Skinny burgers, fiery grill make a hot combination


February 14, 1993|By ROB KASPER

The other night I melted the meat thermometer. It began as many household disasters do, with the best of intentions. I wanted to make sure the hamburgers I was grilling had an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's the temperature health authorities have said kills bacterium E. coli 0157:H7 -- the culprit linked to death and illness of people who ate tainted Jack-in-the-Box burgers in Washington state.

Washington state is on the other side of the country. And there have been no reports of tainted meat here. But I wanted to be extraordinarily careful.

Moreover, I wasn't sure just how warm the innards were of the burgers I cook on my backyard grill. So, just to be safe, the other night I made the barbecue grill fire a little hotter than normal.

Then I made the hamburger patties considerably skinnier than my regular thick-as-a-dictionary models. These were thin as a Monday afternoon newspaper.

And, finally, instead of relying on my usual test for doneness, eyeballing the meat, I stuck a meat thermometer -- the glass-covered kind you buy in a grocery store and jam in a roast or turkey -- into the middle of a burger.

Things got out of hand. And by the time I pulled what was supposed to be the main course off the fire, every item on the grill -- the burgers, the grill and meat thermometer -- was scorched.

The red marker in the thermometer had climbed past the lines for 160 degrees, (beef, medium), moved past 175 (lamb, well) and even shot beyond the 185 (poultry) point. The marker went off the charts, way up there to the top of the thermometer, where it remains, perhaps fried in fear, at this moment.

Before the fiery commotion, I had taken a few other cautionary steps. In my time on earth I have slapped a few hamburgers together. And as I slapped these together, I compared how this batch of meat measured up to the ground chuck of past.

Did it look out of the ordinary? Did it have an unusual aroma? Did it feel right?

I realized that putting the hamburger through this touchy-feely test had no scientific basis. Bacteria that tainted the Washington state meat were detected by experts using sophisticated equipment.

But like most rituals, my manual inspection of the raw hamburger was reassuring to me.

I made the patties thinner than usual because authorities have said that the dangerous bacteria can be killed if a burger is cooked all the way through, so the meat is gray in the middle, with no blood or bloody juices. This is easier to do when the patties are as thin as a newspaper.

I felt uneasy making these puny patties. To me they were the antithesis of what a burger should be. A burger should be fat, sloppy, indulgent, spilling over with juices and flavor. And the middle should be pink, or even red.

Alas, it appeared that big, bloody burgers has joined the ever-growing list of risky eats. Ironically, when I brought the charred burgers in from the grill, I found some red liquid in the middle of them.

It turned out to be red fuel oil. It once was in the thermometer and would shoot up and down the tube as temperatures got hotter or colder. The other night, however, when the bottom of the glass tube melted, it streamed into a burger.

The hole in the bottom of the thermometer casing looked as if it had been made by a rung on the barbecue grill.

What happened, I figured, is that the thermometer slipped through the skinny burger, came to rest on the overheated grill, ++ and the casing melted.

The fuel oil smelled bad, so just to be safe, I carved out sections of the burgers that were red. The next day I was told by the folks who make the thermometer, Chaney Instruments of Lake Geneva, Wisc., that the liquid was nontoxic..

I also ended up slicing off the bottoms of several of the extremely cooked burgers. They were more like leather than burger.

The meal was less than a success. The kids were suspicious of the cut up burgers. One asked why the bottoms were black. Several eaters switched their entree choice to leftover ham.

The whole experience taught me several things. First, don't stick a meat thermometer in a skinny burger while it is on the barbecue grill. A better procedure would have been to jam a metal, instant-read thermometer in the burger. Or I could have stuck the glass-covered thermometer in a burger on a plate.

And, more importantly, the incident reminded me that overreaction, even in such a serious matter as trying to prevent food poisoning, can be foolish.

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