Elk burgers are a thing, and not just among hunters. I’ve even seen them at my local bar from time to time; this is because you can buy farmed elk. But all by itself, elk burger isn’t fantastic unless you add some fat to the mix. Here’s how I go about making juicy elk burgers.
Readers of this site know that I am particular about hamburgers, what they should be a what they should not be. I’ve worked at restaurants that specialized in serious burgers, so I got my personal rules from there. This elk burger recipe follows those rules, which I detail in my basic recipe for venison burgers.
Short version: A burger is meat and fat. Period. That’s it. Rarely do I violate this iron rule. So an elk burger is just elk, fat (pork or beef) and salt. And the salt is added after I make the patties.
Since I hunt elk, I grind my own elk burger, and with a fair bit of fat; 15 percent normally. Fat = flavor. If you are one of those people who loves burgers made with ground elk or venison with no fat in it, well, I can’t help you. You’re not making burgers. You’re making patties using breadcrumbs or fruit or whatever as a binder. Not my thing.
(While this is an elk burger recipe, and why I’ll get to in a moment, you can of course use deer, beef, pronghorn, caribou, moose, nilgai, etc.)
If you are not a hunter, you can buy elk burger in lots of places; Whole Paycheck sells it, for instance. It’s normally sold as a low fat option to ground beef, and personally, it’s too low fat. If I were to use store-bought ground elk, I would also buy a little ground pork to mix, or grind some beef trim (the supermarket butcher will give you some if you ask) and mix that in.
Bottom line: You need at least 5 percent fat for the burger to not fall apart, and 10 percent is my minimum.
Now, on to why this is an elk burger.
Chances are, if you’ve been anywhere from Texas to Colorado to Southern California, you’ve at least heard of a green chile burger. It’s a thing in the Southwest, and I am thankful for it. This is a green chile elk burger, and I used elk largely because the best elk hunting is in this region.
What makes them so special? The green chiles, of course. I use Hatch green chiles from New Mexico, and that is the standard.
A Hatch chile is a long, light green, reasonably hot chile with a very thick skin that you need to char off to really enjoy the pepper. September is the season for fresh ones, and if you are a chile head as I am, you too will buy crates of them, roast your own and either pickle or freeze them in batches for the rest of the year. This chile grown in other places is an Anaheim.
Of course, you can always find them canned, too. And there’s no reason other than authenticity not to use some other green chile, or even a red one if you wanted to made red chile elk burgers or somesuch. In fact, I really like using my smoked, roasted jalapenos for this when I run out of Hatch chiles. Poblanos are an excellent supermarket substitute.
And, as you can see, green chile burgers are almost always actually green chile cheeseburgers, because you use cheese to glue the chiles onto the burger patties.
What cheese you use is up to you, but cheddar cheese and Monterey jack, specifically pepper jack, are my favorites.
Making Burger Patties
This one is sort of up to you. If you have elk burger with some fat in it, as I hope you’ve done, you have your choice of ways, thick or thin. Fatless patties fall apart if they are too thin.
Your grind matters, too. The finer the grind, the thinner the patty can be. If you want to make thin, diner-style patties for something like a smash burger or an Oklahoma onion burger, you will need a fine grind. Grilled burgers are better with a coarser grind, in my opinion.
Either way, when you form your burger patties, make sure you press an indentation in the centers. This keeps your elk burger from balling up when it cooks. This happens because when raw meat hits the hot pan, it contracts. The indentation in the center offsets this.
Salting the outside of the patties, not the mix, for a more classic burger. What this does is help keep the elk burger, or whatever it’s made from, slightly loose and tender. Think crab cake, not meatball.
Cooking Elk Burger
Like all hamburgers, you have your choice of cooking methods. And I’ve done most of them with this elk burger recipe.
When it’s warm out, I like to grill my burgers, and when it’s cool, I use either a cast iron skillet or some other pan that can handle high heat. Non-stick is out.
If you are grilling, get your grill hot and clean your grates. Set your patties down and press with a spatula, but not too hard. Just a light press. This holds true if you are using a skillet or frying pan, too. Don’t mush the patties. You just want good solid contact with the pan or grill.
Depending on how hot your heat is, it will take about 3 to 5 minutes per side for elk burger cooked medium, which is how I like my elk or venison. Add or subtract time if you like your burgers rare or well done.
After you flip, grind some black pepper on the burgers, lay down the chiles and top with cheese. Now bring the lid down on the grill or cover the pan with a lid to melt the cheese. It should be nicely melted by the time the other side is ready.
Elk Burger Toppings
Other than the green chile and cheese, and honestly you can skip that if you want, it’s up to you.
I do like the classic lettuce and tomato, and if your green chiles are mild, a good splash of hot sauce. Obviously ketchup is common, as would be mayo. In this case, a Sriracha mayo would be fun. You can play around as much as you like.
I am particularly fond of the Mexican toppings and flavorings I use in my recipe for chorizo burgers, if that interests you.
Keep it simple. Use great ingredients. You won’t be sorry.
Green Chile Elk Burgers
- 4 to 8 green chiles, such as Hatch, Poblano or Anaheim
- 1 1/4 pounds ground elk or other meat
- 4 large slices of tomato
- 4 to 8 lettuce leaves
- 4 burger buns
- 2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
- 4 slices cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
- If you are starting with fresh chiles, roast them, remove the skins and seeds, salt them and set aside. You can either keep them in fairly large pieces if they are well-roasted, or chop them roughly. Your call. This can be done a few days ahead of time, and of course you can use canned or frozen chiles.
- Make four burger patties. I prefer one-third pound burgers, but you can make them any size you want. Pro tips: Press the weighed out ground meat into a large circle mold for more even patties. Press a dimple about the diameter of a walnut in the center of each patty - this prevents them from balling up when cooked. Salt your patties well.
- Grilling. Get your grill hot. Scrape down the grates well, and grill your burgers with the grill cover open. Leave them on the grates for at least 3 or 4 minutes so you get grill marks and a good crust. Flip and cook to order. Typically a medium burger will need another 3 minutes.
- Stovetop. Preheat oven to 200°F and set a rack over a baking sheet. Heat a cast iron pan or pan that can handle high heat over medium high heat. When it's hot, slick the pan with some canola or other high smoke point oil, like grapeseed or safflower. Set the patties down and press gently with a spatula to get good contact with the pan. Leave them for at least 3 or 4 minutes so you get a good crust. Flip and cook to order. Typically a medium burger will need another 3 minutes.
- No matter how you cook your burgers, when you flip them, lay the chiles over them, then cover with a slice of cheese. Close the grill cover or put a lid over the pan to melt the cheese.
- On the stovetop you usually have to cook in batches, so you will put each finished burger in the warm oven as you do the rest.
- When you are ready, paint your burger buns with the butter or oil and set them on the grill or pan to brown. Keep an eye on the buns so they don't burn. Set aside once browned to your liking.
- Build your burgers. I like to go bun, lettuce, tomato slice, patty, bun. But do whatever you like best. Enjoy!
Keys to Success
- Make sure to have some fat in your burger patties otherwise they will be dry and will fall apart. Absolute minimum would be 5%, but most people prefer 15%.
- Don't skip the indentation step in making the patties, unless you are going to squash them when they hit the pan.
- If you are worried about undercooked elk burgers, leave the patties out on a cutting board for 30 minutes or so before you cook them. Salt them at this time.
- Freshly roasted green chiles are best, but often it's easier to use frozen or canned. Do whatever works for you.