Backyard Burgers

The art, science (and secret) of grilling without hockey pucks + a summertime wine pairing

An interview with mother / grill master Jerilyn Nieslanik of Nieslanik Beef. (Parker, Jerilyn, Colby, Marty, Cara and Johnny Nieslanik)

By Kathryn Camp, Mountain Parent editor

“LET’S KEEP IT EASY,” I’ve said a million times. “The main thing is to enjoy a summer evening together, have a glass of wine, get caught up while the kids play – no need to get fussy about the menu – I’ll throw some burgers on the grill.” These are the words that doom me every time. I’ve turned many a backyard burger into a hockey puck. No one can tell at first because I hide charred patties under melted cheddar. Then my dear guests grin-and-bear-it and say nice things about the toppings on the burger bar. My husband makes sweet excuses, telling how pre-motherhood, I was a vegan pastry chef. “Meat just isn’t her thing,” he says while dipping it in relish.

It wasn’t for 15 years – until I learned how local, grassfed, homegrown neighbor-to-neighbor shopping can do as much to counter animal cruelty and help our planet as eating tofu. This shift in thinking has been helped by Jerilyn Nieslanik of Nieslanik Beef, who will tell you how she cooks any given cut. She was happy to talk me through my hockey puck issues.

KC: What am I doing wrong?

JN: Let’s start with what you’re doing right. You’re bringing together people you care about. Friends and family –  these are the most important ingredients.

KC: Is there a difference between grades of ground Beef?

JN: At Nieslanik Beef, our ground chuck has a 90% – 10% fat-to-protien ratio, which is as lean as you would want without making it so lean that the patty won’t hold together on the grill. Our cows graze right here on our Carbondale ranch and on nearby BLM lands in the high country, and I believe that you can taste it – the earth, the native grasses.

KC: How many burgers per pound?

JN: My boys are big eaters, so I plan on 3 burgers per pound.  We also sell bulk 5# packages, which make it easier to feed a crowd.

KC: should I add any seasonings?

JN: My secret is onion soup mix. One packet per pound. It’s subtle, and it adds a nice, rich flavor.

KC: What about the “thumbprint” trick?

JN: This is where you press your thumb into the middle to prevent your burger from bulging up as it cooks? Sounds like a lot of fuss. I just use a spatula to press it flat as it’s cooking. Way easier.

KC: How hot does my grill need to be?

JN: If you’re making hockey pucks, my feeling is that your grill is probably too hot. I go low and slow with a grill that’s never hotter than 350º. This gives you a chance to relax while you’re cooking. Get your burgers on and then go toss a salad, instead of scrambling to get your slices of cheese ready before the meat dries out.

KC: What do I look for before I flip?

JN: Now here’s the science – the heat from the flames will cause the proteins to coagulate, so the side that’s on the grill will form a crust.  If you flip it too early, your patty will fall apart. Use your spatula to feel for a crust. That’s when it’s ready to flip. Later use your spatula to get a feeling for how done it is.  It’s all about timing, so allow about 2 minutes for cheese to melt.

Written by Kathryn Camp, Mountain Parent editor

We asked Paula Eaton of Scout & Cellar Clean-Crafted Wine for her favorite wines this season for backyard entertaining.

“Let’s plan a free wine tasting with a handful of your friends. I will bring a collection of our clean-crafted family-owned wines.  I’ll introduce you to winemakers who you cannot find in stores. You can taste the authentic flavors of wines that have zero added sugars – and you can experience how different it feels to drink wines that aren’t loaded with additives.” – Paula Eaton

Here are 2 wines to try this season:

2017 QVINTO ARRIO Tempranillo Blanco, Rioja, Spain

Family-owned and run by brothers André and Ramón Serrano, whose values – tradition, good work, love for the land, commitment to quality and commitment to oneself – show up in each bottle.  Organic, handpicked. ($22)

2017 HUSHKEEPER Zinfandel, Mendocino County, CA

“Hushkeeper” pays homage to the Hush Shopkeepers who sold wine during Prohibition.  No more secret passwords or doorways here—just delicious wine made from 25 year-old CCOF certified vines. The grapes were hand picked and 100% de-stemmed for full extraction ($29)