Hamburgers are the perfect food for the home chef—you don’t need expensive equipment, the ingredients are readily available, and the result is always a crowd-pleaser. Although the burger is simple, it’s also nuanced: there are thousands of variations, numerous avenues for improvements, and, of course, recipes for disaster.
So, how do you create the tastiest and juiciest meat-and-bun combination? The following steps will help you fire up the perfect burger!
1. Choose your meat wisely.
Since a burger’s main ingredient is meat, it’s wise to get the best quality you can buy. Sustainably raised, grass-fed beef isn’t always the cheapest option, but in terms of the burger it provides, many say the taste is unparalleled. Compared with that from corn- or grain-fed cows, meat from grass-fed cows has a stronger beef flavor and is higher in nutrients and omega-3s. If you can’t find grass-fed, head to your local butcher for a high-quality cut of meat that’s fresh and from a reliable source. Burger meat usually comes from chuck, sirloin, or round cuts. The fattier the meat, the juicier the burger, so opt for beef that is no leaner than 85 percent if you really want to punch up the flavor. Chuck has the highest fat content, while round and sirloin tend to be leaner.
2. Grind your own beef.
For the juiciest and most flavorful burgers, avoid premade patties or store-bought ground beef. Not only does the texture and flavor vary in premade patties, but you’ll have to cook them well-done to be sure that you’ve killed all the bacteria often found in pre-ground meat. Luckily, it’s easy to grind your meat at home in a food processor or tabletop grinder, allowing you to cook the beef to a juicier medium or rare while not sacrificing safety. Alternatively, you can have your butcher grind it when you order. Just be sure to grill the meat the same day.
3. Play patty-cake.
When making patties, aim to keep them relatively small, closer to a one-third-pounder than a Whopper. Avoid compressing and balling the meat; this can result in a tough, compacted burger. Instead, make flat patties to ensure even cooking. The key is to not overwork the meat. As you press and lightly stretch the patty to your desired diameter, recognize that it will shrink on the flame, as you ultimately want a burger that fits the bun. Some say that putting a small dimple (about the size of a fingertip) in the middle prevents the burger from shrinking too much. Apply salt and pepper, if desired.
4. Chill out.
Working with chilled meat is easier and will prevent your own body heat from melting away some of the fat and causing the meat to smear. After forming the patties, chill the meat in the refrigerator for thirty minutes to prevent them from breaking apart as they cook.
5. Prep your grill.
Before heating up the grill, clean the grate and oil it well. This step will ensure the patties don’t stick and helps put those professional-looking grill marks on the meat.
6. Lay off the heat.
While it’s tempting to see how big a fire you can build, medium or medium-low heat allows the meat to cook slowly and evenly. A burger placed on high heat will have a charred outside and an underdone or unevenly cooked inside.
7. Don’t over-handle your patty.
Leave the burgers on the grill, undisturbed, for a few minutes to get the grill marks; if you want to get crisscross grill marks, rotate the burger a quarter of a turn and cook for a couple more minutes. Note that grass-fed beef cooks faster than grain-fed beef, so adjust the cooking times depending on the type of meat you use. The rule is the more you flip or touch the burger, the more juices—and flavor—escapes. The goal should be to flip the burger only once—when the edges begin to lightly brown or drops of blood start emerging through the top. When that happens, turn the burger over to cook on the other side. Once you flip, add your cheese of choice.
Whatever you do, don’t press down on the burgers with a spatula, as we’ve all seen people do a million times. This merely expels those wonderful juices from the patty and onto the fire.
8. Know when the burger is done.
If you’ve ground the beef yourself, you want to keep it on the rarer side since overcooked grass-fed beef loses its tenderness and becomes chewy. Although the USDA recommends cooking ground beef to a 160-degree temperature, if you’ve ground your own meat from a whole piece, it’s safe to opt for medium-rare.
The easiest way to tell if your burger is done is to use the touch test. To perform, touch the burger with your fingertip and compare its firmness to the firmness of the flesh between your forefinger and thumb. A rare burger will feel as soft as your palm does when your hand is relaxed and open. If you want it cooked to a medium or medium-rare level, keep it on the grill until it’s as firm as your palm is when your thumb and middle finger or forefinger make contact. Well-done meat will feel as hard as a fully flexed palm, such as when the thumb and pinky fingers touch. If you want to follow the USDA guidelines, insert a thermometer into the patty sideways, and check to see if it’s reached 160?F.
9. Give them a rest.
After you take them off the grill, let burgers rest for a few minutes before serving them. This downtime allows the juices to settle and redistribute, resulting in more succulent meat.
10. Don’t forget the buns.
Sesame or plain, English muffin or Brioche—the type of bun you choose is personal preference, but it should require some thought, as it’s an important component to the overall taste of the burger. And it should definitely get a little grilling, too, so you get that oh-so-yummy crunch with a touch of softness. Brush the chosen bun with butter or olive oil and place it on the outer parts of the grill for a few minutes to get a warm bun with a flavorful, slightly crispy crust.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons