There is undeniable pleasure in a plain beef burger juicy, tender, well-browned over a backyard grill, but there's even more in a jazzed-up one. If you begin with pork, lamb or beef you buy yourself and grind at home, and continue by adding seasonings aggressively, you're on your way to a summer full of great “burgers” which are, in essence, sausages in burger form.
In fact, I wondered while making (and eating) my first pork burger of the grilling season: Why would anyone make a plain burger? Why would you begin with supermarket ground beef — whose quality is highly questionable and whose flavor is almost always disappointing, if not depressing — and then cook it without much seasoning beyond a few crystals of salt? Ketchup, after all, does not fix everything. Even the addition of mustard, pickles and so on, right down to mayonnaise, doesn't give you good-tasting meat.
The question of how to improve on the basic burger is one I've pondered since the mother of Mark Roth, my childhood best friend, first served me one laced with Worcestershire sauce and other exotic spices. (Exotic for the late 1950s, at least, when even pepper grinders did not exist in the kitchens of most middle-class Jewish New Yorkers.) My taste buds responded, and I began besieging my poor mother with demands for improved burgers. In the years that followed, neither she nor I could duplicate Shirley Roth's concoction. It could be time to ask Roth for her recipe, but I do not want to risk disappointment.
Fast forward to my early adulthood, when I was introduced to the pork burger of a small luncheonette in Fairfield County, Conn. Here, the proprietor and cook would hand-grind and hand-season — onion, fennel and black pepper dominated — a few pounds of pork shoulder each day. On order, he would shape a third of a pound or so into a burger and cook it on the griddle with half of a bell pepper — one he tore in half with his fingers, not a bad technique — and some onion. This was served with no adornment — it didn't need any — on a good hard roll. (Never mind that a good hard roll is almost impossible to find these days; that's a different story.)
This I could do. You need fat: Pork shoulder is almost imperative for the correct balance of lean and fat. You need strong spices; as a starting point, you cannot beat fennel seeds and black pepper. And you need adequate salt, an essential in any good burger. Variations, of course, are not just possible but advisable. Chopped fresh fennel or chopped onion are spectacular additions.
Cooked over high heat, whether on a grill or in a pan or broiler, until just done, the result is consistently juicy, super flavorful and sublimely tender. And it browns, developing a dark, crisp crust like no beef burger I've ever had.
Since this is a personal story, in part, let me note another revelation of the '70s, when my friend Semeon Tsalbins introduced me to the lamb burger. (The words are so adorable I'm surprised a fast-food chain hasn't taken it up.) This is ground lamb — again, shoulder is best — highly seasoned and grilled rare. Because lamb is the most full flavored of the everyday meats, it makes a more delicious plain burger than beef. Cooked with nothing but salt, it's fantastic. Cooked with a variety of spices, it's a game-changer. You will begin grinding lamb routinely, if you haven't already. You can also stuff it, as Tsalbins does on occasion, with smoked moz- zarella.)
There is room in this picture for seafood, too. Of course, there are salmon and tuna burgers and, now that I think of it, one could easily call a crab cake a crab burger. Still, because they lack fat, they make a nice burger but not a crunchy-crusted, drip-down-the-chin one.
So why not take a cue from the shu mai dumpling, which mixes shrimp and pork? This gives you uncommon flavor in a burger — not only from the shrimp, but also from the combination of Asian ingredients — with adequate fat.
All of the recipes above, including the souped-up beef burger made with traditional steak tartare seasonings, have three things in common, and these will hold true for any of your own best improvisations: a fair amount of fat, a heavy hand with seasonings and a meat grinder or food processor.
Traditional sausage contains 30 percent fat, or more. This is perhaps a bit excessive by today's standards, and I'm quite happy with considerably less than that, but be forewarned: If you go to 90 percent lean, you're sacrificing a great deal of tenderness, juiciness and flavor. The main reason that most chicken, turkey and other alternative sausages are such failures is exactly because they're low fat. Shoulder, whether pork, lamb or beef — also known as chuck — is the most suitable of the commonly available cuts. Neck meat, if you can find it, is perhaps even better. Do not trim away too much fat.
The grinding is simple. Whether you use a food processor or a grinder, keep the meat fairly coarse. You don't want a purée, but what used to be called chopped meat. If you're using ingredients you want minced — garlic, for example — you're better off preparing them separately, by hand or by machine, to get them small enough.
As for the seasonings, they can be taken in any direction you like. But if you feel the need for pickles, mustard, onions and ketchup, I suggest you are not adequately seasoning the meat itself. That's all right; you can try again next time. You've got all summer.