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Barbecue University™

12 Surefire Ways to Build the Best Burger!

Photo reprinted from The Barbecue! Bible. Photo copyright © Ben Fink.


Let’s face it: There are a lot of bad — even scary — burgers out there. Overcooked. Undercooked. Sahara dry. Still bleeding. Burgers that offend your palate and burgers that quite literally can make you sick. Do your burgers proud with our Great American Hamburger recipe and these 12 burger-making tips!

Find your grind: Buy your meat at a top-notch butcher shop where it is ground in-house daily. I use equal parts of ground chuck and sirloin with a fat to lean ratio of 20/80. If you have a meat grinder at home, create your own burger blend with boneless short ribs, brisket, sirloin, etc.

Think outside the bun: While we might argue that nothing beats a classic American beef burger—thick, juicy, and expertly charred—other grilling cultures have invented their own ground meat marvels. From Bosnia, for example, come plate-burying disks of ground beef, pork, veal, and/or lamb called pljeskavica (discussed in Planet Barbecue!). Croatians are deservedly proud of their mixed meat, coriander-scented cevapcici (discussed in Barbecue! Bible). Cambodians grill ground pork burgers flavored with lemongrass and incendiary Asian chiles wrapped in banana leaves.

Keep it cold: Chill ground meat thoroughly before shaping into patties. It helps to run your hands under cold water first. Cover the patties with plastic wrap and re-chill before grilling.

Use a light touch: Always handle ground meat gently or your burgers will be dense and devoid of moist juice-trapping pockets. And remember that it’s an unpardonable sin to press down on a burger with a spatula as it cooks. You’ll press out the flavorful juices — you want them in the burger, not on the fire.

Size matters: If making conventional burgers, aim for patties that are about an inch larger than the diameter of the bun and no more than 1 inch thick. For sliders, form patties that are about 2 inches to 2-1/2 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. Use your thumbs or a tablespoon to make a wide, slight depression in the top of each: This prevents “burger bloat” in the center of the cooked patty.

Season it right: Just before grilling on a grill preheated to high, generously season the tops of the burgers with coarse salt (kosher salt or flaky sea salt, such as Maldon) and freshly ground black pepper. Flip the burgers after 3 to 5 minutes, then season the cooked side.

Build it, and they will come: Set up a “DIY” burger bar for condiments and fresh toppings, sourced locally when possible. Make your own pickled onions, for example, or try chef Todd English’s tropically-inspired ketchup covered in the book Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades.

Smoking allowed: Use hardwood chunks, chips, or pellets to add flavor to your burgers. See How to Grill for detailed instructions. Or better yet, grill over a wood fire.

Don’t crowd your grill: Few things cause flare-ups faster than a grill loaded with rich, fatty meat. Do not crowd the burgers as they cook — if you need more room, borrow or rent an extra grill — and leave at least 30 percent of the grill grate fire-free as a “safety” zone. That way, when flare-ups occur — and they will — you can quickly transfer the burgers to the coolest part of the grill until the flames die down.

Toast your buns: For me, part of the textural thrill of a burger is biting into a buttered and toasted bun. (Replace butter with olive oil, if desired.) Transfer the burgers to a platter, and while they rest, put the buns on the grill grate, cut sides down. Grill for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they exhibit golden brown grill marks. Do not turn your back on them as bread can burn easily.

Play it safe: Just days ago, it was announced that a lab analysis triggered by Consumer Reports discovered 90 percent of 257 samples of ground turkey from 21 states were contaminated by one or more disease-causing organisms. Ground beef, of course, has had its own PR problems in recent years. The Food and Drug Administration strongly recommends cooking all ground meats to an internal temperature of 160 degrees unless you want the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to crash your next cookout.

Give it a rest: For noticeably juicier burgers, let the burgers “rest” on a warm platter for 1 minute before transferring to buns. (This redistributes the meat juices that were driven by the heat to the burger’s center.)


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