Editor’s note: We’ve hosted a number of reader recipe contests over the years. For 20 years, longtime Statesman food writer Kitty Crider ran a Christmas cooking competition, and I’ve coordinated a few cookie contests. In 2009, features writer Patrick Beach, who is no longer at the paper, led the effort to have a burger contest. Readers submitted lots and lots of their best burgers, and Beach and I picked the finalists. We teamed up with then-restaurant critic Mike Sutter, who is now at the San Antonio Express-News for a backyard burger-off. Beach spun this great story out of it, including the five top recipes, which might be the fanciest burger recipes we’ve ever published in print. Happy grilling, National Burger Day, Memorial Day and a beyond.
So as not to bury the lead: J.M. Smith, take a bow — you’re the American-Statesman’s Best Backyard Burger Chef.
When we started soliciting readers’ recipes for their best grilled burger back when it started getting really hot out — which if memory serves was around 1980- – we weren’t sure what we could expect. We knew Central Texas home cooks were pretty imaginative, but burgers are like pizza: orthodoxy topped, if you’re lucky, with adventurousness.
If anything, we underestimated the adventurousness. Of the roughly 60 recipes we received throughout this eternal summer of ours, you spatula’d up an array of ideas: burgers with salsa, fruit (pineapple, cherries, apples, pears), fontina cheese, Canadian bacon, carrots (in a relish) and, one of my favorite secret weapons, the Thai hot sauce sriracha.
A handful of recipes seemed frozen in time – one even called for pre-formed, frozen burgers – but for the most part you impressed us, which was the goal.
A few weeks ago, so we’d have a winner in time for Labor Day, American-Statesman food writer Addie Broyles, restaurant critic Mike Sutter and I (my qualifications: I had beer and a grill) sat down to choose five finalists that we would grill, taste and judge the following Saturday. We were looking for diversity – if it were up to me, all of them would have had blue cheese and/or bacon – and creativity.
We liked the summery simplicity of Martha Barrack Martinez’s Caprese Burger — basically a Caprese salad with the addition of grilled onions, mushrooms and of course a hamburger patty. J.M. Smith’s Eternity Burger sounded like an unholy mess of wonderful things, including white Cheddar, avocado, Hatch chiles, crushed Fritos and (!) cream cheese. Keri Holder’s Ancho Mama’s Bohemian Black Lager Burger wowed us with alliteration and Southwestern flavors, including a slaw with chipotle adobo, lime and cumin. Cori Schneider’s Sweet and Spicy Burger had lots of “Whaaa?” factor with the addition of finely chopped pear and green apple.
And in terms of sheer ambition and originality, Mollie Hejl’s Hickory Cherry Cheddar Pecan Gourmet Burger With Cherry-Butter-Wine Sauce — with cherry-wood chips in the grill’s smoker box — sounded less like a recipe than a weekend project. Printed, the ingredients list took up most of a page, the procedure another.
Then we shopped, chopped, prepped and on a Saturday morning convened to grill 15 burgers from five recipes. Addie, Mike and I were the only voting judges, although we were aided by Mike’s daughter and my two sons, who served as helpers. We quartered the burgers as they came off the grill so we wouldn’t fill up and accidentally favor the earlier samples. And we took notes, which we hereby offer in the order in which we ate:
Caprese: With a basil mayo made with herbs out of my garden, really terrific fresh mozzarella and a good — although store-bought — tomato, this was really redolent of the season. The addition of chopped basil in the mayo really spread out the flavor. This was pretty much the simplest recipe of the bunch and each ingredient shined. Addie pronounced it “messy but delicious.” But remember, a) sauteed onions and mushrooms and b) we were quartering them.
