So one of the most common questions I get from my readers is “How do you make a really good burger!?”
You would think that good burgers would be simplicity itself, it’s meat on bread, but so many people get it so wrong, even restaurants. It would seem that the art of the burger has been lost on most of the world with many consumers relying on premade patties, most often of the frozen variety… ugh, disgusting.
Listed below are the do’s and don’ts for making great, kickass burgers, and trust me, once you’ve made you’re own the right way you’ll never buy premade patties again! Hell, you probably won’t even bother buying them out at restaurants anymore either.
Where’s the beef?
Obviously, the most important part of any burger is the meat. While you don’t need to go crazy getting ground Kobe, Wagu or tenderloin, good meat is key. Ideally I prefer to get my ground beef from a butcher, but in a pinch I do have a supermarket nearby that sells quality product. If you can get your hands on ground brisket or sirloin, fantastic, but quality ground chuck will serve the purpose as well.
Fat is your friend.
Besides quality there is one other key aspect of the meat necessary for a good burger… Fat. Yes, your meat needs to have fat if you want a tender, juicy, delicious burger. When buying ground beef you’ll see on the butcher’s tag, or on the supermarket label, two numbers shown like this: ##/##. These numbers signify the ratio of meat to fat. For a truly kickass burger meats that are 93/7, 90/10 and 85/15 need not apply. 80/20 is the absolute least meat/fat ratio that you should get, but if you can get your hands on 75/25 or 70/30 you’re in even better shape. Ok, maybe not better “shape” per se, but the burger will taste better… lol.
Why is fat so important? Two reasons. First of all, fat is necessary to keep meat tender. When you grill or sear burgers, the fat starts to render off and drip out of the meat. The higher your fat content, the more you’ll be able to retain and have a moist end product. Secondly, fat holds tons of flavor, and who doesn’t want more flavor!? Let’s face it, if you’re eating a burger then you’ve already thrown your diet out the window for that day, so you might as well enjoy it!
DO NOT… sorry, didn’t mean to yell. Do not overwork your meat.
A very common mistake among people that make their own patties is overworking the meat. What does “working the meat” mean? That’s when you’re mixing together your meat by hand. If you mix it too much, i.e. “overwork it”, then it will take on a gummy texture when cooked, almost like meatloaf. No bueno. If you’re adding seasoning or items into the meat itself and need to mix it together, do it gently and work it as little as possible. If you’re not, simply take the meat, roll it into a ball in your hand, press it down into a patty shape then gently press down the sides to secure the structure.
Size DOES matter!
I know, I know, for some things in life size doesn’t matter (at least that’s what they say), but with burgers it most definitely does. If you’re burgers are too small or too thin, then they will cook that much faster and lose fat more easily, and will easily overcook. I personally don’t make my burgers smaller than 6oz (1/3lb), but more often than not my burgers range between 8-10oz. This allows me to get a good crust on the outside of the burger to seal in the juices, without immediately overcooking the center.
Seasoning, seasoning, seasoning…
Just like life, food needs spice… without it, it’s just blah. Too many people make the mistake of not seasoning their burgers, and relying on the toppings to create flavor. I toss seasoning directly into my hamburger mixture, but as I said above you have to be careful not to work it too much. For this reason most people form their patties and then season the outsides, which is fine as well. As far as what seasonings to use, obviously salt and pepper are a must, but the rest depends on what flavor profile you’re going for. Do you want to spice it up with some chipotle, wasabi powder or red pepper flakes? Or maybe some garlic powder and paprika? It’s all up to you, but for God’s sake whatever you do make sure you SEASON YOUR MEAT!
Also don’t be afraid to mix ingredients into the meat itself. I often add chopped jalapeno, scallion, roasted mushroom, etc. right into the burger mixture. Just make sure that whatever you add is either something that is safe to eat raw (since the middle won’t cook through), or if it can’t be that you’ve pre-cooked it. One of my absolute favorite things to do is precook bacon and mix it in for the ultimate bacon cheeseburger. Bacon inside, bacon on top… win/win!
Don’t be a Scrooge.
Huh? Where did we suddenly take a left turn into the world of “A Christmas Carol”!?!?
