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The Perfect Burger, Pure Paleo and an Elk Kill

The other night I happened to click into the Food Network just as a show called Restaurant Impossible was beginning; and I was kinda hooked right away. I liked chef Robert Irvine right off the bat: his compassion for struggling restaurant entrepreneurs, combined with his tough love and deep understanding of what makes a restaurant work. I’d never heard of him. I prefer to spend my time in the kitchen actually cooking food rather than watch others do it, or pretend that because I watch food shows, I know something about putting a meal together.

At any rate, it was one of those times where they were doing back-to-back episodes and so I caught a few. Then a couple more last night. Very impressed with what he is able to do with an absolute disaster in two days time and a small budget.

In one aspect, it really signals to me how, during this clean Paleo stint of mine, that avoiding restaurants altogether, as much as possible, is definitely a sound move. I just feel so much better in so many respects. Yep, eating out got way out of hand for me. Last Friday, Beatrice was off work, so we decided to go to a new fish place for lunch that had opened up, Pacific Catch in Campbell, CA. I had a bowl of Thai coconut milk ginger soup with shrimp, and to follow, fresh catch stealhead trout (which we used to fish for every year on the Klamath river when I was a kid) and grilled veggies.

I got heartburn.

Didn’t have any in the days before, and none since. Stay home, eat at home, save money and feel awesome.

The other thing Irvine does is create a whole new menu and in the process, cooks head to head with the chef in order to pass on techniques & tips. One such cook off was burgers, and I experienced epiphany. I’ve always preferred grilled burgers and only do them in the pan when the weather is crappy. But it’s also difficult to get them right, pink from edge to edge. The grill is just too hot, so you often end up with 1/4″ or more well done — and can end up raw in the center if it’s a thick burger and you’re not careful. The other problem is all the fat oozing out, leaving you dry and tasteless.

But here was Irvine’s chief trick that I had never heard of. Instead of the typical method of pressing ground beef into a dense burger, he instead rolled it lightly into a big soft ball sized shape and then every so lightly patted it down gently with his hand to achieve something about an inch thick. No squeezing, squishing, pounding, pressing.

Then it goes into the pan — I used cast iron and a bit of lard — high heat, a couple of minutes per side to brown & sear it. In the meantime, the oven is preheating. I used 350 degrees, but intend to experiment with 375 and 400. Just toss the pan in right after searing the second side, and 6-8 minutes should be enough for medium rare. Mine came out medium, so I have some work to do. I didn’t want to poke it for temperature and have fat escape, so what I did was wait until it began to plump up signifying fat was melting.

Now here’s what the chief trick of lightly patting down your burger does. Sorry for the blurry pic, only one I have.

Seared Burgers
Seared Burgers

What you should notice is that there’s no pools of fat in the pan, just the bit of lard. Well, that’s no surprise because it’s just a sear anyway. But while I didn’t get a pic when they came out of the oven, there was only just the very slightest ooze of fat from the smaller one. I set them to rest on the serving plates for only a couple of minutes while I got the salad dressed, and to my amazement, no juice or fat oozing. I then put a dab of ghee on each one, put the plates into the oven for just the 15 seconds needed to melt the room temperature ghee, and we’re done. Click for hi-res.

Perfect Burger
Perfect Burger

So here’s the secret, according to Irvine. When you form your burgers gently, there’s plenty of air pocket throughout, and these pockets give the fat someplace to be, rather than getting squeezed out all over the place (air is displaced before a viscous liquid).

Well, be willing to learn something new every day. I look forward to perfecting this.

…And speaking of cooking at home, my little share of this, that my brother dropped off yesterday will make that even more of a pleasure. Click it open for the big view.

Kill
Elk Kill

He got that in Montana a few weeks back, 300 yard shot in high winds up on the hill.

