Summer grilling 101: Frank Ruta’s guide to the perfect burger

WASHINGTON — Frank Ruta is known for his burgers.

Of course the D.C. chef and former star of Palena is known for plenty of other dishes as well (his roast chicken made him famous in this town), but his burgers have a dedicated following — and they have for years.

The reason, he says, is not because of one single ingredient. Every aspect of the burger — from the bun, to the sauce, to the pickles — is made from scratch and made with care. Even the dry-aged Angus beef, which hails from the Shenandoah Valley, is ground in-house, daily.

“It’s fairly straightforward and simple, but I think that’s probably one of the things that sets it apart,” says Ruta about his burger. There are no unnecessary toppings, and thus, no competing flavors.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Ruta closed Palena in 2014, diners mourned the loss of his locally and nationally acclaimed burgers. But Ruta never intended to let them die.

In January, he took over as executive chef at The Grill Room in Georgetown’s Capella Hotel. Once he got his new kitchen and his new menu up and running, Ruta decided it was time to bring back an old favorite: the burger. And he added a few more to the mix.

Ruta now offers an entire burger menu at The Grill Room. Diners can order the classic cheeseburger, complete with homemade mayonnaise and truffle cheese, and they can also experiment with a few other varieties.

There’s a burger topped with mortadella, an Italian pork cold cut, and one served with a fried duck egg. This summer, Ruta is also introducing the Colonial Burger, made with Randall Lineback beef, a new bun, American cheese, bacon-onion confit and an heirloom tomato.

And while the extravagant and unique garnishes are equally as impressive as they are tasty, Ruta says they’re not necessary to a good burger — but he’ll tell you what is.

D.C.’s reigning king of burgers offers his best tips on how to make the perfect patty, and yes, more friends than you’ll be able to feed at your next summer cookout.

Skip the propane: This is not a tip Ruta discusses at length. He’s quick and to the point: A burger has a better flavor when it’s cooked on a charcoal grill.

The meat needs some fat: Not everyone is able to grind his own meat, like Ruta. So if you have to buy it from the store, it’s best to buy something with a little more fat than the typical 85 percent lean packages.

Ruta makes his burger with meat that is about 68 to 72 percent lean. He also opts for a grind that is not too fine. “We don’t play with it too much; we just hand-form it,” he says. “I think gives it a great quality and texture.”

No fillers, please: If your secret burger recipe calls for egg, chopped onion, or Worcestershire sauce, Ruta is about to cut your prep time in half. He says while all of those flavors are great, they’re best left as toppings. The only thing the meat needs before it hits the grill is salt and pepper.

“The meat, itself, should be unadorned and unadulterated,” he says.

Meat too rare lacks flavor: Plenty of burger-lovers like their patties cooked medium-rare, but Ruta advises home-cooks to take their time on the grill. One of the biggest mistakes he sees is a burger that’s undercooked.

“The flavors really don’t develop until it gets a little bit beyond medium-rare,” he says. “Don’t make it too rare; don’t make it too well-done either.”

All it takes is a few minutes on each side for the perfect burger, and a spatula that won’t flatten the beef when it’s time to flip.

“Don’t smash it when it’s cooking; you don’t want to squeeze any of those juices out,” Ruta says. “And try only flipping it once.”

Take the time to make the mayo: A homemade mayonnaise, or high-quality spread, gives the burger “that right tinge of acidity,” Ruta says. He makes his mayo with “a little bit of citrus and a little bit of garlic and a little bit of mustard.”

Give the bun some love too: Whether you’re making your own or buying the bun, Ruta says some thought should go into the bread. For starters, a succulent burger needs a bun that can hold everything together.

“Because the burger is pretty juicy, [the bun needs to be] sturdy enough to absorb all of those juices, and then that’s just more flavor in your mouth. It’s like an extra dimension of flavor. If it’s all just dripping on your plate, it’s just lost,” he says.

Toasting the bun really makes a burger sing, too, Ruta says. And don’t just toast the inside: toast both sides to add some extra crunch and flavor.

No need to spring for the truffle cheese: Ruta’s burgers come topped with truffle cheese, but he says there’s no need to make a special trip to the store to pick up a specialty cheese.

“That’s just kind of gilding the lily to a certain extent,” he says. American cheese or cheddar works just fine. Ruta says a good burger will taste like perfection sans cheese, too.

Timing is everything: Everything, and Ruta means everything, should be ready to go before you even think of throwing the burgers onto a hot grill. Beers should be poured, pasta salad should be served, and buns should be toasted, so that the burger has nothing but your undivided attention.

“Once the burger hits the bun, that’s it; I’m ready to eat. I’m not trying to pull together any other side dishes or drinks — that should all be there, ready to go,” Ruta says.

Bon appétit.

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