Like beauty, the perfect hamburger is in the eye of the beholder. From a stuffed blue cheese, to onion straws with barbecue sauce, to a standard bacon cheeseburger, everyone has their own favorite. But if you get the basics down, your favorite can be the best burger you or your guests have ever tasted, regardless of the fixins. Any one of the key factors below won’t, by itself, make the best burger of your life. But in combination, they are powerful and will allow you go from weekend griller to grill master supreme.
Don’t sacrifice on the meat. This can make or break a burger. All the Thousand Island dressing in the world won’t cover up bad meat. Choose meat that is 20% fat. Since we have to cook ground beef to 160° F (see the sidebar on ground beef safety below), anything leaner results in a dry burger. If you are buying prepackaged, buy “ground chuck” or another named meat. Packages labeled “ground beef” or “hamburger” could come from scraps or parts or who knows where. If you can, get your butcher to grind some chuck for you. Fresh ground makes a big difference. You can even try it out for yourself if you own a mixer with a grinder attachment and you are feeling adventurous.
If you go with a custom mix, you can experiment with leaner or fattier cuts of beef in your mix. Short ribs are popular (let the butcher do this one, lots of work to get the good parts off of the short ribs) for their fat and flavor. Sirloin is leaner than chuck, but has a good, meaty flavor. Try a few until you find a mix that suits your taste buds. As for seasoning, I personally don’t mix any seasoning to the ground beef. I leave the seasoning for the outside where you can taste it the most.
When forming the patties, you will want to work the meat as little as possible. Some people suggest making a ball first. I suggest skipping that step and going straight to forming the patty shape. Don’t pack the meat tightly. You want to leave as many air pockets as possible where the juice and fat can hide out. Packing tightly eliminates these, and the juice has nowhere to go but out.
I make my burgers about ¾ inch thick on the outer edge and a bit wider than the bun I’m gonna use, since they shrink a bit during cooking. This thick burger allows for more pockets and a juicier burger.
Finally, gently press in the center of the burger with a tablespoon or your thumb to make an indentation. This will counteract the burger’s natural tendency to bulge and keep it from rolling off your bun and onto the floor. Good for you, bad for your pets.
Put the formed patties in the refrigerator for an hour before grilling. This will keep them from falling apart on the grill.
Just before moving to the grill, salt generously with kosher salt. Add a few grinds of pepper.
If you’re using a charcoal grill, build a two level fire such that half of the grill has charcoal and the other half does not. Open the vents all the way to get it hot. Wait until the coals have a thin layer of gray ash. I throw in a chunk of cherry wood off to the side. It adds some extra flavor.
If you are using a gas grill, preheat for about 10 minutes. Set the grill up so that half the grill is hot, and the other half is off. If you have a searing burner on your grill (like the Kenmore to the right), fire it up. This is a great tool for cooking burgers. You can use some cherry wood chips in a smoker box if you want to infuse that wood grilled flavor on your gas grill.
After the grill is hot, clean and oil the grates.
Start with the burger, indentation side up, on the hottest part of the grill. If you get flare-ups, don’t squirt water on them. If they are small flare-ups, no need to panic, just wait them out. If your fatty burgers cause a major flare-up, move the endangered burgers to the cool side of the grill, step back and wait until the flames settle down. Return the burgers to the heat at the earliest possible convenience. Cook for about 4 minutes, until you have a nice brown crust and the burger moves freely on the grill. Flip the burgers and cook for another 3 minutes until you have a nice crust on the other side. Never smash the burger with a spatula. This only squeezes the juice out, drying out the burger.
At this point, it is time for a temperature check.
I don’t grill without a high quality instant read thermometer anymore. It has really changed the way I cook. And to get the best burger of your life, you want to cook the burger all the way, but no more. Overcook and you risk drying out the burger. Undercook and you risk pathogens, such as E. coli.
Once the burgers have a good crust, move them to the cooler part of the grill. Let them finish off of the direct flame without risk of charring them. When the center of the burger hits 160°, remove it from the grill. If you want cheese, add the cheese at 155°.
Details (Buns, Toppings, Sauces)
At just about every burger joint in this country, you’ll find buttered and toasted buns. And with good reason. It adds a crispy, buttery flavor you just can’t beat. Don’t skip this step.
As for the rest of the details, I’m particularly fond of a good sharp cheddar, some crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo, mustard and ketchup. Hold the pickles.
Make It Yours
But this isn’t the juiciest, most flavorful burger of my life; it’s the juiciest, most flavorful burger of your life. Try some other options and find your one true burger. Here are a few suggestions:
Rio Grande Burger– Avocado or guacamole, Monterrey Jack cheese, and fried jalapenos
Texas Two Step Burger– Onion straws, BBQ sauce, and (optional, but often required) bacon
Frou-Frou Burgèr– Goat cheese, prosciutto, grilled onions, and balsamic vinaigrette reduction
What’s your favorite burger recipe? Share it in the comments.
Tom & Steve is a Grilling is Happiness sponsored writer.