Build a Better Burger, and They Will Come

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber,

If ever you needed an excuse for a carnivorous indulgence, consider the perfectly grilled hamburger. That mouth-stretching first bite brings the crunch-squish of a properly grilled bun (sesame seed-studded, of course) with a soft, yielding middle; the beefy chew of the burger itself, salt and pepper-crusted, fire charred on the outside, with a sluice of meaty juices at the center. And, of course, the tang and crunch of well-chosen condiments: crisp lettuce, tart pickles, sweet onion, and sauces to suit your taste.

In other words, heaven on earth.

Too often, however, the dry, blackened disks that come off the grill are less than celestial, and are more reminiscent of the other place.

The following letter, from Judi B. of Meridien, Connecticut, summarizes the frustration of many grillers:

Hi Steven:

It seems that I can never really cook a great burger on my grill. I build a hot fire, let the grate get super hot, (but I) never really get the right grilled flavor. I have even added butter to make the flare ups and then put the burgers on, but to no avail. I was hoping that you could offer some insight… I REALLLLLY APPRECIATE IT as my husband and I both love burgers. Thank you.

Talk about coincidence: Judi lives not far from Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut—a centenary luncheonette that claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger.

The current owner of Louis’ Lunch, housed in a tiny but atmospheric red brick building, insists the hamburger was invented in 1898 by one Louis Lassen, a Danish blacksmith/preacher/short-order cook who subscribed to the “waste not, want not” school of thought.

Mr. Lassen couldn’t bear to discard leftover scraps of beef, so he ground them into patties, so the story goes, which he broiled over open flames and sandwiched between two slices of toasted bread. He didn’t believe in adulterating what he deemed to be the perfect burger with ketchup or mustard. No. To this day, you’ll brand yourself as an outsider if you ask for these condiments at lunch spot patronized by students from nearby Yale University for the better part of a century.

And mentioning the other Hamburger (someone from a city in northern German) at Louis’ is the grilling equivalent of trash talk. The story there, on the far side of the Atlantic, is that the hamburger was invented by German seafarers who decided to apply heat to the steak tartar they had enjoyed in trading ports in Russia.

We hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but as early as 1834, the legendary Delmonico’s in Manhattan listed “hamburger steaks” on its extensive menu. Interestingly, an order sold for the princely sum of $.10—twice the cost of a veal chop or roast beef.

In my opinion, the more likely fact is that hamburger-like grilled ground meat patties were, like fire or shish kebab, likely invented independently in many different parts of the world at once.

In my research for my forthcoming book, Planet Barbecue, for example, I’ve enjoyed bistekki, a beef and veal burger, in Santorini, Greece, mici, a mixture of ground, beef, veal and pork flavored with garlic in Bucharest, Romania, and what may be the world’s largest burger (at least largest in diameter), the plate-burying pljeskavica from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But when made right, the numbers suggest that the classic American grilled hamburger trumps them all. hamburger_heaven.jpgAccording to
Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger
by Jeffrey Tennyson, Americans consume at least 38 billion pounds of hamburger each year! If formed into patties and positioned side-by-side, you’d get a chain of hamburgers 1.8 million miles long!

It may seem simple to grill a good hamburger. But to quote a friend on playing checkers: “It takes 20 minutes to learn the fundamentals, but a lifetime to master the game.

I’m all for shortening the learning curve. Who wants to wait a lifetime for the perfect hamburger? Here, then, are my tips for nailing a great hamburger.

  • A great burger begins with great meat. I like a half and half mixture of chuck and sirloin—the former for flavor, the latter for style. You can also buy Kobe beef burgers from or even burger meat ground from dry aged steak, the latter available from the Montana Legend Company.
  • Fat is good. This may fly in the face of current nutritional wisdom (and my dietitian daughter, Betsy, is going to kill me), but a burger needs some fat to be luscious. I like a fat content of 10 to 15 percent fat.On the other hand, if you’re watching your fat intake (and listening to Betsy), you may want to consider a burger made with a lean flavorful meat, like bison instead of ground beef. Let the lusciousness come from that fat, juicy slice of ripe red tomato or even sliced avocado.Many purists, including the owner of Louis’ Lunch, insist on grinding their own meat from scratch. Try to find a butcher who can custom-grind meat for you. (That lets you spec the exact ratios you want.) Better still, grind it yourself. Some stand mixers, such as KitchenAid, come with optional meat grinders, or you can find old-fashioned, hand-cranked units at
  • Keep the meat cold (it helps to wet your hands with cold water), and handle it as little and as delicately as possible when shaping patties. Overhandling “bruises” the meat and over-compressing it will lead to dense, dry burgers.I like to make my burgers a few hours ahead of time and chill them on a plate covered with plastic wrap. This firms up the burger and helps it hold together during grilling.
  • Keep it simple. In general, I like to season my burgers with nothing more than coarse crystals of sea salt (lately I’ve been using Maldon salt from the U.K.) and freshly and coarsely ground black pepper. Save the fireworks for the garnishes.
  • Lightly brush the burgers on both sides with melted butter or extra-virgin olive oil just before grilling. This helps prevent sticking and adds an extra layer of flavor.
  • Of course, you’ll practice good grill hygiene by starting with a hot grilling and brushing and oiling the grate prior to grilling.
  • The proliferation of food-borne illnesses like E. coli—approximately 20,000 cases are reported to the Center for Disease Control each year— have made eating rare or medium-rare burgers the alimentary version of unprotected sex. Ground meats are especially susceptible to contamination—the surface bacteria normally killed by cooking a steak, for example, are dispersed throughout the meat. The USDA recommends cooking burgers to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F (80 degrees centigrade).There’s only one sure way to make sure you’ve cooked a burger to a safe temperature. Use an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the patty. Insert it through the side of the burger, not through the top. Again, you’re looking for at least 160 degrees F. For more burger safety tips visit how do you keep a well-done burger from drying out? I like to place a disk of herb butter in the center of the meat patty. To make herb butter, mix softened salted butter with chopped parsley, chives, chervil, tarragon, or other fresh herbs, and perhaps a clove of minced fresh garlic. Form the resulting herb butter into a cylinder by wrapping it in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze it until hard. Then you can slice it crosswise into disks for placing in your burgers. (For precise directions, see How to Grill, page 98.) The butter melts as the burger cooks, so even a well-done burger will taste exceptionally juicy when you bite into it.Alternatively, make an inside-out cheeseburger. Coarsely grate cheddar, pepper jack, smoked mozzarella, or another favored cheese on a box grater and stir it into the burger meat. When you grill the burger, the cheese will melt, making even well done beef exceptionally moist.
  • Keep the burgers cold until the moment of grilling. Leave them in the refrigerator until the last minute, or place them a sheet pan over another sheet pan filled with ice.
  • Avoid cross-contamination, that is, never place a cooked burger on a cutting board, plate, or work surface where you’ve had raw beef. Never handle or eat a cooked burger with hands that have handled raw beef—unless you’ve washed them thoroughly with soap and hot water first. At our house, a bottle of Purell is almost as indispensable as a grill brush.
  • Do not, I repeat, do not press on a burger with a spatula while it’s grilling. All this does is squeeze out the juices onto the fire.
  • Do not, I repeat, do not overcrowd the grill. Follow the “30 percent” rule—leave 30 percent of your grill food free. That way if you get flare-ups, you have maneuvering room and a place to move the burgers if they start to burn.
  • Let the burgers rest, off the grill grate, for a couple of minutes before serving. This allows the meat to “relax,” giving you a juicier burger. (I also recommend this for steak.)Finally, lightly grill hamburger buns. Brush the cut sides with melted butter or olive oil and grill for 1 to 2 minutes. An ungrilled bun is like an un-pressed shirt.

