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Time to get outdoors and fire up the grill: Homemade chili dogs, burgers elevate gathering

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: May 22, 2024, 6:04am

If there’s one thing we can count on come Memorial Day, it’s that most of us will spend at least part of the holiday weekend hunkered over a hot grill.

Summer means being outdoors, and most cooks can’t wait to trade their ovens, air fryers and Instant Pots for the smoky, sizzling pleasure of cooking on a gas or charcoal grill.

Grilling has only increased in popularity over the years, thanks to a growing interest in home cooking and entertaining. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 70 percent of all households and 80 percent of American homeowners own a grill or smoker, a 6 percent increase over 2019. By 2032, experts anticipate the barbecue grill market will reach a whopping $10 billion in revenue.

And it’s not just for dinner. About 12 percent of homeowners grill for brunch and 7 percent like to prepare their breakfast on a hot grate outdoors.

Memorial Day is second only to July 4 for grillers so chances are you’ll be out there, poised for action. You might even have some cool new tools or gadgets: One of the busiest days of the year for purchasing new grills is the Saturday before Memorial Day, known in the industry as “Back to Barbecue Day.”

The only question is what to cook — and by which method.

HPBA’s latest “State of the Barbecue Industry” report notes that gas is still the most popular method for grilling. But charcoal, which many agree is better for flavor, is quickly catching up, jumping from 49 percent of ownership in 2021 to 65 percent in 2021.

Also not that much of a surprise: two of the most popular foods to grill are also among the easiest and least expensive to prepare, hamburgers and hot dogs.

It’s estimated that Americans will consume roughly 7 billion hot dogs over the course of summer — that’s 818 hot dogs every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We love our burgers even more, collectively eating some 20 billion burgers a year, according to the USDA. Wowza!

If you’re hosting a crowd for your Memorial Day cookout, it’s tempting to keep it simple. But it’s also a holiday. So why not step it up a notch with extra-special recipes that will elevate this year’s party?

For hot dog lovers, we suggest a homemade Detroit-style chili sauce that takes just a half-hour to prepare (and can be made beforehand). Thinner than traditional chili, with a finer texture, it adds a creamy, beefy puddle of extra flavor with just the right amount of spice.

Rather focus on building the best possible burger? It could start with a sirloin patty you grind yourself at home. It’s easier than it sounds — all you need is a food processor and some cold butter — and will taste fresher than ground beef from the grocery store. Grinding at home also reduces the risk of E. coli contamination.

And if you want vegetables to shine, portobello mushrooms have a beefy, earthy flavor that makes for a magical meatless burger. Adding a slice of tomato and smoky grilled onion and some cheese will elevate it further, and microgreens add an extra-refreshing and healthful bite.

Grilled Chili Dog

Makes 4 hot dogs. Adapted from Cook’s Country June/July 2023

Crushed Saltines thicken this Detroit-style chili sauce, made on the stovetop in about a half-hour. All-beef hot dogs are best (I used Hebrew National Beef Franks), but for a true Detroit-style Coney dog, look for dogs that are a blend of beef and pork and have a natural casing. I added a generous stripe of melted cheese sauce to make it even more finger-licking and messy.

The chili sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to a month.

For chili sauce:

6 ounces 80 percent lean ground beef

1 cup water

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

3 saltines, crushed

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Pinch ground allspice

For hot dogs:

4 all-beef hot dogs

4 hot dog buns

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

Make sauce: Combine beef and water in small saucepan and whisk until beef is broken into small pieces. Whisk in onion, saltines, tomato paste, Worcestershire, paprika, chili powder, garlic and onion powder, salt, pepper, sugar and allspice.

Bring beef mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is creamy and has consistency of thick gravy, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.

Preheat a grill to medium. Lightly oil the grill grates.

Grill hot dogs, turning, until lightly charred in spots, 5-7 minutes. Remove to plate and immediately toast the buns on the grill, about 30 seconds.

Place hot dogs in buns and distribute chili sauce among hot dogs (about 1/4 cup each). Sprinkle with onions and serve.