Hickory Cherry Cheddar etc., etc., etc.: To this recipe’s elaborate instructions I would add, “Get someone else like Addie to pit and chop two pounds of fresh bing cherries,” and that’s what I did on grilling day. Some of the cherries went in the burgers, while the rest went into a sauce with butter, brown sugar, garlic, dry mustard and zinfandel. The extra sharp New York white Cheddar was also finely diced and mixed into the burgers, as were green onion tops, peppercorns, pecan chips and more. The cheese melted nicely into the meat once grilled, at least the portion that didn’t melt out on the grates. As for the wood chips, cherry or otherwise, let me be blunt: I challenge anyone to take a blind taste test using wood or no wood and see if you can discern a difference. For something like a burger, which is going to be on the grill just a few minutes, there is none, I’m telling you. We liked the al dente crunch of the pecans and the bright tang of the cherries, but between that and the zin in both the burgers and the sauce, we were borderline-overwhelmed by fruit. Hejl, who tells us she built this recipe for another contest, wins our consolation prize: Most Imaginative Burger.
Ancho Mama’s: We were really excited to try this one — bacon, avocado, an ancho chile rehydrated in beer, then processed and mixed into the meat, a crunchy slaw topping and a mayo blended with lime juice, lime zest and honey. What wasn’t to love? If you like chili, you’ll love this one, but our collective opinion was that it tasted a little too much like chili, what with the ancho, paprika and cumin — the latter spice showing up both in the burgers and the slaw. Mike suggested serving the slaw as a side, which would break up the cumin presence a bit.
Sweet and spicy: Jalapeños and burgers are a hallowed Southwestern tradition, and I tried and enjoyed a Bobby Flay burger recipe that had a green apple slice as a topping. But pear? Even a firm one, when chopped in a food processor, is going to turn a mushy and mealy consistency, which is exactly what happened. The mix of sweet and heat was pleasant enough, the mouth feel not so much.
Eternity: We chose this as our winner because it fulfilled on the plate the potential it offered on the page: white Cheddar, avocado, Hatch chiles, crushed corn chips, cream cheese, red onion, a little horseradish for extra heat and celery salt for an accent. This one really had it all, and it was our unanimous pick for top burger.
For his troubles, Smith takes home lifetime bragging rights, a gift card and a modest collection of grilling and barbecue cookbooks. “My first thought is I don’t even deserve it, ” said Smith, who lives in rural Hays County and describes himself as semi-retired from the real estate business. “I didn’t do it for notoriety, I just wanted to share a recipe. It says ‘Texas’ to me.”
Smith said he’s played with the recipe over the past few years, making it 12-15 times to front-to-back positive reviews. Smith also tells us he hasn’t made them much this summer on account of it being 200 degrees and all.
But, uh, next time? Can we come over?
Cori Schneider’s Sweet and Spicy Burger
1 lb. ground beef
1 green pear, cored and chopped
1/2 green apple, cored and chopped
1 jalapeño, chopped and seeded
1/3 cup red onion, diced
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
Sliced baby Swiss cheese
Whole wheat buns
In food processor, finely chop pear, green apple, jalapeño and red onion. Remove from food processor and dry some of the moisture out on paper towels.
In a large bowl, combine ground beef, mixture from food processor, egg, bread crumbs and salt and pepper to taste. Mix until ingredients are fully combined. Grill burgers about 6-8 minutes on each side or to your liking. Add cheese slices atop each patty until melted. Serve on whole wheat buns with light mayo. (Note: The recipe didn’t spell out how many burgers this makes. We made 3.)
Martha Barrack Martinez’s Caprese Burgers
1/2 medium white onion, sliced into 1/2-inch-long pieces
6 large fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 tsp. olive oil
1 lb. lean hamburger
1/2 tsp. smoked salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. olive oil
6 Tbsp. mayonnaise
6-8 leaves fresh basil, finely chopped
6 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
1 large tomato, sliced
4 leaves of Boston lettuce
4 large toasted sesame hamburger buns
To make the onion-mushroom topping, cook onions and mushrooms about 15 minutes in olive oil until onions are caramelized. Set aside.