Keep an open mind. In recent years, the concept of a “burger” has expanded to include turkey, pork, duck, salmon, tuna, lamb, and even Portobello mushrooms, recipes for all of which you’ll find in my books. Nancy recently did the following tally:From The Barbecue Bible (Workman, 2008):• Avocado, Sprout, and Salsa Burgers (page 225)
• Bulgarian Burgers (page 226)

From BBQ USA (Workman, 2003):

• Inside-Out Blue Cheese Burgers (page 338)
• “Sushi” Burgers (page 345)
• Portobello “Burgers” (page 574)

From Indoor Cooking (Workman, 2004):

• New Mexican Green Chile Burgers with Salsa Verde (page 158)
• Barbecue Pork Burgers with Honey Mustard Sauce (page 164)
• Lamb Burgers with Yogurt Cucumber Sauce (page 166)
• Oaxacan-Spiced Turkey Burgers with Chipotle Salsa (page 168)

If you have an ingenious twist on burgers, or your own trick for keeping burgers moist and juicy, even when cooked to well-done, please share it with us on the Barbecue Board.

In the meantime, folks, I don’t think you can do much better than these.


Source: The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 2008)
Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 6

For the burgers:

2-1/4 pounds ground beef (preferably ground chuck)
6 slices (each 1/2-inch thick) Vidalia or other sweet onion (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, or 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 hamburger buns

For the toppings– any or all:

Iceberg lettuce leaves
Sliced ripe tomatoes
Sliced dill pickles or sweet pickles
Cooked bacon (2 slices per burger)
Ketchup, Mustard, and Mayonnaise

Divide the meat into six equal portions. Lightly wet your hands with cold water, then form each portion of meat into a round patty about 4 inches across.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate.

If using onion slices, brush them on both sides with melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Place the onion on the hot grate and grill until nicely browned, about 4 minutes per side, then transfer to a plate.

Brush one side of the meat patties lightly with melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the burgers, buttered side down, on the hot grate and grill until the bottoms are nicely browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Brush the tops lightly with some of the melted butter and season them with salt and pepper. Using a spatula, turn the burgers and grill until they are browned and cooked to taste, 4 to 5 minutes longer for medium. Meanwhile, brush the cut sides of the buns with the remaining melted butter and toast them, cut sides down, on the grill during the last 2 minutes the burgers cook.

Set out the toppings. Put the burgers and onion slices on buns and serve.


Source: Recipe courtesy of Steven Raichlen
Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 6

2-1/2 pounds ground lamb
1 3-inch log of goat cheese, chilled
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
6 pita breads
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Wasabi Cream for serving (recipe follows)

Lightly wet your hands with cold water and divide the ground lamb into 12 equal portions. Form each into a round patty about 1/2 inch thick. Cut the goat cheese into six equal rounds.

Place a round of goat cheese on a lamb patty; top with another patty and seal the edges.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.

When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Brush one side of the lamb patties lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the burgers, oiled side down, on the hot grate and grill until the bottoms are nicely browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Brush the tops lightly with olive oil and season them with salt and pepper. Using a spatula, turn the burgers and grill until they are browned and cooked to taste, 4 to 5 minutes longer for medium. Meanwhile, brush the pita breads with the remaining olive oil and toast them on the grill during the last 2 minutes the burgers cook.

Split or slice the pita breads to accommodate the burgers. Serve with Wasabi Cream.

Wasabi Cream

Makes about 1 cup

1 to 2 tablespoons wasabi powder, or more to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice (or more as needed)
1 cup mayonnaise (Hellmann’s preferred)

Combine the wasabi powder and lemon juice and mix until a smooth paste is formed. Let sit for 5 minutes for the flavors to develop. Add the mayonnaise and whisk to combine. Refrigerate until serving time.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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