Grilling season is upon us, and this year I’ve decided to master the art of America’s summertime grilling favorite—the hamburger.
My aim: a burger that is easy to throw together on a weeknight, flavorful enough to stand up to the person who adds every condiment known to mankind to his or her burger, and yet balanced enough to satisfy the minimalist burger eater (ketchup only, please!).
ASK AN EXPERT: STEVEN RAICHLEN
Steven Raichlen, author of more than 30 books, founder of BBQ University, and television host to multiple shows on the subject of grilling and smoking, including the recently released Project Fire, generously took time out of his day to teach me a few things about how to grill the perfect burger. We discussed charcoal verses gas grills, the best fat to meat ratio, and one mistake newbies make when tackling the all-beef patty.
Armed with information from Raichlen, a mountain of research, my own experiences, and emails from friends and family members, I set out to make my version of a Classic Backyard Burger.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: START WITH A CLEAN GRILL
Just like you want to use a clean skillet with a little oil to cook dinner on the stovetop, you want to start with a clean grill with oiled grill grates when making dinner on the grill.
Raichlen suggest starting by scrubbing your grill grates with a grill brush to remove any built-up residue from past meals. Then oil the grill by dipping a folded paper towel in oil and using grilling tongs to rub the oil soaked towel on the grates.
BUY AN 80/20 MIX OF GROUND BEEF
A burger can be seasoned a hundred ways to Sunday, but it means nothing without a solid foundation. For a juicy, flavorful burger, skip the extra-lean ground beef patty blends and use ground beef with a higher fat content.
Ground beef with an 80/20 mix is the best for grilled burgers—this means a mix 80 percent lean beef and 20 percent fat. The 80/20 ground beef you would buy in the supermarket is usually ground chuck, which is great for burgers. (Something leaner like 90/10 is usually ground sirloin, which tends to dry out when cooked over the high heat of the grill.)
Raichlen actually prefers mixing ground chuck and ground sirloin to create his own mix of 80 to 83 percent beef and 17 to 20 percent fat
I opted for 80/20 ground chuck because it’s easily available in most supermarkets, but don’t be afraid to ask your butcher to grind your own blend or grind a higher fat-to-beef ratio.
KEEP THE MEAT COLD
The heat from your hands combined with room-temp ground beef can melt and smear the fat. This prevents the fat from binding with the lean meat, causing too much of it to render during the cooking process, resulting in a dry, dense burger.
The solution is to keep the meat cold and shape the patties as quickly as possible.
Leave the ground beef in the refrigerator until you’re ready to season it and form the patties. Then mix the ground beef just until it comes together and not a second more. Form it into patties and put them back in the fridge until you are ready to grill.
DON’T OVER-MIX THE GROUND BEEF
Less is more when it comes to mixing the ground beef and forming patties. If you’ve eaten a burger that crumbles apart as you eat it, that was mostly likely a result of someone overworking the beef. The results are similar to what happens with a broken emulsion. You are trying to get the fat and the protein to bind together, but if you overmix it, you will “break” the binding, causing your burger to dry out, crumble, and lose flavor.
- Here’s what to do: Evenly sprinkle your seasonings over the ground beef and use your hands to fold them in gently.
- How to know when the meat is fully mixed? Years ago, an old friend of mine who is a charcuterie expert and chef taught me a little trick. After mixing your ground beef with any spices or other add-in ingredients, take a piece the about the size of a quarter and flatten it to the palm of your hand. Turn your palm down. If the meat sticks, you’re good to go.
SIZE MATTERS WITH BURGERS
Some people like the idea of a huge hamburger patty spilling out over the edges of the bun, and some believe it should be a perfect fit (I fall into the latter category). But no one wants a burger that’s smaller than the bun.
To correctly size your patties to fit on your buns, make your burgers about 1-inch thick at the edges, and one inch larger than the bun.
This takes into account the inevitable shrinkage that happens during cooking.
SHOULD YOU DIMPLE YOUR PATTIES?
All over the Internet and in cookbooks, you will find burger recipes that will instruct you to make an indentation in the center of the patties, usually about the size of a thumbprint or a tablespoon.
The goal of “dimpling” is to prevent the burger from puffing up in the center. But does it really work? Like everyone else, I wanted to prevent puffing, but I also wanted to minimize shrinkage with my burgers, so I tested it out.
