How to: Five Commandments for Making Great Burgers at Home

We’re nearing August, and the whole northern hemisphere is well into prime grilling season. By this point, your grilling game is at its peak – you’re well seasoned, and so are you grates. You’ve been trying a few recipes you’ve never done before, learning how to better control your fire, so now it’s time to revisit a classic, and perfect the burger.   

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If you’re gonna go through the effort of making burgers at home, make them amazing. Here’s how:

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The key to fresh, juicy burgers? Use fresh, juicy meat. Stay away from prepackaged pounds of “hamburger,” and ask your butcher or the market’s meat counter to grind it fresh for you. It’s the exact same price as pre-ground meat, and you’ll be surprised by the flavor and texture boost. Plus, you can avoid any concerns of bacteria and fillers, because you know the only thing that went into your meat is meat.

Opt for a mix of 80% lean to 20% fat. This is easily accomplished by selecting a chuck roast, but don’t limit yourself to a single cut. Brisket, short ribs, and sirloin all deliver seriously beefy flavor, so just stick to the 80/20 rule, and you’re set. This ratio of chuck, brisket, and sirloin has become my standard, and I don’t see a reason to change anytime soon.

If you can: grind your own meat! Like, right before you make your burgers. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes. If you have a KitchenAid stand mixer, the meat grinding attachment is fantastic and affordable, and makes quick work of whole cuts. Just be sure to stash the meat and the grinder in the freezer for 10-20 minutes beforehand. If you don’t have a grinder, chop it! Grab two knives, a big cutting board, and go to town. You’ll love the unique texture, and you can bang out rhythms like you’re playing the drums.

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Equally important to the meat you choose is how you shape it. You want to use as light of a hand as possible, pressing the meat together only enough so that it maintains its shape. Mashing it together will make the burger tough, crumbly, and dry once cooked.

Your patty should be only thick enough so that you can get a proper char on the outside while cooking the inside just right, so everything stays juicy. The number two sin of backyard burgers (see number one below) are patties that are too thick. Size your patties to your bun, and then make them around 3/4″ thick. If you want more meat, use two patties, or better yet, eat another burger.

Lastly, season the patty, not the meat. Leave your garlic and onion powder and soy sauce out of it. These aren’t meatballs. Wait until you’ve formed the patties to add plenty of salt and finely ground pepper, as bigger chunks of pepper will burn. This helps to form a great crust on the outside. Then, finally, use your thumb to press a little divot into the center of each burger. Since they’ll plump up once they hit the heat, lowering the center helps the patty retain its shape. 

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As with most things, technique is just as important as the materials. First, make sure your grills grates are screaming hot and well-oiled to prevent sticking. This is especially important with a well-formed burger, since the meat is much looser, as described in step two. Build a medium-hot fire in charcoal grill, or heat your gas grill to high, and turn the burners down to medium once you’ve added the patties.

Lay them carefully on the hottest part of the grill, and then….wait. Don’t touch anything for 3-4 minutes. Just let them char until you see the juices start to form at the top. This means the bottom is seared and the water can’t escape through the underside any more. Flip them once, and whatever you do, avoid the number one sin in backyard burgers:

Don’t ever press on the patty with a spatula. Ever.

Sure, the sizzle may be satisfying, but that sizzle is actually escaping juiciness that belongs in your burger. If you want to test if the meat is done, use your fingers or a thermometer. 

Finally, transfer the burgers off the heat and let rest for four-five minutes before assembly.

Note: you can make amazing burgers without a grill. Diners and restaurants do it all the time. Opt for a screaming hot cast iron skillet or griddle, or a well-oiled stainless steel pan. They’ll still be delicious.

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A fantastic burger is all about the dance between the patty and the toppings, a delicate balance between flavor and texture. Here’s how to get it just right:

  • Cheese: Use American. Seriously. Unless you’re creating a specialty burger, this is always the best option for ooey gooey meltability. Avoid the pre-packaged plastic wrapped slices and get fresh American from the deli counter. Or better yet, make your own. Add the cheese about two minutes before you take them off the grill.
  • Lettuce:  Opt for a mild lettuce, like butter lettuce or the classic crunchy iceberg. If you’re worried about it sliding off, do what restaurants do and chop it into strips.
  • Tomato: Burger season is tomato season, so embrace your good luck. Opt for a meatier, less watery heirloom tomato that packs in the fruity flavor.
  • Onion: I maintain onions are an essential ingredient to the perfect burger. Don’t be afraid…you’re not a kid anymore. They provide a crunch that’s the perfect match to the soft bun and patty. The flavor is strong, but it’s hidden under the sweet and salty flavors of the rest of the toppings. If you just can’t stand raw onion, you can rinse whole slices under cold water for about 20-30 seconds, which gets rid of the strong bite. If they’re still too strong, steam the onions on top of the burger while cooking, or in a small pan of water on the grill grates.
  • Pickles: While you’re the market, grab some fresh deli pickles from the counter or barrel, or at least the crunchier, refrigerated jarred brands. Slice them into quarter inch rounds, and use liberally.
  • Condiments: I love the magic that happens when sweet ketchup melds with tangy mustard and mellowing mayo. Mix some up ahead of time, or spread them about on your bun and let it happen naturally. It will.

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The bread is just as important as the meat. Choose larger buns that can support an appropriately sized patty and all the toppings. My vote is for fresh potato buns. If you can find them, Martin’s are amazing, but only available in certain parts of the country (and not where I live…) Check out your market’s bakery section rather than the bread aisle. You’ll find much better options there.

Do toast them on the grill, but just enough. You don’t want them to snap when you bite into them, just….sizzle a little. 20-30 seconds is usually enough, and toasting helps keep the juices in the middle and not make the bun soggy. And if you buttered them a bit afterwards, no one here is going to judge you.

What are you favorite tips and tricks for making great burgers? Share your ideas and recipes in the comments below.