What I’m trying to say is don’t be cheap, don’t skimp. If you’re following my directions thus far then you have some pretty good meat and seasonings, why ruin it with cheap bread, cheap cheese, cheap toppings? If you want a kickass burger, you need kickass ingredients all the way around. DO NOT put your burgers on Wonder Bread buns. DO NOT use Oscar Meyer bacon. DO NOT use crappy American cheese… etc. etc. etc. Your kickass burger needs kickass bread. Kaiser buns, onion bread, focaccia, ya know, the good stuff. Making a bacon cheeseburger? Don’t use crappy cheap bacon. Get some nice thick cut manly, meaty, I dare my heart to seize bacon! Putting cheese on there? Don’t use Kraft singles. Get some good sharp cheddar or provolone, Manchego, brie… anything that screams melt me!
I think you get the picture.
Have fun with it!
Everybody is more than willing to play around with rubs and marinades on their steaks, chicken, ribs, you name it… but burgers are lucky to get salt and pepper. What!? Have fun, mess around, get crazy. One of my favorite burgers of all time had soy, chopped scallion, red pepper flake and ginger mixed into the meat for an Asian style, and it was delicious! Do you like Teriyaki steaks? BBQ chicken? Why not a burger the same way? Burgers are not meant to be boring. They are one of the ultimate blank canvases in the world of food, take advantage of that fact.
It’s gettin’ hot in here…
No, I’m not Nelly telling you to take off your clothes, unless you want to of course… but when it comes to burgers heat is definitely your friend. You need some high heat to get those outsides charred and that juicy flavor sealed in. If you’re cooking on the grill then I recommend no less than 450 degrees. If you’re searing them in a sauté pan get it on high heat with a little oil in there. For grilling I typically get some char on both sides, then turn off the grill and put on the cheese and shut the lid for a minute or two to let it melt. If you try to melt the cheese while the heat is still heavy on the burger chances are you’re going to overcook the meat.
Think of burgers as the exact opposite of ribs. Ribs you want low and slow to break down the meat… Burgers are already broken down and tender, so hot and fast is the way to go!
The cow is already dead!
My ultimate pet peeve is when people cook their burgers (or any meat for that matter) medium-well/well. I fail to see the point. At that stage you’ve lost all fat, all texture, all flavor. What you’re left with is a flavorless hockey puck. The cow is already dead people, you don’t need to kill it again.
One of my favorite overheard conversations of all time is the following… and shockingly the waiter was not fired, and the customer left extremely satisfied.
Waiter: “Miss, how would you like your burger cooked?”
Woman: “Well done.”, as she hands him the menu.
The waiter pauses… then hands the menu back to the woman.
Woman: “I don’t understand, why are you giving me the menu back?”
Waiter: “Ma’am, do yourself a favor. If you want a well done burger just chew on the menu, it’ll taste the same and save you $12.”
The woman and her female friend gasp, the two husbands quietly try to suppress their laughs… moments of silence pass.
Woman: “Well, how do YOU think I should have it cooked!?!?”, somewhat angrily, somewhat curious.
Waiter: “Medium at the most, but ideally medium rare.”
Woman: “The only way I’ve ever eaten meat before was well done, I don’t know… That’s how I was raised.”
Waiter: “Trust me, you’ll thank me later.”
Needless to say, she ordered her burger medium rare and could not stop thanking the waiter after the fact. She gushed on how it was the best meat she’d ever had and how she would never order well done again. I was absolutely in shock. When I was a waiter I had always wanted to say things like that to people but never had the guts being that I needed to keep my job, but here this guy pulled it off and not only got away with it, but converted this woman to the path of righteousness! Bravo!
Burgers should be cooked absolutely no more than medium, and medium-rare is ideal. If you’re worried about the health ramifications, just stop. As long as you’re eating quality meat then the risk of getting sick is negligible in the extreme. The only reason that places like T.G.I.Fridays and other chains won’t cook meat below medium well is because they’re sourcing their beef from the cheapest provider they can find and can’t guarantee the quality of the product. Every year there are more E. Coli infections from raw vegetables than from undercooked meat. When’s the last time you cooked a bell pepper to a black husk before eating it? Exactly. You shouldn’t do it to your meat either.
So that’s it, the guide on how to cook a kickass burger. Hopefully you find what I’ve written useful and you’ll make use of it… especially those of you that cook your burgers until they’re culinary hockey pucks. And please, please, please STOP buying frozen hamburger patties!
As always, more content coming soon. In the meantime eat a medium rare burger and wash it down with a beer or a big red. Life is short, enjoy it!