Images and text by Lindsey Johnson for Design Mom.
Do you remember the first time you had the perfect hamburger? I certainly do. It wasn’t too thick or too thin, it was juicy and flavorful, and I enjoyed every single bite.
Trying to recreate the perfect hamburger at home is actually easier and simpler than you might think. It’s just a matter of understanding a few basics and getting the timing down, and then you’ll be well on your way to a summer filled with juicy grilled burgers.
Are you ready to get grilling?
CHOOSING THE BEEF
Let’s start with the meat. For this post I’ll be talking about ground beef, but most of tips will apply to turkey burgers as well. (I actually don’t eat much meat — here are my vegan recipe files — but we’ll save veggie burgers for another day. : )
When you go to the grocery store or butcher shop, you’ll see several kinds of hamburger in the case. The labels contain information about the cut of meat used and percentage of fat to meat.
Typically the label will say ground round, sirloin, or chuck. It might only say hamburger. Chuck is the best for hamburgers because it has more flavor. Ground chuck usually comes from the trimmings of chuck roasts, though you can buy a chuck roast and ask your butcher to grind it fresh for you. Chuck roasts are the cut of beef that starts at the base of the neck, includes the shoulders, and ends where the ribs begin. It contains more fat which means a juicier burger. But we’ll get to that part in a second. Round and sirloin come from the back of the cow and are better for steaks, in my opinion. (They also cost a little bit more.)
If you’re feeling really ambitious and have a meat grinder or food processor at home, you can also grind it yourself. A lot of burger aficionados swear by grinding your own meat, but I like the ease of purchasing ground meat.
The next thing you’ll notice on the label relate to the fat-to-ratio. Ground beef that is 80/20 means that it is 80% lean (meat) and 20% fat. Sometimes you’ll see 70/30 meat, but not very often. And it’s too fatty for burgers anyway.
In order to be labeled “lean” the ground beef must contain less than 22 percent fat. Extra-lean ground beef may not contain more than 15 percent fat. There is a little leeway here by a percentage point in either direction. Note: These percentages are According to US regulations, so it may be slightly different if you live outside of the U.S.
Ground chuck will contain 80 to 85 percent lean (meat) and 15 to 20 percent fat. Ground round is 85 to 90 percent lean and 10 to 15 percent fat. Ground sirloin is the leanest at 90 to 92 percent lean and 8 to 10 percent fat. The leaner the ground beef, the less flavor and drier the cooked burger will be.
So, Secret #1 is: Look for ground chuck with an 80% meat 20% fat ratio.
SEASONING AND FORMING THE PATTIES
Salt is a hamburger’s best friend. If you’ve selected a good ground beef with plenty of fat in it, salt will really enhance the flavor. I also like to add freshly ground black pepper and a little garlic salt. (My husband and father both really like giving the patties a good dousing of Worcestershire too.)
Secret #2: Seasoning the meat before forming into the patties is important. You don’t want necessarily mix the salt, pepper, and garlic powder into the meat. Just an even sprinkle will do nicely.
Hamburger patty size is a personal preference. I don’t like super thick patties as they are difficult to cook through all the way. (We can address medium-rare burgers in a minute.) Too-thin patties are just, well, too thin for my taste. My version of the perfect patty is somewhere in between.
As for the amount of meat, four to six ounces is about right. This is a good number to keep in mind when planning how much meat you’ll need to buy. This number will also depend on the size of the hamburger buns. If the buns are larger, err on the side of six ounces. Pro-tip: A large ice cream scoop or measuring cup can help with even portions.
Secret #3: Remember to be extra gentle when forming the patties. Lightly forming the hamburger together into a ball with cupped hands and pressing it gently into patties is all you need to do. Overworking the meat will result in a tougher cooked hamburger.
Secret #4: Don’t forget, the patties will shrink as they cook. So you want to be sure to make them large enough that they don’t turn out the size of silver dollars. A six ounce portion will form a burger that is a good 4 1/2-inches in diameter and about 3/4-inch thick before cooking.
Another tendency is for the burgers to puff up in the middle as they cook. The edges and sides are done, but the center is undercooked. Combatting this problem is very easy — Secret #5: make a 1/2-inch indentation in the center of each burger.
We’ve seasoned the ground meat. We’ve taken care not to overwork the meat as we’ve formed it into correctly-size patties. And now it’s time to cook these burgers and not undo what we’ve just done.
The grilling platform used is up to you. Our family prefers charcoal grilling. True, it is more difficult to regulate the temperature than gas grills or on the stove top, but we like the flavor it lends. Gas is good for when you’re in a hurry. And the stove is great if you don’t have access to a grill or want to cook inside.
In these pictures I’m demonstrating on a charcoal grill, but the same principles will apply to the gas grill.
Secret #6: You’ll want to make sure to preheat the grill. It should be hot, but not too hot. Depending on the grill you are using and how it’s set up, there will be hotter and cooler spots.
Use a grill brush to clean the grate if you didn’t clean it after the last time you grilled. (By you, I mean me, of course. : ) Dip a wad of paper towels into oil and use tongs to wipe the oil on the grate. This will help the burgers not stick as they cook.
Be aware, it’s really easy to overcook hamburgers because they are thin. You don’t want to put the burgers on the grill and walk away or go for a swim. Stay close by. It only takes a few minutes, about 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 minutes per side, for the burgers to cook through.
You’ll know it’s time to turn them over when that indentation you made is full of juices and the edges have developed a nice crust. Only flip the burgers once. And please, if you don’t take anything else away from this post, remember Secret #7: don’t press down on the burgers as they are cooking. It’s completely unnecessary and all it does is make sure the burgers lose all of their juices to the charcoal below.
Some burger lovers would totally balk at cooking to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. But that’s the recommendation to prevent food borne illness. If you grind your own meat, there is less of a chance of E.coli poisoning, but I never chance it. Be sure to cook the burgers completely, especially when serving to children.
About a minute before removing from the grill, top with cheese and let it melt.
Secret #8: You already know this, but burgers are the very best hot off the grill.
TROUBLESHOOTING & OTHER TIPS
- Keep raw meat separate from everything else, especially the lettuce and tomatoes. Use a clean plate for cooked burgers, not the same one that had the raw patties on it.
- Remember when I mentioned the hotter and cooler spots of the grill? If the burger is cooking too quickly on the outside and you can tell the inside is still raw (the juices won’t be clear), then you can move the burgers to a cooler spot on the grill and let them cook for a bit longer.
- If there are flare-ups from dripping fat, don’t panic. Shut the lid of the grill to cut off the oxygen supply and/or move the burgers to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking.
BUNS & TOPPINGS
I confess, I don’t have a preference in regards to hamburger buns. I like them all equally, except that some artisan rolls are a little tougher to bite into. (We won’t talk about the gluten-free buns I now use. Sigh.) I do like a grilled bun. Spread a little butter on it and put it on the grill, cut-side down for a minute or two, until it’s toasty.
Personally, I can’t imagine a burger without a thick slice of tomato, crispy Romaine lettuce, and a smattering of ketchup and mustard. Hold the mayo and cheese, and load on the onions. :)
Your turn! What do you like on your burgers? Sky high with a slice of everything under the sun? Plain? What’s your favorite kind of cheese? And do you have any favorite grilling tips you want to share?
P.S. — Love secrets? Find all the posts in this series here.