October is my favorite month of the year. We celebrate the transition into fall by putting pumpkin into just about everything, cooking sausage without shame, and enjoying the Americanized version of German culture. All the good things: pretzels, beer, and for the bold lederhosen. Even though my family is far removed from their German background, I still cannot help but celebrate the fall with my favorite things. A little pretzel, sausage, and copious amounts of beer and cheese.
The Test Kitchen
My wife and I lead a small group of about 16 people ranging in age from early 20s to early 40s. This demographic is ideal for getting feedback and I used our fall bonfire as a test kitchen to get some input on this recipe. The fires were lit, the pit hot, and the beer cold. It was time to get to grillin’. This burger is simple. It is an all-beef patty, with fried onions, smoked bratwurst, topped with homemade beer cheese, all on a pretzel bun. Beer cheese and pretzel bun are an easy combo win. The smoked sausage adds good smoke flavor that you cannot get into the burger because of the quick cook time. I prefer a smash burger over a thick patty any day. The reason for this is simple burger science. A good burger has a balanced bun to meat ratio. Either too much bun or too much meat makes a bad burger. Do not be fooled by the “more is better” concept. Give me a balanced burger any day over a 1lb mega burger.
Smoke the Sausage
For this burger recipe, I picked up some great looking sausage from the grocery store. I was Midwest born and raised so Brats are where the party is in my opinion. Pick your favorite savory sausage and throw it on the grill to smoke. This requires you to set up a 2-zone fire. A 2-zone fire simply means put half the coals on one end of the grill and leave the other half without any coals. I suggest getting a charcoal basket shaped like a half circle. Fill it with briquets and light it at one end. Throw a couple chunks of your favorite flavoring wood (Cherry, apple, hickory, pecan, mesquite, etc.) and let it come up to about 225°.
When the grill is smoking and the temperature consistent put the sausages on over the indirect heat (no coals). Cover them and let them go. This is going to take one to two hours before the sausages get up to the safe temperature of 165°. When they get to about 160°I like to move them over to direct heat and add a bit of char to the outside. They will have a rich brown color when they are smoked properly. Take them off and put them aside to top the burgers with later. When the sausage has been removed add more charcoal to the grill and make it medium heat through the entire kettle. You accomplish this by putting charcoal on the previously empty side and moving a few hot coals over to the unlit side. This will allow the fire to light gradually and give you time to put together the cheese sauce. Put the grate back in place and allow the grill to come up to temp, around 500°.
Step 2: Beer Cheese
|Worcester Sauce||1 tbs|
|Shredded Sharp Cheddar||2 cups|
It is time to make the beer cheese. This recipe is super simple and can be easily upgraded for better flavor. I love to put some diced Anaheim or Poblano peppers to add some more kick. The starting point for the cheese is to melt the butter completely and then add the flour. This will create what is called a roux. Essentially, it is adding fat to your thickening agent and allowing the raw flour flavor to cook off a bit. Stir this constantly or it will burn. I suggest allowing the roux to cook for 4-5 minutes. The longer you cook the darker it gets and the better the flavor. There is a tradeoff though, the longer you cook the roux the less thickening power it has. For making creole food like etouffe you want to bring it all the way to a peanut butter color, but for this sauce, it is okay if she stays blonde.
When you are happy with the roux it is time to add the beer. I like to add the beer first so that the milk doesn’t scorch. Your roux is going to be hot and if you add the milk first it may cause it to curdle and that is just not a great flavor or consistency. So, add the beer first but do it a little at a time or your flour will clump up and it will be difficult to get out all the lumps. When the beer is incorporated then add the milk. This should give you the consistency you are looking for. If it is too thick, add in a bit more milk or beer. I want to caution you, too much beer will give the sauce a pungent flavor. Do not be afraid to give it a little taste. It will not be complete, but it will let you know where you stand on the beer. When you have a good consistency and it is all incorporated it is time to put in the cheese.
Add the cheese a little at a time and give it the opportunity to melt into your base. When you have added in the cheese and it is all melted give it a taste. You may find you want to add a bit more cheese or a bit more beer. Just remember that the beer will affect the consistency so please add a little at a time. When the cheese has been incorporated it is time to add the horseradish and the Worcester sauce. I like these flavors because they add some kick, you can omit them or add whatever finishing touches you want. Give the cheese sauce a taste and make your final adjustments now. Like I said, pretty simple process.
Alright, the sausage is smoked, and the beer cheese is finished. In the time it took you to prepare the beer cheese the grill should be up to temp and raging hot. Go outside and put a cast iron griddle on the grates to begin heating up. That’s right, a griddle. You need to make a smash patty and not a fatty. The bigger patties will make the meat to bun ratio all messed up. You are going to take the meat and divide them into 4 ounce or quarter pound balls. Just meat, do not get into crazy additives like bread crumbs or sauces. All this excess can dry out the burgers (bread crumbs) or make your burgers like meatloaf. Who wants meatloaf on burger night?
You have your meat all balled up and the grill is raging hot. You need some sliced onion. Make it as thin as possible, these are going to be your fried onions. If you have it, use a mandolin slicer. This will make as thinly sliced onions as possible, perfect to fry in the fat coming off the burgers. Take equal parts salt and pepper and combine them in a small bowl or ramekin to spice the burgers. Do not add the spice until the burgers are on the grill. This common mistake can also dry out and toughen up the burgers.
You have your meat, spice, and onions ready. Now, it is time to cook the patties. By this time, your griddle is raging hot and ready to cook. Take a ball of beef and place it on the griddle. Top it with your seasoning and add a small handful of onions to the top of the patty. You will have to smoosh it a little by hand to keep the onions from falling off. Now comes the super fun part: smashing the patty. Take a stiff spatula, that is one that is unbending, and smash the patty until it is thin like a pancake. This will embed the onions into the burger and they will begin to fry as the burger heats up and the fat melts.
After a few minutes, the burger is ready to be flipped. You will know it is time when liquid begins to pool on the uncooked side and the edges begin to crisp. Flip the patty over and behold a thing of true beauty. A perfectly cooked side of your burger. It is crisp, meaty, and brings a tear of joy to your eye. Quickly grab one of the smoked sausages and cut it into slices. Throw those on the griddle to heat up a bit, not too much as they are already fully cooked.
It is time to plate up the burger. This is a thin burger, so it will cook pretty quickly. You will only need to cook it for 1-2 minutes after flipping. This is mostly to crisp up the other side and finish the onions. Place the patty on your pretzel bun and top it with the sausage fresh off the grill. Finish the burger by ladling a little of the warm beer cheese sauce over the top. This, my friends, is a show-stopping burger. Give it a try and let me know what you think.