Elk Parts
Elk Parts

Couple of packages of steaks, three pounds of ground, Some elk & pork sausage, kielbasa, and pepperoni.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

37 Comments

  1. turnupie on November 17, 2011 at 19:06

    had elk burger meat tonight, low temp pan stir fried with onion, small portobello mushroom, tomato paste and herbs du provence.
    you will enjoy reading this book if you haven’t read it yet.. only up to the Japan section and its fabulous you will learn so much from other cultures..
    Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef

    most restaurants use too much oil. my elk meat had 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil just to get the french onions and mushrooms started..

    • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2011 at 06:32

      I believe Jimmy Moore did a podcast with that guy. Good interview. He definitely came down on the side of grassfed meat, as I recall.

  2. chuck on November 17, 2011 at 13:46

    that was nice of him to give you a taste but your brother is holding back. that elk is huge with a lot of meat on it’s bones. keep after him for some more quality meat.

  3. Kelly on November 17, 2011 at 16:23

    I’m going to have to try this method of cooking burgers – especially now that grilling time is pretty much over here in upstate NY. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Mike Gruber on November 17, 2011 at 16:54

    Elk is good eatin’ … I had some about 25 years ago that I still remember. That picture explains why guys go hunting with ATVs … is that how he got that beast out of the bush?

    • Richard Nikoley on November 17, 2011 at 17:32

      They dressed it on the spot, into the darkness, and had to cart the meat up the hill. My bro related the whole story last night over green tea, as pathetic as that sounds..

  5. Ryan on November 17, 2011 at 17:35
  6. Ryan on November 17, 2011 at 17:36

    Sorry, one more so that you don’t have to do as much digging through the archives: http://aht.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/03/the-burger-labs-top-ten-tips-for-better-burgers.html

  7. David Nikoley on November 17, 2011 at 17:43

    The Elk was field dressed, i.e. gutted & skinned the night of the kill. We came back the next morning and quarted the animal, removed the neck and back strap meat and then 5 guys loaded up our packs with about 70 to 80 lbs of meat and paced it out. Two guys returned to get the remaining meat. It was an amazing experiance with some great friends and awesome guides.

  8. Sean on November 17, 2011 at 23:52

    Richard are you still using the sous-vide much?

    • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2011 at 06:22

      Funny you should mention that. Not much, but I’m going to do the first package of those Elk steaks that way.

      • Sean on November 18, 2011 at 08:55

        We were thinking about getting one, but damn if they don’t cost ~1000 bucks here. So how come you lost interest?



      • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2011 at 09:19

        It’s not so much a loss of interest as a change in lifestyle. From 2005 until August of 2010 we lived in urban lofts and it was a regular Seinfeld or Friends scene at our place and the places of the half dozen of so close friends we had across and down the hall. I was very much into informal dinner parties, Sunday brunches and various meal collaborations at all times. This was not just on weekends but usually, several times per week at one person’s place or the other but probably a good half the time or more at our place.

        So I was into the more elaborate and because I worked at home most of the time, I had the time to get started on things in the afternoon, which I loved.

        Then we moved into a house with a yard in a nice suburban neighborhood and life just changed. I still do the elaborate from time to time but usually, it’s something quick and simple.



      • Sean on November 19, 2011 at 01:29

        So when you cook for yourself you like to keep it quick and dirty. As a big pressure cooker fan, I can relate to that. Our pressure cooker gets more action than Berlosconni’s cock at a ‘diplomatic’ pool party.

        But isn’t the sous-vide meat incredibly tender and ‘perfectly’ cooked? Especially for leaner grass-fed meat?



      • Richard Nikoley on November 19, 2011 at 08:46

        “But isn’t the sous-vide meat incredibly tender and ‘perfectly’ cooked? Especially for leaner grass-fed meat?”

        It’s very good, but where I think it really shines is in cheaper meats, like pork chops and chicken breasts. Also, salmon is amazing.

        I have done steaks but it’s really a tossup as to whether I prefer them grilled.



      • Sean on November 19, 2011 at 14:40

        Well, thanks, now I don’t feel like I’m missing out that much.



