, too, plays a significant part in the beef’s flavor. Therefore, I strongly recommend if you are cooking with heritage meats that you use minimal spices and sauces. They should only be used to heighten or compliment the flavor of the beef, not to mask its flavor. It’s the flavor of the meat, after all, that you’re paying for (there’s, of course, the health benefits, too). If you need further convincing, please read this post from late last year which shares the account of one my life’s best beef experiences. It involved a burger of Scottish Highland beef, burger so good that not only did I dispense of any condiments, but also of the bun.
Cooking Heritage Burgers and Steaks in Seven Steps
1. Allow the meat, if frozen, to thaw slowly in the refrigerator. This usually takes a day or two.
2. Allow the meat to come to room temperature before cooking. Again, depending on the size of the cut, this can take anywhere from 1/2 hour to an hour.
3. Slather steaks with olive oil just prior to cooking (not necessary with burger) and sprinkle with salt and pepper: generously for thicker cuts of steak and bigger burgers, moderately for thinner steaks and smaller burgers.
4. If cooking steaks or burgers in a pan, lightly coat the bottom of the pan with some olive oil and allow the oil to heat over a medium-high heat. The oil’s ready when it just starts to smoke. If cooking steaks or burgers on a grill, use the “Four Second Test”: the grill’s hot enough if you can hold your hand an inch above the grill for four seconds before the heat gets too intense.
5. Cook the meat to the desired level of doneness: I’d discourage a well-done steak or burger (conventional wisdom says you’ll lose some of the coveted flavor of really good beef). But, as always, it’s up to you. CAUTION: It’s easy to overcook pasture-raised meat (there’s less insulation in terms of fat in these meats–more flavor but less fat). It’s better to err on the side of caution and under cook the meat–you can always finish the meat off in a hot oven (475 to 500 F).
6. Allow the steak or burger to “rest” before serving. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll let the meat rest for a little less time than it took to cook. This allows the meat to finish cooking, among other things. If cooking a steak, it is at this point that you might consider allowing a pat of butter to melt atop the steak as it rests.
7. If cooking a steak, just prior to serving you might consider seasoning it with sea salt–or other gourmet salt. If cooking a burger, be careful with toppings and condiments. You don’t want to cover or hide the wonderful flavor of heritage meats which represent a terroir (the ability to taste the geography in the food: the earth, minerals, and herbage of the region).