How to Use Berbere — Off the Beaten Aisle

By: J.M. Hirsch
chicken burgers with berbere

Imagine the best Southern barbecue -- cooked up in northern Africa.

That’s what this week’s ingredient — the Ethiopian seasoning blend known as berbere — tastes like. And it’s as good as it sounds.

Berbere is the flavor backbone of Ethiopian cooking, a cuisine built around heavily seasoned meats and stews served with a spongy flatbread called injera.

Berbere ties all of that together, doing duty as a dry rub for meats, a seasoning for stews, lentils and grains — even as a tableside condiment.

As with so many traditional seasoning blends, what goes into berbere can vary by region, town and by house.

But most versions begin with a base of ground chiles, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, cloves, coriander, cardamom, black pepper and salt.

The result is a fiery, bright-red blend that tastes equal parts barbecue, curry and Southwestern steak rub. It sounds kind of crazy, but that’s a flavor combination that just begs to be in so many classic American dishes.

In the U.S., berbere most often is found as a dry powder, though it sometimes is a paste in Ethiopia. The powder can be added directly to just about anything, or heated briefly with oil and minced garlic and onion. The latter makes a great starter for chili or pulled pork.

You’ll find berbere at just about any online or brick-and-mortar spice shop, as well as at many larger grocers (check the international section as well as the spice aisle).

When you use it, take it easy. This stuff is deliciously spicy, so add a little, then taste and adjust from there.

The good news is that you don’t need to know squat about Ethiopian food (though it’s totally worth getting to know) to enjoy berbere. Here are some of my favorite uses:

•    Blend a can of tomato paste with honey, salt and as much berbere as you can handle. It makes the best barbecue sauce. Ever.

•    Sprinkle just a bit into the cheese sauce of your favorite mac and cheese. The smoky, spicy change will blow you away.

•    Use it straight up as a dry rub for baby back ribs, steaks on the grill -- even for oven-roasted chicken.

•    Sauté minced onions and garlic with vegetable oil, stirring in berbere. Thin with more oil or with broth, then use as a marinade.

•    Blend with softened butter then spread over hot-off-the-grill corn on the cob. Or add minced garlic and use for garlic bread.

•    Add a bit to the pot when browning meat for a beef stew. Or sprinkle just a pinch over a bowl of chicken soup.

•    Mix just a bit into prepared pasta sauce, or mix it directly into meatballs.

•    Add a bit to ground beef when browning it for tacos.

Chopped Chicken Burgers With Berbere and Goat Cheese

This technique for using chopped (rather than ground) chicken keeps the burgers moist and flavorful. The prosciutto mixed into it helps, too. Be warned that when you form the patties, they will be very moist and messy. But once they hit the grill, they will hold together without trouble. If you’d rather use ground turkey for convenience, this same seasoning blend will be delicious in that, too.

Start to finish: 20 minutes
Servings: 4
1 large egg
½ teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons berbere
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch kosher salt
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into large chunks
2 ounces prosciutto
4 hamburger buns
4-ounce log chevre (soft goat cheese)

Heat a grill to medium. Oil the grates, or coat them with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, garlic powder, berbere, black pepper and salt. Set aside.

In a food processor, combine the chicken and prosciutto. Pulse until the meat is well chopped but still chunky, about 10 seconds total. Scrape the sides of the bowl and pulse again if any large pieces remain unchopped.

Transfer the meat to the bowl with the egg mixture, then mix well. Form the meat into 4 loose patties. They will be moist and not hold together well.

Use a spatula to carefully place the burgers on the grill and cook, covered, for 4 to 5 minutes. Flip the burgers -- they should be firm enough to move easily now -- and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 165 degrees F at the center of the burgers.

Top each burger with a quarter of the cheese, then serve on a bun.

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking . He also blogs at jmhirsch.

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