Making a Great Burger!

In last week’s Cooking Tip, I discussed how to understand ground beef labeling and what would be best for the dish you will be making. Since burgers are one of the main reasons that people buy ground beef, in this Cooking Tip, I would like to give you some advice on cooking that perfect burger.

As we learned in the prior Cooking Tip, you will want to use either ground chuck or a mixture of ground chuck and ground sirloin for your burgers. If you cannot find that in the store, opt for a ground beef with at least 20% fat (labeled as 80/20). The next step is seasoning that meat so it tastes even better. For a classic burger, all you will need is salt and pepper. But, when do you salt the meat? Does it make a difference?

Cooks Illustrated is a proponent of salting the meat before shaping it into patties. They recommend putting the meat in a bowl, gently breaking it up, adding 1 teaspoon table salt for 1½# of meat and then gently mixing it in as you shape them into patties.

A contrary view is voiced by SeriousEats.com. One of their staff did a testing of this. They salted burgers in three ways: seasoned only on the exterior just before cooking, seasoned by tossing the ground meat with salt (like Cooks Illustrated recommends), and seasoning the meat by salting cubes of beef and then grinding it yourself. They used 1 teaspoon kosher salt (equivalent to ½ teaspoon table salt) per 5-oz patty. Other than the salt difference, the burgers were all treated the same.

What they discovered was salting the burgers right before cooking led to the best burger with a loose, tender, open structure. They found this result meant the burger breaks down into small pieces in your mouth while still allowing the burger to hold onto juices. Salting ahead of time caused the burgers to be more sausage-like with a tighter and bouncy texture. If you want to read the entire study, here is the link.

Here are some things that everyone (almost) agrees with:

  • Don’t overwork the meat as you will end up with dense and rubbery burgers.
  • Shape your patty a bit wider than the bun. Then, make a shallow indentation in the center of the patty before cooking. This helps to prevent your burger expanding into a large ball. One caveat, this step is less necessary if you are pan-frying them rather than grilling or broiling.
  • Don’t overcook. This may be a bit controversial for food safety reasons. According to the USDA, ground beef should be cooked to 160°.   If you are sure about the safety of your ground beef, others recommend the following internal temperatures, checked with a food thermometer. (This is my favorite and one of the best on the market.)
    • Rare – 120°
    • Medium-rare – 125-130°
    • Medium – 135-140°
    • Medium-well – 145-160°
    • Well-done – 160 and up°
  • Keep your ground meat cold until right before forming the patties. You do not want the fat to start melting before cooking.

Once they are on the grill or in the pan, another debate occurs. Many say that you should only flip them once and never press down on them as it squeezes out flavorful juices. Or, as my husband likes to quip, “What has that burger ever done to you to treat it like that?”

Once again, SeriousEats.com begs to disagree. Their testing showed that gently flipping the burgers as often as every 15 seconds resulted in a quicker and more even internal cooking. They found this decreased the cooking time about 1/3.

Once your burger is cooked, you can make it your own by your choice of bun, sauce and toppings. What is your favorite burger? Let me know and have a wonderful Labor Day Weekend!