For the burger, mix spices and olive oil into meat. Form into 4 patties. Cook hamburgers to preferred wellness (I like medium-rare) on an outside barbecue (my preference), an indoor griddle or on top of the stove.
While burgers are cooking, get a bowl and mix mayo and chopped fresh basil together. Set aside.
Making the masterpiece one at a time: Take toasted sesame bun, put generous amount of basil/mayo on each side. Stack the burger: one slice fresh mozzarella cheese, one large slice tomato, mushroom-onion mixture and lettuce.
Makes 4 burgers.
Keri Holder’s Ancho Mama’s Bohemian Black Lager Burgers with Adobo Lime Slaw
1 1/2 lbs. freshly ground chuck
1 lb. freshly ground sirloin
1/2 cup Shiner Bohemian Black Lager beer
1/2 ancho chile
2 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
Adobo lime slaw
1/4 small head of red cabbage
1/4 small head of green cabbage
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. adobo (drained from canned chipotles in adobo)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cumin
Juice from one lime
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. honey
Zest of 2 limes
Juice of 2 limes
6 slices bacon, cut into halves
2-3 Tbsp. vegetable oil, for brushing on the grill rack
1 large, ripe avocado, cored, peeled and sliced into 18 thin slices
3 oz. or 6 slices Manchego cheese
6 highest-quality hamburger buns, split
3/4 cup canned french-fried onions
Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill with a cover, or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.
To make the patties: Pour beer in a small bowl and soak the ancho in the beer for 30 minutes to soften. After the ancho has soaked, place the pepper in a blender with 2 Tbsp. of the beer from the bowl. Add the butter, cumin, black pepper, coriander, paprika and sugar to the blender. Blend well. Place the ground chuck, ground sirloin and salt in a large bowl. Add the mixture from the blender to the meat and combine the ingredients, handling the meat as little as possible. Shape into six patties to fit the buns. Cover with plastic and set aside.
To make the adobo lime slaw: Cut the red and green cabbage thinly enough for cole slaw. Place in medium bowl and add chopped cilantro. In a small bowl, whisk together adobo, red wine vinegar, mayonnaise, salt, cumin and lime. Add to slaw and toss. Cover with plastic and refrigerate.
To make honey lime mayonnaise: Whisk together mayonnaise, lime zest, lime juice and honey. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
Place the bacon in a 10-inch fireproof skillet on the grill and cook, turning as needed until crisp. Remove bacon from skillet and drain on paper towels.
When the grill is ready, brush the grill rack with vegetable oil. Place the patties on the rack, cover and cook, turning once, until done to preference, 5 to 7 minutes on each side for medium.
Place 3 avocado slices and 1/2 oz. of Manchego cheese on each patty during the last 3 minutes of grilling. Place the buns, cut side down, on the outer edges of the rack to toast lightly during the last 2 minutes of grilling.
To assemble, spread a generous amount of the honey-lime mayonnaise over the cut side of the buns. On each bun bottom, place a grilled patty, then two halved bacon slices, equal portions of the adobo lime slaw and the french-fried onions. Add the top bun and serve.
Makes 6 burgers.
Mollie Hejl’s Hickory Cherry Cheddar Pecan Gourmet Burgers with Cherry Butter Wine Sauce
2 cups cherry smoking chips
6 artisan (scratch-made) wheat or multigrain kaiser rolls – sesame-seeded, ‘everything’ or plain (if others unavailable) – 5 inches in diameter, split
2 lbs. certified Angus beef, 91 percent lean (preferred) or chopped sirloin
2 cups fresh dark bing cherries, pitted and finely chopped. (Note: A total of 2 lbs. of cherries are required for entire recipe.)
