Back to Basics: The 10 Essential Secrets to a Perfect Burger
“There’s a lot more future in hamburgers than in baseball.”
Ray Kroc, Founder of McDonald’s
The hamburger is the USA’s most revered contribution to the world of barbecue. Nothing can beat the succulence of a thick, hand-formed burger expertly charred over live fire.
But it wasn’t always so. Believe it or not, raw ground beef was promoted as a health food in the 1800s. Later, New York doctor James Salisbury suggested cooked ground beef might be better. (Yes, that’s where we get Salisbury steak.) The beef-patty-on-a-bun attracted a wide audience when introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (along with cotton candy, waffle cones, peanut butter, and iced tea). Today, we Americans consume over 50 billion annually, the best cooked in backyards from coast to coast.
On the surface, what could be simpler to cook than a hamburger? But we’ve all eaten enough bad burgers to know much can go wrong. Our hard-won tips below will ensure that your family and friends will eat exceedingly well when burgers (and maybe a brew) are on the menu.
10 Burger Tips
If possible, buy freshly ground meat or grind it yourself
We’ll assume you’ve already made friends with your butcher, who can do a custom grind for you, one that will ideally include 80 to 85 percent meat and 15 to 20 percent fat. (Anything leaner, and the burgers will be dry.) Flavorful cuts include chuck, sirloin, boneless short ribs, or brisket. We own a grinder attachment for our KitchenAid mixer, but have also been successful with an old-fashioned hand-cranked grinder that clamps to a kitchen counter or work table. For the best texture, partially freeze the meat; chill the grinder parts, too. Grind the meat twice, or again, ask your butcher to do it.
Realistically, it’s easier to purchase pre-ground beef. Yes, we do it all the time. If not buying locally, we rely on trusted online purveyors like Holy Grail Steak and Crowd Cow. Both companies sell Wagyu beef. While it’s an indulgence, it makes fantastic burgers.
Make the patties
A food scale is a handy appliance to have as it helps you make patties that are uniform in size. We prefer patties that are 6 to 8 ounces—more if you plan to use exceptionally large buns—less if you’re making sliders. Lacking a food scale, you can always eyeball the portions. Thoroughly chill the meat before handling, wet your hands with cold water, and handle the meat as little as possible to avoid melting the fat.
Dimple the patty
Using your thumbs or the back of a spoon, put a dimple (about an inch in width) in one side of each patty. This prevents the meat from puffing on the grill, making it more Instagram-worthy. Line a large plate or rimmed sheet pan with plastic wrap, parchment paper, or waxed paper, and arrange the patties on it in a single layer. Cover with additional plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour before grilling.
We acknowledge that some grill masters season their burger meat with Worcestershire sauce, grated onion, and other aromatics and spices. We like to keep it simple, allowing the beef to shine.
Make an inside-out cheeseburger
That being said, we like to fold grated cheese into the meat before shaping into patties. The cheese keeps the meat juicy and adds extra flavor. About 1 cup per pound of meat is plenty. You can also bury a pat of butter in each patty for extra juice. Season each side of the patties just before grilling with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Steven’s line of rubs are great, too.
Grill it hot
Set up your grill for direct grilling and heat to high. In the best of all worlds, you’d grill over a wood fire. At very least, toss some wood chunks or soaked, then drained wood chips on the coals or on the Flavorizer bars of your gas grill. Keep the burgers refrigerated until you’re ready to grill them. Place the burger patties on the hot grate and grill them until the bottoms are browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a spatula with a thin, sharp blade, turn the burgers and continue grilling the patties until cooked to taste, 4 1/2 to 5 minutes in all for rare, 6 to 7 minutes for medium-rare, and 8 to 9 minutes for medium.
Turn, don’t press
Never press on the burgers with the flat of a spatula—a mistake many people make, unless you want to commit all those wonderful meat juices to the flames. The one exception here is the smash burger, which you cook on a plancha, not the grill. More on that in a future blog.
Cook it safe
For food safety, the USDA recommends all ground meats be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Insert the thermometer probe through the side of the burger, not through the top. This gives you the most accurate reading.
Use a grill dome
For cheeseburgers, place sliced cheese (good cheese, like aged cheddar or provolone) on top the last 2 minutes of cooking. Cover with a grill dome or the lid of a large roasting pan, a trick we learned from our friend and grilling enthusiast Forres Meadows. Butter and toast the buns, if desired, over a medium fire. (Watch carefully.) By the way, buy great buns, preferably from a local bakery.
Build it, and they will come
Place a lettuce leaf on the bottom half of the bun (to keep the bread from getting soggy with the juices). Add the burger, then the tomato (at room temperature, please), pickle and other condiments. We’ll leave the precise configuration to you. This is a great time to introduce your own special sauce—maybe it’s as simple as sriracha or chipotle chiles in adobo stirred into mayo. (We love the Kewpie brand).
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