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How To Build A Better Burger

Sure, backyard cookouts sound like fun — in principle. But how often have we inhaled the deliriously wonderful smell of grilling meat, only to be wildly disappointed when it's time to eat? Crumbly beef, sometimes chalk-dry and flavorless, or burnt on the outside and bloody within, all served on a spongy bun. That's not the burger summer dreams are made of.

Making a better backyard burger is a job just made for Chris Kimball. The editor-in-chief of Cook's Illustrated magazine is devoted to finding the best ways possible to prepare our favorite classic dishes. He fully understands the grilled burger conundrum: While you want it to be juicy and full of flavor, you also want to avoid any chance of giving yourself and your guests a nasty case of food poisoning from eating undercooked beef.

What to do? Kimball and his intrepid staff at the America's Test Kitchen tried various methods to see if they could retain the meat's moisture while making sure it had that satisfying external sear — all while making sure that it's safely cooked. After many tries, the Test Kitchen crew came up with a plan: They use a paste of bread and milk, which infuses the meat with moisture but doesn't get in the way of the beefy flavor. Chris then punches up the taste by mixing in some steak sauce and some garlic.

Kimball's version of potato salad is lighter, fresher and does not use mayonnaise. After slicing small red potatoes and boiling them until tender, he drizzles on a dressing of Dijon mustard, vinegar and oil; because the potatoes are still warm, they absorb the flavor of the dressing.

The strawberry poke cake recipe dates back to the late '60s; Kimball says it was created by Kraft Kitchens to goose the sales of strawberry Jell-O. After making a simple white cake, the cook takes a wooden skewer and makes 50 holes. A strained mixture of strawberries, orange juice, sugar, water and Jell-O is poured over the cake and seeps into the skewer holes. The whole thing is topped with more strawberries and fresh whipped cream.

All this — a three-dish meal that serves four — costs less than $40.

FOOLPROOF BACKYARD BURGERS
(Serves 4)
Adding bread and milk to the beef creates burgers that are juicy and tender even when well-done. (In fact, we recommend this method only for burgers that will be cooked to medium-well or well-done.) For cheeseburgers, follow the optional instructions below.

Ingredients:
1 large slice good-quality white sandwich bread, crust removed and discarded; chop bread into 1⁄4-inch pieces (about 1⁄2 cup)
2 tablespoons whole milk
3⁄4 teaspoon table salt
3⁄4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
2 teaspoons steak sauce
1 1⁄2 pounds 80 percent lean ground chuck
Vegetable oil for cooking grate
6 ounces sliced cheese, optional (see note above)
4 rolls or buns

Method:
1. Using a large chimney starter, ignite 6 quarts charcoal (about 100 briquettes) and burn until covered with thin coating of light gray ash, about 20 minutes. Empty coals into grill; build modified two-level fire by arranging coals to cover half of grill. Position cooking grate over coals, cover grill, and heat grate for 5 minutes; scrape grate clean with grill brush. Grill is ready when coals are medium-hot (you can hold your hand 2 inches above grate for 3 to 4 seconds).
2. Meanwhile, mash bread and milk in large bowl with fork until homogeneous (you should have about 1⁄4 cup). Stir in salt, pepper, garlic, and steak sauce.
3. Break up beef into small pieces over bread mixture. Using fork or hands, lightly mix together until mixture forms cohesive mass. Divide meat into four equal portions. Gently toss one portion of meat back and forth between hands to form loose ball. Gently flatten into 3⁄4-inch-thick patty that measures about 4 1⁄2 inches in diameter. Press center of patty down with fingertips until it is about 1⁄2 inch thick, creating slight depression in each patty. Repeat with remaining portions of meat.
4. Lightly dip wad of paper towels in oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe cooking grate. Grill burgers on hot side of grill, uncovered, until well seared on first side, 2 to 4 minutes. Using wide metal spatula, flip burgers and continue grilling, about 3 minutes for medium-well or 4 minutes for well-done. (Add cheese, if using, about 2 minutes before reaching desired doneness, covering burgers with disposable aluminum pan to melt cheese.)

FRENCH POTATO SALAD WITH DIJON MUSTARD AND FINES HERBES
(Serves 6 as a side dish)
If fresh chervil isn't available, substitute an additional 1⁄2 tablespoon of minced parsley and an additional 1⁄2 teaspoon of tarragon. For best flavor, serve the salad warm, but to make ahead, follow the recipe through step 2, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Before serving, bring the salad to room temperature, then add the shallots and herbs.

Ingredients:
2 pounds small (about 2-inch diameter) red potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, and cut into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices
2 tablespoons salt
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and threaded on skewer
1 1⁄2 tablespoons champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1⁄4 cup olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 small shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon minced fresh chervil leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon leaves

Method:
1. Place potatoes, 6 cups cold tap water, and salt in large saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium. Lower skewered garlic into simmering water and partially blanch, about 45 seconds. Immediately run garlic under cold tap water to stop cooking; remove garlic from skewer and set aside. Continue to simmer potatoes, uncovered, until tender but still firm (thin-bladed paring knife can be slipped into and out of center of potato slice with no resistance), about 5 minutes. Drain potatoes, reserving 1⁄4 cup cooking water. Arrange hot potatoes close together in single layer on rimmed baking sheet.
2. Press garlic through garlic press or mince by hand. Whisk garlic, reserved potato cooking water, vinegar, mustard, oil, and pepper in small bowl until combined. Drizzle dressing evenly over warm potatoes; let stand 10 minutes.
3. Toss shallot and herbs in small bowl. Transfer potatoes to large serving bowl; add shallot/herb mixture and mix gently with rubber spatula to combine. Serve immediately.

STRAWBERRY POKE CAKE
(SERVES 12)
The top of the cake will look slightly overbaked; this keeps the crumb from becoming too soggy after the gelatin is poured on top.

Ingredients:
Cake
12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for preparing pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for preparing pan
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg whites
1 3/4 cups sugar

Syrup and Topping
4 cups frozen strawberries
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons strawberry-flavored gelatin
2 cups heavy cream

Method:
1. For the cake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in bowl. Whisk milk, vanilla, and egg whites in large measuring cup.
2. With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter and sugar until fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down bowl as necessary. Add flour mixture and milk mixture alternately, in two batches, beating after each addition until combined, about 30 seconds each time. Using rubber spatula, give batter final stir. Scrape into prepared pan and bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool cake completely in pan, at least 1 hour. Once cool, cake can be wrapped in plastic and kept at room temperature for up to 2 days.
3. For the syrup and topping: Heat 3 cups strawberries, 2 tablespoons sugar, juice, and water in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Cover and cook until strawberries are softened, about 10 minutes. Strain liquid into bowl, reserving solids, then whisk gelatin into liquid. Let cool to room temperature, at least 20 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, poke 50 holes all over top of cake. Evenly pour cooled liquid over top of cake. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until gelatin is set — at least 3 hours or up to 2 days.
5. Pulse reserved strained strawberries, 2 tablespoons sugar, and remaining strawberries in food processor until mixture resembles strawberry jam. Spread mixture evenly over cake. With electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat cream with remaining sugar to soft peaks. Spread cream over strawberries. Serve. (Cake will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 days.)