1 package (10 oz.) New York extra sharp white Cheddar cheese, finely diced
1 cup green onion tops, finely chopped
2 packages (2 1/4 oz.) pecan pieces
1 Tbsp. fresh ground peppercorn medley (black, pink, white and green peppercorns in grinder or pre-ground)
2 Tbsp. Lea & Perrins Thick Classic Worcestershire Sauce
2 Tbsp. liquid smoke flavoring, hickory
1/4 cup zinfandel wine
1/4 cup zinfandel wine
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. prepared crushed garlic
1 tsp. prepared spicy brown mustard
1 container (5 oz.) seasonal salad greens, organic preferred
Fresh herbs, mixed baby greens or spring mix
1 cup fresh cherries, very finely chopped
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp. crushed garlic
1 tsp. dry ground mustard
1/2 cup zinfandel wine
Preheat gas grill to medium-high heat (400 degrees) and coat rack with grilling spray. Soak cherry chips in water for 15 minutes. Drain, cover chips in foil, leaving small opening, then place packet at end of grill rack, remaining there for at least 15 minutes while preparing ingredients. Close grill cover.
For the patties: Crumble ground beef into large mixing bowl. Use very sharp knife and stain-resistant cutting board to finely chop cherries, removing pits and stems. Finely dice cheese by first slicing, then cutting 1/4-inch small cubes from the slices. Thinly slice green onion tops. Add cherries, cheese and green onions to beef, along with pecan chips, freshly ground pepper, Lea & Perrins, liquid smoke and wine. Combine all ingredients thoroughly before shaping into 6 patties (5 inches across to fit kaiser rolls) and place onto large cookie sheet.
For the topping: In a large stainless steel bowl, add wine, olive oil, garlic and spicy brown mustard. Combine all ingredients, placing salad greens on top. Set aside until patties are cooked. Don’t toss greens until later.
For the sauce: Use food processor to very finely chop cherries. Melt the butter in 2-quart (fireproof) saucepan, placed on outer edge of grill rack. Remove pan from rack and add brown sugar, garlic, dry mustard, and chopped cherries. Reposition pan on rack so that heat allows mixture to boil. When sauce reaches boiling, continue cooking, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, then add wine. Continue stirring, for about 5 more minutes or until sauce cooks down and thickens. Keep sauce warm, covering with foil if necessary. (Sauce may be prepared while burgers cook if all three cups of cherries for this recipe are processed together, with remaining cup of cherries ready for sauce.)
Grill the beef patties about 5-7 minutes per side, closing lid while cooking to enhance cherry-smoke flavor. Cook patties until medium-well but still juicy and keep warm. Toast rolls cut side down for 1 minute on grill until golden brown. Transfer cooked patties to toasted bottoms of rolls. Toss greens, placing 1/2 cup on top of patties. Distribute 2 Tbsp. cherry butter wine sauce over toasted top portions of rolls. Close rolls or serve open-face.
Makes 6 burgers.
J.M. Smith’s Eternity Burgers
8 oz. ground Angus beef
2 oz. white Cheddar cheese, grated
1 small avocado, sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 Hatch green chiles from a can (we simply heaped a good 2 Tbsp. of canned, chopped green chiles on each burger)
2 Tbsp. crushed-up Fritos
2 Tbsp. cream cheese
1 slice of red onion
1 whole grain wheat bun
1 Tbsp. melted butter
1 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. prepared horseradish
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/8 tsp. celery salt
In mixing bowl, combine beef with Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, horseradish, chili powder, black pepper and sea salt. Mix well and form one good patty for the grill.
Grill over high heat and turn only one time. After flipping beef over, place cheese on top of patty to melt. Cover burger to help the melting. Prepare meat to desired doneness. Open bun up and place on hot grill to toast.
Mix mustard, butter and celery salt in a small bowl. Place avocado slices directly on bottom bun and sprinkle crushed Fritos on top. Use a knife to “spread” the Fritos into the soft avocado.
Place red onion slice on top of avocado-Fritos mixture and then spread mustard sauce on top of it. Place burger with melted cheese on top of the mustard sauce. Cover with green chiles.
Spread cream cheese on top bun, then place on top of chiles. Note: This makes one Texas-sized half-pound burger. We doubled the quantities and made three one-third pounders.