Grind-your-own Sirloin Burgers

Makes 4 burgers. Adapted from “The Outdoor Cook” by America’s Test Kitchen (April 2023, $30)

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Love a burger with a craggy crust and juicy interior? Grinding your own meat — we like sirloin beef tips — is the way to go.

Processing the meat in small batches will assure an even grind, and don’t forget to create a divot in the center of each patty to prevent burger bulge. A final trick: If you freeze the burgers before grilling, you’ll get a better crust, with a still-tender interior.

1 1/2 pounds sirloin steak tips, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

1 1/8 teaspoon black pepper, divided

4 hamburger buns, toasted on grill if desired

Place beef chunks and butter on a large plate in single layer. Freeze until meat is very firm and starting to harden around the edges but is still pliable, about 30 minutes. (This firms it up so the meat processor blades cut cleanly.)

Place 1/4 of meat and 1 butter cube in food processor and pulse until finely ground into pieces the size of rice grains, 15-20 pulses, stopping and redistributing meat around bowl as necessary to ensure beef is evenly ground. Transfer meat to baking sheet, and repeat grinding with remaining three batches of meat and butter.

Spread mixture into even layer on baking sheet and inspect carefully, discarding any long strands of gristle or large chunks of hard meat, fat or butter.

Sprinkle 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper over meat and, using two forks, gently toss to combine. (Do not overwork or burgers will become dense.) Divide beef mixture into four portions, then gently shape each portion into 3/4 -inch-thick patties about 4 1/2 inches in diameter. Using your fingertips, press center of each patty down until about 1/4-inch thick, creating slight divot. Transfer patties to platter and freeze for 30-45 minutes. (This will allow a crust to develop when cooking.)

Prepare a charcoal grill for grilling, with coals covering about half of the grill. You want the coals at a medium-high temperature of around 400 degrees; you should be able to carefully hold your hand above them for 5 or 6 seconds before pulling it away.

Sprinkle burgers with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Grill patties divot side up over direct medium-high heat until browned and meat easily releases from grill, 4-7 minutes. Flip burgers and continue to grill until browned on second side and meat registers 120-125 degrees for medium-rare or 130-135 degrees for medium, about 4-7 minutes.

Transfer burgers to plate and let rest for 5 minutes. Transfer patties to bun and serve with favorite toppings.

Grilled Portobello Burgers With Feta and Microgreens

Makes 4 burgers. Adapted from “The Outdoor Cook” by America’s Test Kitchen (April 2023, $30)

According to HPBA, more home cooks are leaning into more affordable grilling options, such as veggies. This burger, which features a portobello mushroom cap, fits the bill.

The original recipe calls for arugula, but my grocery was out so I used basil microgreens from The Lettuce Ladies. I also swapped feta for goat cheese.

4 Portobello mushroom caps, gills removed

1 large red onion, sliced into
1/2-inch-thick rounds

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided

2 garlic cloves

2 teaspoons fresh minced thyme

1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper

2 ounces crumbled feta (1/2 cup)

1 cup microgreens

1/4 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

4 hamburger buns, toasted on grill if desired

Thinly sliced tomato

Cut ¹/16-inch deep slits on top side of mushroom caps, spaced 1/2 inch apart, in crosshatch pattern. Secure onion rounds with toothpicks or skewers. Brush onion rounds with 1 tablespoon oil.

Combine garlic, thyme, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons oil in bowl and set aside.

Prepare charcoal grill for grilling, with coals covering about half of the grill. You want the coals at a medium-high temperature of around 400 degrees — you should be able to carefully hold your hand above them for 5 or 6 seconds before pulling it away.

Clean and oil cooking grate. Grill onion and mushrooms, gill side down, until onion and mushrooms are lightly charred and beginning to soften, 8-12 minutes, flipping onion as needed, and flipping mushrooms halfway and brushing with oil-garlic mixture.

Sprinkle mushrooms with feta and allow to remain on grill for a minute or so (it won’t melt but it will heat up). Transfer mushrooms and onions to a plate, and separate onions into rings.

Assemble burgers: Place greens and mushroom caps on bun bottoms. Top with tomato, onion and bun tops and serve.