Smoking a hamburger is harder than it seems. Forget prolonged smoking in a conventional smoker — low and slow works great on tough muscles, such as brisket, but hamburgers become rubbery and dry without a hot fire to sear the exterior. The secret lies in smoking with hay. Lit hay produces a dense cloud of intensely flavored smoke that lasts a few minutes — long enough to smoke the burgers, but brief enough to leave the meat raw so you can sear it on a conventional grill. An added advantage: Smoking with hay works great on a gas grill.
You’ll need enough hay for about 3 minutes of smoking and charcoal to finish cooking the burgers. You’ll also need a large (9-by-13-inch) aluminum-foil drip pan, a wire rack that fits on top of it, and an instant-read thermometer. Buy organic or grass-fed beef when possible (I like 18 percent fat content). The 2 pounds called for will give you four 8-ounce burgers. For a smaller burger, use 1-1⁄2 pounds ground beef.
Good food safety calls for cooking the burgers to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. One way to keep them moist at this temperature is to fold coarsely grated cheese, such as smoked provolone or cheddar, into the ground beef. The cheese melts as the burger grills, producing a rich, juicy mouthfeel. I call these inside-out cheeseburgers. Yield: 4 hamburgers.
• 2 pounds ground chuck or ground sirloin, or a mixture of the two
• 8 ounces smoked provolone or smoked cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (2 cups), optional
• Cooking oil of choice, for oiling the grate
• Coarse salt (sea or kosher) and freshly ground black pepper
• 4 hamburger buns
• 2 tbsp (1⁄4 stick) butter, melted
• Toppings and condiments (lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced avocados, sliced dill or sweet pickles, grilled bacon, sliced or caramelized onions, ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise)
Place the ground beef in a large bowl. Stir in the grated cheese, if using, with a wooden spoon. Lightly moisten your hands with cold water. Working quickly and with a light touch, pat the meat into 4 patties that are 4 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Arrange the burgers, well-spaced, on a wire rack. Refrigerate until time to smoke.
Just before putting the burgers in the smoker or on the grill, fill a large aluminum-foil pan with ice cubes (about 2⁄3 of the way) and place the rack with the burgers on the top lip of the pan. The meat shouldn’t touch the ice.
Option 1: Use a charcoal smoker or grill. Place a small mound of charcoal in the smoker firebox (or to one side of a kettle grill) and light it. When the coals glow red, toss the hay on the coals. If using a kettle grill, place the hay on the coals, and then put the grate in place. Put the burgers on their rack over ice in the smoke chamber, as far away as possible from the fire. Close the smoker or grill. Smoke the burgers until lightly filmed with smoke, about 3 minutes. You can smoke the burgers several hours ahead of time, but keep them covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated after smoking.
Option 2: Use a gas grill. Light one side of the grill on high. Place the burgers on their rack over ice on the opposite side of the grill. Place the hay over the lit burner and close the grill lid. Smoke the burgers until lightly filmed with smoke, about 3 minutes. Again, you can smoke the burgers several hours ahead of time, but keep them covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated after smoking.
Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. (On a charcoal grill, you’d rake the coals into a mound in the center.)
Brush and oil the grill grate. Generously season the burgers with salt and pepper on both sides and direct-grill until sizzling and browned on the outside and cooked to at least 160 degrees, about 4 minutes per side. (To check for doneness, insert an instant-read thermometer through the side of the burger.) Transfer the burgers to a platter and let rest while you grill the buns.
Brush the buns with butter and toast them on the grill, cut side down, about 1 minute. Place the burgers on the buns, adding your favorite toppings and condiments. Tip: A lettuce leaf under the burger will prevent the bun from getting soggy.
For more smoker recipes from Steven Raichlen and more about hot-smoking and hay-smoking, read Season of Smoke: An Introduction to Smoked Foods.
This excerpt from Project Smoke, copyright 2016, is courtesy of Workman Publishing. Steven Raichlen hosts PBS shows, including “Primal Grill” and “Barbecue University.” Find Project Smoke and Planet Barbecue, and Raichlen’s latest book, Barbecue Sauces, Ribs, and Marinades, are available in our online store.