Turkey burger

A turkey burger, seasoned just the way food writer Kim O’Donnel likes it, with smoked paprika, dried oregano, Dijon mustard and a smidge of sesame oil.

This time of year takes me back 30-plus-three years to an alley in West Philadelphia. Newly minted college graduates, my pal El and I spent a lot of time in that alley, squatting over a hibachi that we barely knew how to light. With green bottles of Rolling Rock at our side, we endeavored to grill that summer, with our hearts set on eggplant and turkey burgers just like we’d serve in the restaurant of our dreams.

In our case, it took more than two college graduates to keep a hibachi burning, which meant we had beer for dinner more frequently than burgers. It would take many years and a culinary diploma before I revisited the turkey burger, which requires more thought than the salt-and-pepper routine of its beefy counterpart.

In the land of ground meat, turkey is mild mannered, maybe even a little bit shy. It needs spiced coaxing, maybe even cajoling to measure up to its fattier brethren. It needs a little more TLC in the prep. But with the tricks that follow, your turkey burger can go from ‘meh’ to ‘YEAH.’

- FAT IS YOUR FRIEND.

Turkey is naturally lean and does not possess the same kind of marbled fat present in pork or beef. A little lubrication in the form of oil or cold grated butter helps keep the meat moist for its short stint on the stovetop or the grill.

For one pound meat, I recommend 1 tablespoon oil at the seasoning and shaping stage, plus a little bit more to lightly grease your cooking surface.

- BE ASSERTIVE WITH THE SEASONING.

Without the fat, turkey is also naturally bland. Like chicken, it plays well with big, bold flavors, which means an opportunity to get creative in the flavor department.

I recommend a mix of dry and wet seasonings. Dry means ground or dried spices or herbs, including smoked paprika, dried oregano or thyme, cumin, fennel seeds or your favorite curry powder. Wet means one of your favorite bottled condiments, including mustard, ketchup, soy sauce, teriyaki, Worcestershire, hot sauce or harissa. (The proportions for the burger in the photo are below.)

And salt, of course. My seasoning rule of thumb for animal protein is 3/4 teaspoon salt for every pound. But with the addition of wet seasonings, all of which contain salt, I recommend slightly less, about 1/2 teaspoon — to accommodate.

- KIM’S FAVORITE WAY TO SEASON TURKEY BURGERS

For every 1 pound of ground turkey, add:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • A few pinches of ground black pepper
  • A drizzle of sesame oil (optional)

- DON’T OVERMIX.

The key here is to mix in the seasonings just until distributed, then stop. Remember, the meat will continue to get mixed as you shape it into patties. You have more control if you mix with your hands (versus a spatula), so I recommend putting on a pair of gloves and quickly getting to work.

To shape, you can do it freestyle and portion into four or five mounds or for more precision, use a 1/3 cup measure or a scale to weigh each mound (about 4 ounces).

I like to cup each mound in my hands for a few seconds and press lightly on both sides. Another option is to place each mound on a piece of parchment or plastic and use the flat side of a yogurt container (or similar sized lid) to lightly press on top. For cheeseburgers, you can gently press your thumb in the middle to keep cheese from spreading.

Whatever you decide, the less handling the better. Immediately transfer shaped patties to a plate or sheet pan.

- LET THE SHAPED PATTIES TAKE A POWER NAP.

A brief stint in the refrigerator or the freezer, even for as little as 15 minutes, gives the meat a chance to rest and helps the patties keep their shape. For grated butter burgers, chill for 30 minutes.

- GO EASY ON THE BURGER GYMNASTICS.

Assuming you’ve got your cooking surface lightly greased and the heat is cranked to medium-high (or equivalent on a grill), it’s burger time.

As soon as the burgers hit the heat, take a deep inhale and lessen your grip on the flipper. The key to juicy burgers that won’t fall apart is minimal handling, just like when you were seasoning and shaping the meat into patties. If you’re a habitual turner and burger fusser, the easiest way to shake the habit is to keep track of the time. Cook the first side for 4, maybe 5 minutes. Turn onto the second side. Resist the urge to press down on the first side with your grilling gizmo. Cook the second side for 3, maybe 4 minutes. For cheese, add during the final 2 minutes of cooking; cover to help with melting.

Speaking of covering (or not), this is completely cook’s choice. With such a short cook time; covering may be unnecessary (except for melting cheese).

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