Win the burger game by amping up the umami.
Scientists tell us that the tongue can sense only five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Everything else is technically called aroma and is sensed by the olfactory sensor above the nose. Together, taste and aroma give us flavor. Umami (pronounced ooh-MAH-mee) is a savory taste found in tomatoes, mushrooms, cheeses, soy sauce, and meats. The sensation is caused by an amino acid named glutamate, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) is probably the best known umami enhancer. MSG is readily available at grocery stores under the brand name Ac’cent. Click here for more about this controversial product. I like to dust steaks, burgers and ribs with MSG to amp up the flavor. It’s subtle, but people notice. For example, I advised a struggling neighborhood BBQ team to goose up their ribs with a little MSG, and they immediately began bringing home trophies.
When it comes to umami, it doesn’t get any better than a big juicy hamburger, grilled just right and loaded with your favorite toppings. So when I heard of a restaurant called Umami Burgers, I was intrigued. The task of taking a popular taste sensation to a new, higher level fascinated me. Since no Umami Burger restaurants were in my vicinity, I resolved to make my own umami burger.
Although MSG leapt to the top of my experimental ingredients list, it is only a flavor enhancer and not big enough to overtake the already powerful flavors of essential burger elements like cheese, tomatoes and bacon. How then to create a recipe worthy of the name Umami Burger? After noodling with a variety of possibilities (some delicious like gruyere cheese sauce; others wacky like mixing dried portabello mushrooms into the meat), I gravitated toward more common ingredients. The usual suspects of bacon and tomatoes made the cut in my final recipe, but the secret sauce that pushes this burger over the top is Umami Mayo. And just to mess with your taste buds, I added spicy, sweet, crisp pickles for contrast.
There are many ways to cook hamburgers, and Meathead’s reverse sear method for Steakhouse Steakburgers is one of the best, giving you thick, extra juicy burgers. Although nothing about this recipe is difficult, there are several moving parts that have to come together at the same time. I recommend that you read the recipe all the way through once to get an idea of how the burger is put together. This is an important cooking concept the French call mise en place. Loosely, it means, “put everything in its place.” If you’re easily distracted, like me, prep the ingredients before grilling the burgers so you don’t burn them.
Also, you absolutely must use an instant read digital thermometer here to nail the safe and juicy internal meat temp of 160°F. Click here to read our Reviews and Ratings of Thermometers. If you ignore this warning and try to go by color or the touch test alone, raw meat or stiff hockey pucks may await you.
Serve with: an IPA.
Bacon BBQ Sauce
- 8 to 12 slices bacon, cut into 1" pieces
- 1 cup tomato based mild BBQ sauce such as my own Black Swan Sweet Cognac Sauce or KC Classic BBQ Sauce
- 2/3 cup prepared mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano not the tasteless sawdust in a green tube
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Vegetables and Buns
- Prep. Make and prep all the toppings ahead of time, including the Bacon BBQ sauce, Umami Mayo, the veg, and the toasted buns. You want everything ready, so the burgers can be assembled as soon as the meat is finished cooking.
- For the bacon BBQ sauce, begin by cooking the bacon in a covered pan over low heat until crisp, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon or tongs and drain on paper towels. Discard the grease from the pan and quickly wipe out the pan with paper towels. Return the bacon to the pan and pour in the BBQ Sauce. Heat the bacon and sauce over low heat, until heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir now and then to prevent any sticking. Cover the pan and leave the bacon sauce on the stove.
- For the umami mayo, whisk together the mayo, Parmesan, and mustard. Cover and refrigerate until needed. You can also make the mayo up to 2 days ahead.
- To make the spicy sweet pickle chips, combine the pickle chips and red pepper flakes in a bowl, stirring thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate until needed. You can also make these up to 2 days ahead.
- Prep the lettuce, tomato and onion, cover and keep them in the fridge until needed, up to 2 hours.
- Divide the meat into four 8-ounce portions. Gently form the meat into patties that are approximately 1/2-inch wider than the bun to allow for shrinkage during the cooking process. Sprinkle salt and MSG on each side. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook.
- Fire up. Prepare a grill for How to Control Temperature with Indirect Cooking and The 2-Zone Setup for BBQ by placing a chimney full of pre-heated charcoal briquets on one side of the grill's charcoal grate in order to create direct and indirect cooking zones. Adjust the grill vents to bring the temperature to about 225°F on the indirect side. Add 2 to 3 chunks of your favorite smoking wood to the charcoal for flavor. On a gas grill, adjust the temperature knobs so that one half of the grill is off and the other half is heated enough to maintain a temperature of approximately 225°F on the indirect side.
- Lightly toast the inside of the buns over direct heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove and slather 2 to 3 tablespoons Umami Mayo inside both the top and bottom buns. Put the bottom buns on a serving platter and the top buns off to the side. On each of the bottom buns, place 1 slice of red onion topped with 4 spicy sweet pickle chips.
- Cook. Place the burgers on the indirect side of the grill. Cover the grill, positioning the vent directly above the burgers in order to force the smoke over and around the meat. Cook the patties for about 10 minutes. Push the tip of a rapid-read thermometer such as the Thermapen into the side of both burgers. When the temperature reaches 105°F, flip the burgers, and cook for approximately 10 minutes more. Because the burgers are not over direct heat, you do not need to flip them often.
- When the burgers are about 20°F below the final doneness temp you want (see AmazingRibs.com's award winning Food Temperature Guide), get ready to move them to the direct-heat zone. If you are on a gas grill, crank it up to high. If you have a pellet cooker or another grill that doesn't have enough radiant heat to sear, put a cast iron pan or griddle in there: when the griddle collects a lot of heat, it can do the job.
- Put the burgers on the direct heat side to brown them. Leave the lid up so the heat is concentrated on one side of each burger. If the fire flares up, move the burger to another spot because flare ups can deposit bad-tasting soot. Flip the meat every minute, acting like a human rotisserie, so all the energy is focused on one surface at a time. The interior will warm, but not too much. Remove the burgers when browned and the interior reaches 5°F below the desired doneness temperature. Don't overcook them while waiting for the second side to be perfect. If one side is paler than the other, that's acceptable.
- Serve. When the burgers reach the desired internal doneness, place one patty on each of the pre-assembled bottom buns. Give each burger a grinding or two of coarse ground black pepper. You salt fiends should hold off on "salting to taste" because these babies pack quite a savory wallop as is. Top each patty with a generous spoonful of Bacon BBQ sauce, 1 slice of tomato, 1 piece of lettuce and an umami mayo slathered top bun. Whammy!