  9. Uncephalized on November 18, 2011 at 07:54

    Richard, do you drink coffee in general? And if you do, are you still having it during your “clean” month?

    Also, to the guy who said your brother is holding out on you, well maybe, but it’s his elk!

    I’m hoping to go bow hunting for elk next season. I didn’t get anywhere near enough practice in this year to attempt it yet.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2011 at 07:57

      Yes, I drink coffee most mornings and have been drinking during this clean paleo month as well. But I almost never drink it but right in the AM.

      • Uncephalized on November 19, 2011 at 07:18

        Cool. That’s what I do as well but was wondering how it fit in with your concept of “clean paleo”, especially since I’m doing a bit of a dietary cleanup at the moment also.



      • Richard Nikoley on November 19, 2011 at 07:31

        Wife and I were talking about this last night and she was saying how tea in the morning felt better. I said go for it.

        For the two years I lived in France, I drank tea every morning instead of coffee, having an espresso coffee after lunch & dinner. I quite liked it.



  10. Aaron Curl on November 18, 2011 at 08:02

    I have done steaks this way in the past…..I don’t know why I never thought of this for burgers! Thanks. The elk meat makes me jealous but I have been seeing some whitetail out in the field, so I’m sure I’ll get some venison before thanksgiving. Enjoy the elk and post pics….I know you will…. never mind.

  11. John Nugent on November 18, 2011 at 08:04

    So, the 30 day challenge. From what you say, it is making a difference and highlighting that being less than 100% paleo has its drawbacks.

    I do feel it when I fall off the wagon (which is a lot).

    • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2011 at 08:34

      Yea. Frankly, we’ll see, but I have my doubts that much of the other elements make a huge difference. I’m convinced that the hugest difference is eating food you prepare yourself at home. When you do that, it’s easy to be very clean, because I simply have no non-paleo foods in the house most of the time save for butter, heavy cream, a bit of cheese now and then, maybe some grassfed beef franks, and a couple of other odds & ends.

  12. Keoni Galt on November 18, 2011 at 09:57

    I’d bet anything the culprit for your heartburn is either Soybean or Canola oil. Most restaurants use it, as it is the cheapest cooking oil thanks to Big Ag Fed Gov subsidies. Whenever I eat food that I know has that crap in it, I get heartburn too. I bet your fish was cooked with it.

    As for cooking burgers…I do cook mine the same way, except for when I want to make gravy. Then I squeeze out as much fat as possible from the burgers while they’re cooking, than use all that drippings to make a gravy with some butter, salt and a little bit of sweet rice flour (mochicko).

    We have a local style fav meal in Hawaii we call “Loco Moco.” A bowl of white rice, hamburger patties, and an over easy egg on the top, all smothered with gravy. Right before eating, you break the yolk with your fork and let it run all over the rice and meat and mix in with the gravy. Yum.

    Of course, the typical restaurant in Hawaii makes this with the usual store bought, powdered gravy made with wheat flour and partially hydrogenated oil.

    Going primal and avoiding restaurant food meant I gave up one of my favorite comfort meals (Loco Moco is the BEST hangover food!).

    But once I discovered I could add white rice back into my diet and not suffer any ill effects, I went about making my own “primal version” of the loco moco – grass fed beef patties, pastured free range eggs and fresh made gravy.

    • Richard Nikoley on November 18, 2011 at 11:00

      I know Loco Moco. My office used to be right down the street from the 4th St Bowl in San Jose, owned an operated by a Hawaiian family and they have a cafe. It’s been a few years since I had it. They use chicken gravy and it’s most certainly thickened with flour.

      But yea, the Hawaiian version of biscuits & gravy qua comfort food.

  13. Chris Tamme on November 18, 2011 at 10:07

    I just learned this process from Chef Irvine myself and began using it two weeks ago. I have never been able to make burgers that held shape or were any kind of good shape. This is so easy and makes such juicy burgers.

