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Tips for perfecting your burger this Labor Day

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Labor Day signals the end of summer, and for many people, it means one last chance to have a summer get together and maybe throw some burgers on the grill. We kicked off the summer with a look at competitive hot dog eating contests, so what could be more fitting than ending on a culinary high note of talking burgers? So we called up George Motz. He is the person to talk burgers with. He is a burger scholar. He's written multiple books about burgers. He has hosted shows about burgers. He has taught college courses about burgers. And he joins us now from New York, where he is opening his own burger joint this fall. Hey, George.

GEORGE MOTZ: Hey. How are you doing?

DETROW: I mean, we're having this conversation at the end of summer. It's kind of the last go-round for cookouts for a lot of people. I mean, what do you think it is that makes a hamburger the American food?

MOTZ: I truly believe it's one of the only food inventions in the U.S. in the last, say, 120 years - at least one that's, you know, has that kind of following and passion. And because of that, I think people are intensely proud of that hamburger heritage.

DETROW: As I said, you've written a lot about this. You've hosted programs on this. And one of the things you've really focused on that I truly, as much as I appreciate hamburgers, didn't fully appreciate is regional variations of burgers. Can you tell us about one or two of your favorite kind of regional burger specialties that have developed?

MOTZ: One of my favorites has been around for a long, long time. It's the Mississippi slugburger, which you can only find in northern Mississippi. It was invented at a time before the Depression, during hard times in northern Mississippi. They were trying to find a way to extend their hamburger supply. So they would take yesterday's stale bread, crumble it up into breadcrumbs and then throw it into the hamburger meat, therefore extending their supply. And what they inadvertently did was create an incredible-tasting hamburger because those little bits of breadcrumb, which soak up the rendered beef fat and basically fry - end up with sort of like almost like a chicken fried steak hamburger.

DETROW: So with respect for different regional approaches, when you are giving advice on the best way to grill a burger at home, if people have friends coming over this weekend, what are some of the things you focus on when you're talking about how to do a burger right?

MOTZ: I always tell people to get ready. Make sure you're prepared. Don't think you're going to, you know, make magic in the backyard just by whipping a few things together. Make sure you've got enough charcoal if you're doing a charcoal grill. Make sure your propane grill is hot enough. They never really tend to get hot enough, unfortunately. You really need good heat for an outdoor hamburger event. But I also tell people to focus, to really focus, to put the beer down for a minute, you know (laughter).

DETROW: You mentioned the heat - like high heat, right? None of this grilling a burger on medium.

MOTZ: Not outside, not on a charcoal grill. You need to get some serious heat going there. And also, keep an eye on things. I mean, if you have a high fat content in your beef grind, you're going to have some major flame ups. And just be careful. I would tell people that, you know, it's very easy to overcook a burger on a flame. I tell people also, you could try to, you know, make a burger in a pan on a grill. And that way you keep the fat, the rendered fat stays with the burger. And you also have more control over the process.

DETROW: I will try that. What are some of the biggest mistakes that people make? What are your absolute don'ts when it comes to burgers?

MOTZ: One of the big no-no's, of course, is ketchup on a burger. I don't like ketchup on a burger. It's too overwhelming. Of course, people think I'm crazy for that. I've seen people take burgers and dip it into, like, a plateful of ketchup before. I said, oh, my goodness. What are they - they have no idea what they're doing because all you're doing when you put ketchup on a burger is you taste the ketchup. But at the end of the day, if you're trying to make a burger taste great, it should taste like beef first, and then everything else is secondary.

DETROW: So last question. I guess I'm going to kind of go out on a limb here because you might approve, or you might say it's a horrible idea. But I wanted to tell you, like, my go-to burger move and get your opinion. I am all about taking the cheese and kind of cutting it up - or cutting it up and kind of mixing it in with the burger meat. So, like, the cheese for the cheeseburger is inside the patty. Do you have thoughts on that? Am I doing things right? Am I doing things wrong?

MOTZ: No. That's - you do you? I think that's...

DETROW: Thank you. All right. Thanks.

MOTZ: That's fantastic. I mean, it's - scientifically, some weird things are happening there because depending on where the cheese falls in the patty, it's not really going to melt. Or if it does melt in the center, you know, I'm not sure - it's weird - if, hey, if you like it, that's all that matters.

DETROW: I will say, like, for anybody who's coming over to my house to eat hamburgers, I do usually make sure the cheese is melted (laughter). But, you know...

MOTZ: (Laughter).

DETROW: George Motz, I have spent a lot of time in my life thinking about burgers and eating burgers and making burgers. But I still actually learned a lot in this conversation with you. Thank you. Thank you for coming on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MOTZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emma Klein
Adam Raney
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.