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You can build a better hamburger

Five hours into my new life as Mrs. Jan Roberts-Dominguez, I was starving. It had been a grand affair, our wedding and reception. But true to form, I was far too busy chatting up the guests to do much eating. So on the way to our honeymoon, I turned to Steve and uttered my first directive as Chief Cook: "There's a Denny's restaurant up there on the right. Pull over!"

I embraced the monster-sized bacon-cheeseburger with both hands and total abandon. Glistening juices trickled out through my fingers and down my wrists. The only thing that saved my new silk suit from total ruin was my foresight to marry a man with fast reflexes. He'd hastily pushed the cuffs of my jacket up over my elbows as soon as the meal began leaking toward them.

All these years later, that burger is still on my Top-10 list of culinary experiences.

Certainly, the circumstances surrounding that memorable meal influenced my reaction to it. But still, there's something about a well-executed burger that satisfies deeply. Even if you aren't starving.

However, in today's world, when cooks are handicapped with the food-safety imperative that no pink patties should pass our lips, what makes a burger memorable? I'd have to say that it's all about flavor combinations and texture. And technique. You really can produce a juicy "medium" burger if you pay attention and genuinely care.

For safety reasons, burgers need to be cooked to at least "medium." That's an internal temperature of 160 degrees for beef, lamb and pork, and 165 degrees for ground turkey and chicken. A medium burger is firm to the touch; to the eye, the meat is no longer pink, and the juices are running clear instead of reddish pink.

Fat is flavor. That means between 15 and 20 percent fat. For beef burgers, the best flavor experience comes from ground sirloin, round and chuck. Sirloin generally contains less fat than round or chuck, but they all make flavorful burgers. For pork or lamb burgers, the best flavor tends to be in the shoulder cuts.

As far as cooking, nothing beats an outdoor grill when it comes to flavor. But a cast-iron skillet will also do an awesome job. Consider adding a bit of butter if you're pan-frying.

Your cooking surface should be nice and hot before you begin to cook your burgers, so thoroughly preheat your grill or skillet. This ensures a nice outer crust, which helps keep the juices in the burger.

Don't smash the patty. It makes me nuts when I see cooks doing this, because they're forcing all those tasty juices out of the burger. And it really doesn't speed up the cooking time by very much. So knock it off.

To keep burgers from drying out try to flip them one time only. Flipping back and forth only sends all those tasty juices flying.

Things to mix into your raw ground meat mixture: One of my favorite additions is a bit of catsup. Its sweet-yet-savory flavor provides the umami experience without too much fuss. Also, consider incorporating a bit of another type of ground meat, such as your favorite sausage mixture. There are so many styles in the butcher case now, including apple, pesto, roasted red pepper and garlic flavored. Beyond that, things to consider (not all at the same time) include mustard, Worcestershire, crumbled sourdough bread, A-1 sauce, Srirachi sauce, chopped olives, shredded cheese (especially blue cheese, feta or a smoky provolone), finely minced fresh onion or shallots, a sprinkling of onion soup mix, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, hoisen sauce, chili-garlic sauce, pine nuts, horseradish, taco seasoning.

Memorable toppings for your burgers include crisp bacon, sliced olives, cheeses beyond cheddar (including Jarlsburg, blue, smoky provolone, pepper jack, feta, blue cheese and extra-aged gouda), guacamole, salsa, caramelized onions (just saute in a bit of butter over medium-low heat until golden brown), roasted or sauteed peppers, pesto mayonnaise (equal portions pesto and mayonnaise), grilled pineapple slices,

After handling raw meat, always wash your hands, countertops and cutting boards with hot, soapy water. And use a fresh platter and utensils when transporting the cooked burgers from grill to table.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at janrd@proaxis.com.