    The past couple batches I have made using 2lbs grass fed beef, 2lbs ground venison, 3 eggs, 2 tbsp gourmet burger seasoning, and 2 tbsp house salt. It makes the most delicious burgers. Nothing better then home cooked food.

    I have slowed done on eating out because it frustrates me. If I go out and have a steak my wife will ask me “So how was it?”. My response is always that I could have done it better. I might have finally learned after that has happened a dozen times.

  14. Clean Paleo Food Pics | Free The Animal on November 18, 2011 at 12:02

    […] Posts RSS ← The Perfect Burger, Pure Paleo and an Elk Kill […]

  15. William on November 18, 2011 at 15:17

    I’m surprised the Pacific Catch folks were able to open a new place in Campbell, with the California economy in the toilet, and onerous regulations pressing its ugly bloated weight on productive people.

    By the way, the very best meat I have ever experienced, is elk from eastern Oregon. Well, that and domestic venison from New Zealand.

  16. Benjamin on November 18, 2011 at 18:14

    Richard, I just made some burgers the exact way you did and they turned out rare as shit on the inside! I like pink, but they were red! So I had to throw the “broken open” burgers back in the oven. Experimenting….

    • Richard Nikoley on November 19, 2011 at 03:25

      Oops, sorry to hear that. Mine were medium the first time, because I wasn’t paying attention, talking to me brother who had just delivered Elk meat.

      2nd time I did at 375, for about 6 minutes, let rest for about three, and got a decent medium rare. Still experimenting with ideal temp & time for a 1″ burger.

  17. Uncephalized on November 19, 2011 at 07:22

    Haha, you guys must really LOVE cooking. That is way too much mental effort for a simple hamburger for me.

    My hamburger process: heat up skillet, put patty on skillet, flip after a couple minutes, cook until there’s some blackening and it doesn’t feel mushy when I poke it, then eat the damn thing. Usually tastes just fine to me. 🙂

  18. Wild Elk Steaks Sous Vide | Free The Animal on November 21, 2011 at 10:23

    […] few days back I mentioned getting some wild elk meat from my brother's recent hunting trip in […]

  19. Timothy on November 22, 2011 at 08:56

    Richard, I am 100% with you on restaurants. Two days ago I broke a string of wonderful homecooked meals to go to a seafood buffet. Seemed innocuous enough, but even upon standing up from the table, it felt as though I had swallowed a pint of local anaesthetic. Tongue swelled up and I came down with a head cold and fever that very evening.

    So your anecdote comes at a welcome time. Combined with my own experience, it perfects my resolve to avoid restaurants at all costs. We work too hard in the weight room, the kitchen, and the bedroom to squander our health and money that way.

    Solzhenitsyn writes of “superhuman deeds strung one after another and then thrown away for a glass of vodka.” Let us always avoid a similar fate.

  20. […] first posting about getting to the perfect burger, I've been doing a good amount of experimenting. What I believe I've settled on is reversing the […]

  21. Todd Watson on January 14, 2012 at 11:14

    I was inspired by this and did a decent variation on it just now.

    I had an hour to kill and was hungry. I followed the instructions on forming the patty. Using what I had on hand, I melted a big tablespoon of lard in a cast iron skillet. I seared the burger patty on high heat for two minutes on each side. I threw the skillet in the 350 degree oven for 8 minutes.

    In the meantime, in a non-stick skillet, I melted another big tablespoon of lard, threw in a full bag of frozen Brussels sprouts. After the patty was done, I let it rest while I finished the sprouts. I poured a cup of bone broth in the pan with the sprouts and cooked them for another 5 minutes. Transferred the sprouts to a bowl and left the liquids in the pan. I let them reduce, put a couple of splashes of Worchestershire sauce in the pan, let that reduce for two minutes and poured it over the hamburger patty and sprouts.

    I forgot the butter on the patty and sprouts I planned to use, but it still turned out awesome.

  22. […] Here's the kill. […]

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