The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Wicked Good Cookbook

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This past April, while my Kitchen was being renovated, I picked up a cookbook by local chef/restauranteur Andy Husbands and BBQ cooking enthusiast Chris Hart together with food writer Andrea Pyenson called Wicked Good Burgers. Husbands and Hart are also members of the iQUE competition BBQ team which won the national championship in 2009. I smile every time I think of the shock that must have greeted a team of Yankees winning this BBQ competition. After I bought the book I spent the entire month of April drooling because I could only look, but not cook the recipes in this great looking cookbook. In fact I liked it before I even picked it up to look at it in the store. You see "wicked" is a slang term used here in New England as an adjective modifying another word to mean "incredibly". So the cookbook brought a smile to my face before I'd even picked it up. Plus I knew these guys shared some of the same traditions surrounding summer cookouts that I didi. This blog entry will be a review and first impressions of this wicked good cookbook.

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My normal process when looking at a cookbook is to flip through the pages and check out the front end material and the recipes. I check out the front end material to see if it is useful or just a waste of trees. One of my favorite cookbooks has about 75 pages of front end material that is so good it is almost worth the price of the cookbook alone. In other cookbooks this material can be totally useless and the shorter the better. I look at the recipes to see if they look interesting, and more importantly are they something I would actually make? I began at the front end material and in under a minute I stopped looking at the book and bought it on the spot. I could tell the authors had broken down and analyzed every facet of what made a great burger. Their theory is that a great burger is made up of a series of great components: fresh ground meat, fresh baked buns, the best toppings and condiments. A weakness in any one of those areas can drag an otherwise great burger down. So they are looking for perfection in all of these areas. The book has recipes for all of these necessary components. When I saw some pages devoted to grinding your own meat with great attention to the finer details, I knew this book was a winner.

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The book is organized in chapters covering the basics of a great burger, then examples of several great burgers plus all of the other components to make this great burger: rolls, condiments, toppings. This is followed by a chapter on various alternative types of burger and another chapter on burgers made from something other than beef. Next is a chapter on burgers from around the world. The book ends with two chapters that aren't about burgers, but tell you how to make some sides and drinks to go with your great burgers. The first has recipes for fries, chips and onion rings. The final chapter has recipes for drinks ranging from frappes (milkshakes to folks outside of New England), to smoothies and floats. There is even a recipe in this chapter for a dessert burger. The materials at the end of the book include sources for some of the ingredients that are hard to find.

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Throughout the book there is great attention to detail. These burgers are wicked good for a reason: some one has put the time in to get the details right. I am not a great creative cook where I can whip up an original recipe at the drop of a hat. But I have always been good at following directions. These days there are many grilling or BBQ related cookbooks out there. Some I must kindly describe as celebrity chef ego trips. The recipes are poorly written, often with missing or incorrect information, sloppy proofreading and making the recipes is an adventure. It is as if the chef/author is only putting their name on the project and neither the chef or anyone else has tried making the recipes as written. This cookbook is the polar opposite of that approach. Everything seems well thought out and after making a few recipes I feel totally confident following the directions. The cooking directions are an example of this. They cook the burgers at high heat for a relatively short amount of time. After cooking many similarly sized burgers at somewhat lower heat, I just couldn't see how the burgers would cook up in this amount of time. Once the burgers came off the grill they rest for five minutes loosely covered and this is often when the cheese is applied. Now one of the reasons is the cooking time is short is because they want their burgers cooked to rare or at most medium rare. The way they are able to pull this off is by using freshly ground beef, which doesn't have the same food safety issues as ground beef that has been sitting around for long amounts of time. I was skeptical at first, but the cooking times were right on and the resulting burger was tasty, moist and juicy.

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In the truth in advertising department: I did run into one problem in one recipe. I made the recipe for TOMATO-GINGER KETCHUP and when the ketchup was done cooking down, it was way thicker and chunkier than I think of when I think ketchup. Now this may have been my fault from not dicing the whole tomatoes small enough. Honestly I don't think so, but it is possible. This was a case where the problem was quickly fixed using my immersion blender. So while I could deduct a few points for this minor issue, it is hard to fault the recipe when the resulting ketchup was the best ketchup I remember tasting. I am NOT a ketchup fan, but after tasting this ketchup I knew I had to use it.

