The common mantra for choosing a wine for burgers is “just use the cheap red stuff!” I have a couple dozen reasons you don’t want that rock-gut wine for a good burger at home. But before we begin to consider which wine to serve with your burger, let’s first define your burger! What is it, exactly? (click image at left for some great recipes)
First, let’s wade into the debate over how to best cook a burger at home – grilled vs. griddled. As you can see here at Chowhound, the debate is not without proponents on both sides. The topic arose again in this month’s issue of Food & Wine magazine, proving that the final word has yet to be established or that it’s been established but is worth re-hashing every year as grilling season flares upon us (pun intended though weak).
In sorting through all the opinions on how to cook the best burger, grilling is ahead by a length, with a cast iron skillet a distant second, and your basic frying pan and George Foreman grill getting pooh-poohed by foodies. Just a few tips I’ve picked up along the way for grilling the perfect burger:
- Bring your burger up to room temperature before grilling. This helps assure an even doneness without drying out the meat.
- Coat your grill with a high-temperature cooking oil just before setting your burger down. Peanut oil works well. This helps keep your burger from sticking, obviously, but also allows you to begin with thinner burgers, which shorten cooking time and helps assure the meat doesn’t dry out before it’s done!
- Cook over direct heat for a long minute, flip for one more long minute. Then move your burger to indirect heat for a couple minutes per side. That’s all you’ll need if your patties are no more than 3/4 inch thick.
- Adding cheese? If you want it melted, be sure to add it during the cooking time or the meat will dry out. To help melt your cheese, cover your grill or top your burger with an inverted pot.
Whether you grill or griddle, how you top your burger makes a big difference in the wine you’ll want to drink.
What Meat? The first consideration, when pairing a wine with your burger, is the meat used to create the burger. Beef is most common, of course, but I’m quite partial to the LAMBurger, and that link will take you to a wonderful recipe from Bistro Ralph that may just put you off cowburgers for life. The gamier taste of lamb argues for earthy wines such as Pinot and Chianti. Even grilled portobellos provide a tasty, low-fat alternative (which also begs for Pinot, in my book!)
Grilled onions? The caramelized sweetness of grilled onions (particularly red onions, or the naturally sweet ones such as Walla Walla) works well with many new world reds (Finally! A meal you can have with some of those California Cabs!) Other pairing suggestions include Zinfandel, Syrah and Bordeaux blends. Afraid to pull the cork on your high-scoring wines? Get over it! You just KNOW they’re going to sit there, waiting for the perfect moment until, years from now, you discover they’re over the hill. Do it now, the world ends on the May 21st anyway. ;-)
Mushrooms? I like to grill the mushrooms right on the grill, wrapped in foil with some vent holes, and a simple dash of soy sauce, a quick grind or two of fresh nutmeg (trust me), and a bit of pepper and thyme for seasoning. Whether cooked on the grill or on the stove-top, mushrooms pull your burger’s wine pairing in the direction of earthy red wines like Pinot Noir or Chianti or Spanish reds. Go for it!
Cheese? Man, this ads another layer of complexity as far as what wine to choose with your burger. From the vast sea of cheesy options, which do you choose? Is your burger topped with melted Kraft Singles or Swiss? Blue cheese or goat cheese? Cheddar? Limburger?? It’s impossible to recommend a single wine that will be a home run with each cheese option, but as a general rule of thumb the added complexity cheese brings to a simple burger argues for a more complex, earthy wine. There you go again, getting all spendy on me.
Sauce? The most common, of course, is ketchup. And the sweet/acid nature of the beast makes me think of blush wines. A dry Rosé works with so many foods, it should be one of your go-to utility players. Get over the pink color, Mr. Macho! These wines also offer a bit of cool refreshment for those used to chilled drinks with their meal (and who among us didn’t grow up drinking iced Cokes with our Burgers?) Plus, they generally have good acidity, which helps refresh our palate for the next bite of fatty meat/cheese/onion…
For those opting to top their burger with a bit of BBQ sauce, compatible wine pairings move towards the sweeter or fruitier side – a high-alcohol Zin might be just the ticket, as the fruit extraction is a metaphor for sweetness, a taste experience enhanced by the alcohol. Just remember my first rule of thumb for food and wine pairing? Match sweet with sweet, acidic with acidic.
Wait, that was rule number two. But who’s counting? Just go enjoy your burger.
Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers