Written by adam on Jun 22, 2005
Making a Better Burger
Oh the woes I could tell you about making burgers. I'm 30 years old, and only just last year I began to really think about my methods for the burger making procedure. Seems I had been doing it wrong for many many years. Oh sure, I'd have nicely cooked meat on the grill, but something was always off. Either the seasonings were off or the meat was overcooked or too dry. Granted, I don't like any hint of pink or redness in my hamburgers, but I still like 'em real thicy and juicy.
The Herd Killing Factor
Meat is everything when it comes to a good burger. Most attitudes towards burgers is this: you go to the store and you buy ground beef and you cook it. Right? Wrong, bosephus. This is the number one point thing that can make or break your burger ... the meat. No amount of seasoning or top-of-the-line grill can make your crappy burger better.
Here's something they don't tell you. When you go to the grocery store and buy a package of "hamburger" or "ground beef" ... you never know what you're gonna get. Most grocery store butchers use the trimmings of all the pieces of the cow to make basic hamburger or ground beef. It could be filet mignon, brisket, loin, T-bone or shank. You never know.
Another thing to consider is the fat content. Most basic ground beef packages are going to be about a 60/40 or 70/30 ratio of meat to fat. This is not good for a burger. Not only will you get flame-ups on the grill, you'll notice a phenomenon that I like to call "the incredible shrinking burger."
My previous line of thinking was that a juicy burger is a bloody burger. Truth be told, a juicy burger is a fatty burger, one in which the solid fat has rendered but stays within the confines of the patty.
If you buy ground round, what you are getting is parts of the leg of the cow. Round can usually be a little too lean for my taste, which is why I go with Chuck. Chuck meat is from the front top part of the cow around the shoulders. It has just the right blend of meat and fat to make a nice, juicy burger. Try to get a 80/20 ratio and you'll be in good shape. Any lower, and that fat will spill right out of the patty and cause terrible flame-ups on your grill
Seasoning: Where Less is More
You should have seen me about 5 or 6 years ago. I was so stupid. I would put everything but the kitchen sink in the ground beef mixture so as to JAZZ UP the burgers. Salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, tabasco, worcestershire, ketchup. By the time we were through eating, we'd be belching up all those flavors the rest of the night. This was one lesson I learned quickly. After a few comments and complaints, I backed off on the seasonings and went to the basics. These days, I apply the same principle to my hamburgers that I apply to steaks: less is more. I use simple seasonings like salt and pepper, then let the grill, smoke, and meat quality do the rest of the work.
Just remember, you want people to taste the flavor of the meat, not wake up in the night with heartburn.
Hot and Heavy: Get all up in your grill
I'm proud to say that I don't have gas. That is, I use a charcoal grill. Period ... end of list. In the words of Alton Brown, "you just don't ever hear anyone waxing poetic about that 'great gas flavor'." And it's true. If you do use a gas grill, just make sure your grill grates get good and hot before you put the meat on.
For burgers, you will be grilling over the coals on direct heat. You need a hot grill, with hot, lubricated grates. Light enough coals to cover underneath the area where you will cook. Let them burn until they are covered with gray ash. Spread them out and then set your grill grate down to heat up. This will ensure your burgers get those nice grill marks that make everyone say, "Ooo, grilled food!" For my grill, it takes around 10 minutes for the grate to get hot. This may vary from grill to grill, since not all grates are made of the same material
After the grates are hot, scrape and clean off the leftover schmutz with an wire bristle bruch. Then lube up of the grate. You can do this with spray oil, or brush on vegetable oil. I like to use a rolled up paper towel dipped in canola oil.
Now slap on your burgers. The instant those babies hit, you should hear that sound that makes all grillmasters pee with glee ... "s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s!"
Wait a couple of minutes, then lift up the side of one of them. You should see those nice grill marks, and a nicely caramelized exterior. Flip them over when you think they're ready. This is one aspect that just takes time and experience to master. You have to get to know your grill, your grates, and the type of meat your are using.
While on the grill, you should only flip them once .... maybe twice if you are playing it safe. The experts say that flipping more than once increases the risk of contamination. I say B.S. that grill is so hot, there's no pathogen that can survive.
One final thing to note is this: Do not ... I repeat DO NOT take your spatula and mash down on the patties. I know ... I KNOW you may have seen this done on television or even in the back rooms of McDonald's or Burger King. Whatever you think you know about this act, you must forget. You must unlearn what you have learned. Just use your head for a sec. If you mash down on the burger, it makes this nice hissing noise on the fire, right? But what does that mean? It means you're expelling the fat and juice from the patty, which will dry it out.
No, don't mash it. You want all the juice to remain. It will make for a better burger experience.
And you need to have patience. I used to worry about burning them on one side. But it never happened. Just take it easy, drink a beer, play it cool, and cooke those discs of flesh to your desired amount of doneness.
After that, it's up to you to dress them up to your liking.
I hope these tips have helped you learn a little about perfecting that burger. Just keep these three points in mind. Good meat, keep it simple, and have a hot, lubricated grill.
Responses to "Making a Better Burger" ...
Also, don't press down. Causes flareups.
OHHHH! GREAT TIP! I will add that into the entry. Thanks GW.
Good thing I read this. I'm a certified burger masher. Okay thanks for that tip, I won't mash my burgers now!
This should be required reading for anyone that's going to step foot anywhere near a grill.
Nothing makes me more frustrated than being at a BBQ party and having to stand by idly and watch the host (or appointed grillmaster) turn perfectly good patties of ground chuck into dry, burnt masses roughly the size and shape of a tennis ball.
One thing I might add to this article is the importance of patty construction, namely the relationship between diameter and thickness. Obviously, peoples' preferences differ, but patties whose diameter is not sufficient for their thickness can result in the "tennis ball" effect, which is the main cause of the desire to "patty mash".
Great article; I'm going to start carrying copies in my car and discretely posting them on refrigerators and BBQ parties.