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When my Kitchen was back up and running I was chomping at the bit to get out and start grilling up some burgers. I'd keep picking up this book to look through it, and I would have to put it back down because the recipes looked so good on paper it was making me crazy. The logical first choice for my first burger was the first burger in the book called: OUR PERFECT BURGER which used a umami powder called Fifth Dimension Powder. Together with that I made FLOUR BAKERY BURGER BUNS and two condiments: TOMATO-GINGER KETCHUP and JACK D’OR MUSTARD. The recipes were well thought out, with the right amount of necessary detail. One interesting this is Andy Husbands prefers grilling his burgers and Chris Hart prefers a griddle grilled burger. Both methods were presented here in the opening chapter. One thing I liked is some of the essential background material, such as cooking technique is presented once at the beginning and is referenced in the recipe. This as opposed to some cookbooks where they sacrifice many trees repeating the same 10 firsts steps at the beginning of each recipe. The sources section at the end of the cookbook proved valuable because 3 of the spices in the Fifth Dimension Powder were not available locally. These burgers were made for my Mother's birthday. She had asked for burgers for her birthday meal without knowing I had purchased this cookbook. Her wishes and my desire to make something from this book were in perfect harmony. I wanted to pull out all of the stops for her birthday and this recipe did not disappoint. I ground my own meat, baked the buns, made my own condiments and while it was a bit time consuming the end results were well worth the efforts. Everyone loved the burgers and everything I made that day was best in class. Needless to say I was very impressed, but I already had a feeling these guys knew their stuff from looking through the book.

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Unlike some cookbooks, where recipes for rolls or condiments feel like they are an afterthought thrown in more for show than for effect. I can assure you in this cookbook they are not afterthoughts, they are essentials and are sometimes developed specifically for a particular recipe. In fact the authors premise assures they are not afterthoughts. They feel the perfect burgers requires the best condiments, toppings and roll. A deficiency in any one of those areas can drag a perfect burger down to mediocre. The condiments I’ve made from this book have been excellent. The TOMATO-GINGER KETCHUP is the bast ketchup I have ever had. I normally don’t even use ketchup, but when I tried it I knew I had to add it to my burger. The one side I’ve made: SWEET POTATO PUB FRIES, were best in class with a spicy rub adding to their great flavor. And as for the rolls, what can I say abut those? The recipes I’ve made were from bakery chef’s of well known restaurants and they have been outstanding. In fact the recipe for the MINDY’S PRETZEL BUNS turned out the best rolls I’ve ever had. So as I said these non-burger recipes are hardly aftlerthoughts and are outstanding in their own right.

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The second burger I made was called the PASTRAMI BURGER which was an equally amazing burger. For this one I ground my own meat again and made my own RUSSIAN DRESSING. This was a very interesting burger which solves the problem of do I want a burger or do I want deli? The third burger was called the BRAT BURGER and used ground beef and ground pork. The burgers were served on MINDY’S PRETZEL BUNS which were the best hamburger rolls I've ever had. Three burgers, three home runs, the recipes tasted as good as they had looked on paper.

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The fourth burger was a big change of pace. It was the ALL-AMERICAN DOUBLE BISON CHEESEBURGER which marked the first time I had ever used Bison (Buffalo). The cooking method was totally different and violated conventional wisdom in several ways. The burgers were griddle grilled starting out as a meatball-shaped patties. After a minute they get smashed flat with the spatula. This violates the "rule" that you don't press the patties flat on the grill because it squeezes out all of the juices. This method is the way many diners do it and it results in a burger with a great sear and a tasty outer crust. I noticed this is how the Johnny Rockets chain makes their burgers. The authors had obviously done their research as their directions were spot-on and the end-results were as promised.

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The fifth and final burger I made was called the DINER-STYLE STEAMED CHEESEBURGER, which was another exploration of different, but yet traditional burger cooking methods. Like the ALL-AMERICAN DOUBLE BISON CHEESEBURGER this recipe had you cook the burgers on a flat-top griddle. The new wrinkle this time around was the use of a cover over the burgers and spraying the grill surface with water. The intent here was to create steam which gets trapped inside the cover. The steam helps the burger cook very fast (a minute or so per side) and it creates an incredibly moist burger. This totally different cooking method was described clearly and concisely and the times were right on for the given temperature. You can tell the authors are really good cooks with their great attention to details. You can tell someone has made these recipes multiple times to get the details just right. For you this means you can relax a bit and focus on following the recipe as written and not sweat whether the end results will be correct.

Five recipes and Five excellent burgers later this book has more than paid for itself. Once again I must mention how pleasant it is to make cookbook recipes where it appears someone has made the final published recipe at least once before approving the book. I am very much looking forward to making more great burgers. I am also looking forward to making some of the sides and drink recipes. If you like burgers, whether traditional or modern this is a must have cookbook. Trust me you will be in for some excellent eating.

Here are the links to the picture entries for the Burgers, Buns & Condiments I have made from this cookbook to date.

  OUR PERFECT BURGER Burgers Picture Entry
  JACK D’OR MUSTARD Condiments Picture Entry
  TOMATO-GINGER KETCHUP Condiments Picture Entry
  PASTRAMI BURGER Burgers Picture Entry
  RUSSIAN DRESSING Condiments Picture Entry
  BRAT BURGER Burgers Picture Entry
  MINDY’S PRETZEL BUNS Baking Picture Entry
  SWEET POTATO PUB FRIES Veggies Picture Entry

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