My grandmother had a legendary repertoire of foods she used to cook that by the time I was born were no longer in circulation. Some of the classics were maintained: waffles, ginger cookies, chicken soup; but, having never been a home cook truly by choice, she spent less and less time in the kitchen as she became older. Although my grandmother mostly cooked as a result of the time period, she was an excellent cook (as well as baker) and there’s no doubt in my mind that she was a heavy influence on my early fascination with food and its preparation.
This recipe is an adaptation from a dish that I only ever heard described and never actually tasted. My mum talks about this “chutney” that my grandmother used to make, which thankfully was recorded in her book of hand-written recipes. It basically amounts to a tomato-onion jam, which my mother said my grandma would can and later use as a condiment on hamburgers that she had cooked in a skillet. This sounded truly excellent and so, after my grandmother passed away nearly 5 years ago, I set about to recreate this burger while adding my own elements to it. My rendition of Gram’s burger is served on a buttery toasted brioche bun, topped with melted aged white cheddar, and completed with crispy cornmeal-crusted onion rings. It is a masterpiece to behold and an absolute joy to consume.
Gram’s Skillet Burgers
Adapted from my grandmother’s recipe with some granddaughter influences
Onion rings adapted from Saveur
Serves 4 (well, makes 4 burgers…)
**The chutney that inspired this whole recipe can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge for about a week in a clean, airtight jar. Let it cool to room temperature before using on the burgers. Similarly, the burgers can be made ahead of time and frozen with parchment paper between the patties. Thaw overnight in the fridge prior to cooking.
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes, drained
2 large red peppers, cored and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp chili powder
2 cups apple cider vinegar, divided
1 ½ cups dark brown sugar, packed
1 large sweet onion, sliced crosswise into ½ -inch thick circles, separated into rings
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup buttermilk
¼ cup whole milk
1 cup cornmeal
1/3 cup cornstarch
3 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt + sea salt for sprinkling
Canola oil, for frying (at least 2 cups)
Burgers and Assembly:
1 ½ lb ground chuck (or ground beef with at least 20% fat – not lean!)
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 slices aged white cheddar cheese
4 brioche buns
8 tbsp (1 stick) butter, room temperature
To make the chutney, place the canned tomatoes, peppers, and onions into a colander and let sit in the sink for 1 hour to drain. Once drained, place the veggies in a large pot set over medium-high heat. Add the kosher salt, chili powder, and 1 ½ cups apple cider vinegar. Stir together and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and keep the mixture at a simmer for 1 hour, stirring every so often. Add the brown sugar and remaining ½ cup vinegar. Simmer for another hour, until the chutney is thick, dark, and sticky. Let cool for 15 minutes. Using a potato masher, smash up any big chunks of pepper or tomato to give the chutney a more uniform consistency. Let it cool completely and store in a jar for up to 1 week, or use right away.
Now is a good time to make the burger patties and set them aside. Place the ground chuck in a deep mixing bowl and very gently break it apart with your hands. Try to touch the meat as little as possible. Sprinkle in the salt and a good grind of black pepper. Mix the salt and pepper into the meat very gingerly by hand, without squeezing the meat and working it too much. Divide the meat into 4 lumps and shape each into a patty. It is very helpful to measure the diameter of your bun and make your patties just slightly bigger than that, since they will shrink up a bit during cooking. Your patties should be uniformly thick, with the exception of the middles, which should have noticeable thumb indentations in them to help maintain an even thickness during cooking. To get the edges of the patty more even, it helps to pack the meat from the sides lightly while also gently pushing down on the top of the burger. Place the patties on a lined baking sheet and refrigerate until ready to use (or freeze for 20 minutes on the sheet, then stack between squares of parchment paper, store in a large zippered bag, and freeze completely).
Onto the onion rings! Place the separated onion rings in a large bowl of ice water for 30 minutes then drain. This takes the bite out of the onions significantly. Meanwhile, take out 3 shallow bowls. Place the flour into the first one and the buttermilk and whole milk into the second. In the third bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, cornstarch, baking powder, and kosher salt. Prepare a baking sheet by placing a cooling rack on it topped with a thin layer of paper towel.
Heat the oil in a saucepan or large deep-sided pan over medium-high heat. Ideally the oil should reach close to 2 inches deep. Using a kitchen thermometer, heat the oil to 350 degrees F (or until a piece of bread dipped in starts to immediately sizzle hard); this takes 10+ minutes sometimes, depending on the amount of oil you’ve wound up using and the vessel used to fry in. While the oil heats, go ahead and dredge the onion rings by first dipping each ring in flour, then in the milk mixture, then in the cornmeal mixture. It helps to use a designated “dry hand” and “wet hand” to avoid having to do too much hand-washing. Place the coated onion rings on the towel-lined baking sheet.
Once the oil is nice and hot, gently lower in a few onion rings using tongs, but take care to not crowd the pan. I find this means frying no more than about 5 onion rings at a time. Cook about 1-2 minutes, flipping once, until golden and crisp. Place fried rings on a paper towel-lined plate, immediately sprinkle with sea salt, and keep warm in a low oven. Repeat until all of the onion rings have been cooked.
When you're ready to cook the burgers, heat the 1 tbsp vegetable oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Once the oil is shimmering, but not smoking, add the 4 patties to the pan. The patties should immediately begin to sizzle. If your pan is smaller, just do 2 patties at a time, wiping the skillet out between batches. Once the patties have developed a golden-brown crust on the bottom, flip, and top with sliced cheese. Place a lid or piece of foil over the skillet and let the burgers cook for another 2-3 minutes (slightly less if your meat is safe to consume a bit underdone and you like your burger medium-rare). Place the burgers on a paper towel-lined plate.
Wipe out the skillet as best you can and lower the heat to medium-low. Split and generously butter the brioche buns. Place each buttered half in the hot skillet, pressing down lightly to toast as much surface area as possible.
To assemble the burgers, spread a generous amount of chutney on the bottom half of each toasted bun. Place the warm burger patties over the chutney and top each with 2-3 large onion rings. Gently smush down and eat whole, or carefully cut in half using a serrated knife. Breathe a deep sigh of contentment.