Perfect Wood-Grilled Hamburgers
By Josh Ozersky
Ingredients: 6 x J-O Burger patties; 6 x thick slices of deli-counter white American cheese; 6 x white, seedless, enriched squishy buns, the cheapest and puffiest you can find; 6 x 1″ slices of red onion, oiled and salted; Kosher salt; Freshly ground white pepper; 1 cup hickory wood chips, dry; 1 cup hickory wood chips, wet; 1 x 6kg bag Treewood Charcoal Serves 6. Onion is optional. (Not really.)
1A. Read this whole recipe all the way through. (See above.)
1. Build a two-zone fire. One side should have a lot of very hot coals, spread evenly and burning at maximum intensity (they should appear an even gray, and it should be impossible for you to hold your hand over them for more than one full second.) The other side should be totally clear.
2. Sprinkle both sides of the burgers liberally and evenly with kosher salt and coarse ground white pepper. They should be fresh from the coldest part of the fridge. Set aside. Arrange your split white buns and cheese slices for easy access. This is all going to happen pretty fast.
3. If you want to have a thick grilled onion on the burger - and you do - now is the time to sear it, about 2-3 minutes on each side. They should look a little shriveled and have clear, dark grill marks on both sides. Remove them. Now lift up the grate and throw a handful of wet and a handful of dry chips on the fire. This will give you both wood smoke and wood fire flavors, in addition to an extra burst of combustive heat. Put the grill back on.
4. Put the hamburgers over the fire with space in between them, and all over equal heat. If you don’t have equal heat you will have to move them around, which is viable, but hard, and you don’t need this to be harder than it is. Make sure you have an even heat source.
5. The hamburgers will sizzle and pop and drip fat, which will cause flare-ups. Don’t be alarmed. The whole idea here is to max out the sear with minimal cooking inside. The hard part is getting them beautiful and brown and mahogany, and not black and carbonized and hideous and inedible. The latter takes longer to happen then you may think. But not much longer. When it doubt, lift up the burger and look. It shouldn’t take any longer than 4-5 minutes if your fire is hot enough.
6.Flip the hamburgers and let them cook on the hot fire for another minute or so. Now remove them to the cold side. Throw another handful of wet chips onto the coals. Cover. You have stopped grilling hamburgers. Now you are smoking them. Set the vents at half open; a steady stream of smoke should be coming out of them. Less air = more smoke, less heat.
7. This is another tricky part. You want the burgers in there to cook, but not overcook. In general, you are looking at 5-7 minutes maximum. Err on the side of rareness, because they are going to cook another minute or so with the cheese on top. Which leads us to the next step.
8. Put these cheese on top. Put the onion on top of the cheese. Add another handful of wet chips on the hot side. (It isn’t necessary to remove the grill; most will fall through and the ones that don’t will still smoulder.) Cover for another minute or so, enough for the cheese to soften but not liquefy. If you want the buns warmed or even slightly toasted, now is the time to add them to the cold side or near the heat, depending on what you’re looking for.
9. Put the hamburgers on the buns and eat them without any condiments whatsoever.
That’s it. The white pepper gives a secret under current of sneaky, creamy heat, and never becomes acrid as it burns, unlike black pepper. Smoke and wood and the meat’s own natural fats do all the rest. I screwed this up the first few times I did it; usually by overcooking the meat, but sometimes by undercooking it. Whatever. All cooking is a learning curve. But if you want further instruction, I’ve demonstated this method many times, including here and here. Go and do likewise! The perfect hamburger awaits you.