I found that a thumbprint or tablespoon indentation prevented center puffing, but the burgers still shrank. Making a wide, shallow depression in the patty, however, worked like a charm. Think of a salad plate rather than a donut.
- Shape your patties so the outer 1/2-inch of the patty slightly taller than the middle.
One more tip: Rather than smash the patties together in your hands, place approximately 5 oz of meat on a tray or platter lined with parchment. Gently flatten the top of the burger and make your wide shallow depression (“dimple”) with one hand while pressing your other hand against the sides form a circle. This creates a depression without overheating or overworking the ground beef.
CHARCOAL VS. GAS GRILL
For Raichlan, the best choice for grilling burgers is always wood or charcoal because of the additional flavor and charring that happens with those grills.
“It’s more versatile. You get a hotter, drier heat which give you a better sear,” Raichlan said. If you use charcoal, you can add different kinds of wood to contribute to the smokiness and enhance the overall flavor of the burger.
However, millions of Americans prefer gas grills because they are easy to use, and you don’t have as much of a mess. Don’t worry—you can still cook a great burger on a gas grill!
- To grill with charcoal or wood, Raichlan recommends investing in a chimney starter. It’s a tall box or cylinder with holes in it. Paper is crumpled up in the bottom and the coals reset on top. Position the chimney starter on the bottom of grate of your grill, and light the paper. You will have hot coals in 15 to 20 minutes.
- If you’re using a gas grill, open the lid, turn on the gas, and light the grill. You want to get your grill up to 450 to 500 degrees before adding your patties.
HOW LONG TO GRILL BURGERS
In general, follow these total grilling times:
- For rare burgers, cook for 4 minutes total (125°F)
- For medium-rare burgers, cook for 5 minutes total (135°F)
- For medium burgers, cook for 6 to 7 minutes total (145°F)
- For well-done burgers, cook for 8 to 9 minutes total (160 °F)
Please note that the USDA recommends cooking ground meats to an internal temperature of at least 160°F, which is well done without any pink in the center. Cooking burgers to other degrees of doneness should be done at the cook’s discretion.
All this said, ultimately, the time it takes for a hamburger to reach a certain temperature depends on how hot your grill is and how thick your patty is. In my tests, my 1-inch thick, 4-inch diameter patties were medium done at 5 minutes total (2 1/2 minutes on each side), and well done at 6 minutes total (3 minutes on each side).
Raichlen suggests checking the temperature of the buger by inserting the meat thermometer through the side, not through the top; this gives you a more accurate reading. You can also use Elise’s handy dandy finger-test guide.
FLIP – BUT DON’T PRESS! – YOUR BURGERS
Once you put those patties on the grill, don’t press them down. Pressing forces the fat and flavor out the burgers, which results in dry, bland patties.
However, feel free to frequently flip your burgers. Raichlen once believed it was best to let the burger be and only flip once during cooking, but he has since changed his tune and sites research that says it frequent flipping cooks a burger more evenly.
WHEN TO ADD THE CHEESE?
Add cheese about 1 minute before the burger is finished cooking. Some of my favorite flavors are Swiss, cheddar, and Havarti.
WHEN TO TOAST THE BUNS?
I’m a toasted brioche bun kind of girl. They are rich with butter and sturdy enough to hold all of my fixings and my burger, but also they squish down and are easy to bite through.
Whichever buns you prefer, butter the top and bottom of the bun, and then plop them on the back of the grill, out of direct heat, until they are golden. Start toasting the buns when you have a minute left on the patties.
DON’T FORGET TO REST YOUR BURGERS
Resting isn’t just for humans. Let the burgers rest for a minute after they come off the grill. This allows time for the juices to redistribute throughout the burger, giving you a more flavorful experience.
WAYS TO FLAVOR YOUR BURGERS
Once you’ve mastered the basic burger in the recipe below, feel free to get funky with your flavors.
You can blend different cuts of meat, add mushrooms, anchovies, herbs, or cubes of cheese. I’m a big fan of lemon zest in my burgers, because it helps cut the fatty flavor of the beef. Ultimately, the choice is yours. As long as the patty is meaty and juicy, you can’t go wrong.