Lamb Burgers with Yogurt Cucumber Sauce
Grilled ground meat patties are a constant on the world’s barbecue trail. The type of meat varies from region to region. Greek grill masters use ground lamb instead of beef, as do those in the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and central Asia. These lamb burgers buzz with Greek flavors—garlic, oregano, and mint. A refreshing tzatziki—yogurt cucumber dip—is the sauce. To complete the Greek theme, the burgers are served on pita bread instead of buns.
In keeping with the widespread popularity of the lamb burger, I offer an equally widespread and popular condiment—a garlic-cucumber yogurt sauce known as tzatziki in Greece, cajik in Turkey, and raita in India. For the best results, use whole-milk yogurt. If you can’t find it in the supermarket, it’s available at natural foods stores or Middle Eastern or Greek grocery stores.
Ground lamb is available at butcher shops and more and more frequently at supermarkets. Another good source is a halal (Muslim kosher) or Middle Eastern market.
For an interesting variation on these burgers, tuck a piece of goat cheese or feta cheese in the center of each before grilling.
If you use commercially ground hamburger meat, I strongly recommend that you cook it through, meaning done to medium so there’s no trace of red in the center. But how do you tell when a burger is cooked through? Use one of the following three tests.
1. Use the poke test: Press the center of the burger with the tip of your index finger—it should feel mostly firm, with just the slightest bit of yield in the center.
2. Take the burger’s temperature: Insert the probe of an instant-read meat thermometer through the side of the burger (you won’t get an accurate reading if the probe is inserted through the top). The internal temperature should be at least 160°F for beef and pork burgers and at least 170°F for poultry burgers. Tuna burgers, when made with sushi-quality tuna, can be served rare or medium-rare.
3. Make a small cut in the center of the burger with the tip of a paring knife. There should be no traces of red and only the faintest blush of pink in the center. Use this method sparingly, as each cut will release tasty juices. When serving the burger, place the cut side down. Some establishments serve rare hamburgers, but to ensure safety, it’s likely they grind their meat fresh daily on the premises. If you’re willing to do this, you can cook and serve your burgers to whatever degree of doneness you desire—even rare.
If you have a …
CONTACT GRILL: Preheat the grill; if your contact grill has a temperature control, preheat the grill to high. Place the drip pan under the front of the grill. When ready to cook, lightly oil the grill surface. Place the burgers on the hot grill, then gently close the lid. The burgers will be done after cooking 4 to 6 minutes.
GRILL PAN: Place the grill pan on the stove and preheat it to medium-high over medium heat. When the grill pan is hot a drop of water will skitter in the pan. When ready to cook, lightly oil the ridges of the grill pan. Place the burgers in the hot grill pan. The burgers will be done after cooking 4 to 6 minutes per side.
BUILT-IN GRILL: Preheat the grill to high, then, if it does not have a nonstick surface, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the burgers on the hot grate. The burgers will be done after cooking 4 to 6 minutes per side.
FREESTANDING GRILL: Preheat the grill to high; there’s no need to oil the grate. Place the burgers on the hot grill. The burgers will be done after cooking about 7 minutes per side.
FIREPLACE GRILL: Rake red hot embers under the gridiron and preheat it for 3 to 5 minutes; you want a hot, 2 to 3 Mississippi fire. When ready to cook, brush and oil the gridiron. Place the burgers on the hot grate. The burgers will be done after cooking 4 to 6 minutes per side.
Total Timeunder 1 hour
Make Ahead RecipeYes
OccasionFamily Get-together, game day
Recipe Coursemain course
Dietary Considerationmain course
Equipmentgrill, grill pan, indoor grill
Taste and Texturecreamy, garlicky, herby, juicy, meaty, savory, spiced, tangy
Type of Dishhamburger
- 1½ pounds ground lamb
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, or 2 teaspoons dried mint
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Greek)
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher or sea), or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 pita breads
- 4 rinsed romaine lettuce leaves
- 4 paper-thin slices red onion (optional)
- 1 medium-size cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 medium-size ripe tomato, thinly sliced
- 1 medium-size cucumber
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon coarse salt (kosher or sea), or more to taste
- 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, or 1 teaspoon dried mint
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the Lamb Burgers:
Place the ground lamb, chopped onion, garlic, mint, parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to mix. Wet your hands with cold water and divide the mixture in 4 equal portions. Working quickly and with a light touch, pat each portion into a thick patty. Place the patties on a plate lined with plastic wrap and refrigerate, covered, until ready to grill.
Grill the lamb burgers, following the instructions for any of the grills in the box at right, until cooked through. See Notes for doneness tests. Remove the burgers and cover to keep warm. Leave the grill on.
Place the pita breads on the hot grill, and, lowering the temperature and working in batches, if necessary, grill until toasted, about 1 minute on a contact grill; 1 minute per side on any of the other indoor grills.
Cut a slit in each pita. Place a lettuce leaf inside, followed by a burger, an onion slice, if using, some cucumber and tomato slices, and a generous dollop of yogurt sauce. Serve at once.
Yogurt Cucumber Sauce:
Peel the cucumber and cut it in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds with a melon baller or spoon. Coarsely grate the cucumber.
Place the garlic and salt in a mixing bowl and mash to a paste with the back of a spoon. Stir in the grated cucumber, yogurt, olive oil, and mint. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, if necessary, and pepper to taste; the sauce should be highly seasoned.
2004 Steven Raichlen