Happy National Hamburger Month! In honor of this made-up celebration of all things burger, let's get to the meat of the matter. When the weather is nice -- usually sunny, but let's be honest about where we live and include mildly foggy -- it's time to grill. And although you can get fancy on your Weber, nothing is easier or more satisfying to cook outside than an all-beef burger (unless of course you're vegetarian, in which case this post isn't for you). Plus after a winter of braises and stews, nothing inaugurates summer like a perfectly grilled burger sitting on a fluffy bun.
But not all hamburgers are made equally. There is an enormous difference between handmade burgers and the patties you find in a grocery store freezer section, which are really nothing short of inferior-grade beef hockey pucks. Plus making truly fine burgers takes only about five to ten minutes longer than preparing the frozen variety (depending on if you grind your own meat), and the time spent is well worth it. And if you're still not convinced, you can read this great piece in the New York Times called Anatomy of a Burger which details the process meat corporations go through to produce their ground meat. Just saying...
Please note that this article has nothing to do with turkey, lamb or pork burgers, and there are no discussions on toppings or condiments. No, our attention here is solely on beef patties: how to make, season and cook them. That's all. So with that in mind, let's now focus on how making a great burger is really a fairly plain and simple endeavor. Here are 10 helpful tips to keep in mind:
10 Tips for Making Great Hamburgers
1. Purchase the best meat possible. Burgers are really all about the meat, so don't skimp. Buy the best quality beef you can find. I'm not taking about filet mignon here. Rather I mean the quality of the overall beef instead of the cut. No shock to anyone who knows me, I prefer grass-fed organic beef, preferably raised locally. Environmental and health reasons aside, grass-fed beef has a more intense meaty flavor than corn-fed commercially produced meat and can stand up to the condiments you'll add later. Yes there is a price difference, but we're talking about ground beef here so instead of paying $3.99 a pound you may pay $6.99 or $7.99 a pound, which will feed a family of four. Not a bad price.
2. If you have a meat grinder then by all means take it out of the storage closet. Use a mix of sirloin and chuck. If you don't have one then be sure to purchase high-quality ground meat from the type of place where the butchers actually grind the meat on the premises and know which cuts are used.
3. Use meat that has about 15 - 20% fat (that's 80 - 85% lean on the label). Fat equals flavor in a burger. It also prevents the meat from drying out on the grill. If you want a leaner meal, then you probably shouldn't be eating a hamburger.
4. Don't include extraneous ingredients. Avoid eggs, bread crumbs and anything else that will detract from the beef flavor. These ingredients are for meatloaf, which is a fine dish but isn't a burger.
5. Keep the seasonings simple so the taste of the beef shines through. I use only salt, pepper, Worcestershire Sauce and a little onion or shallot. You can also add some chopped herbs, Dijon mustard or onion powder. And if your meat seems a little dry, add in about 1 Tbsp heavy cream for a pound of meat to add richness.
6. Don't over handle the meat as doing so toughens the burger. The meat doesn't need to be compressed into a patty for it to hold together.
7. Shape thin patties. When you cook meat, it contracts in on itself, so thickly-shaped burgers end up resembling meatballs. It's better to include two thin patties on your sandwich then one chunky burger that is unevenly cooked. You should also make your burgers a little wider than your bun as the patty will shrink in size when you cook it.
8. Press a little dimple into the center of the burger to keep it from bulging out when you cook it. As mentioned earlier, meat shrinks when it cooks and so the center has a tendency to swell in the middle. Indenting will counteract this.
9. Grill with the cover on at medium-high heat. Do not overcook. We usually barbecue our burgers for about three minutes per side for medium-rare meat and four to five minutes per side for burgers that are cooked through for the kids.
10. Don't press on your burgers while grilling them. I really can't stress this enough. If you press on your patties with a spatula you are pushing all the juices out and you're going to end up with dry burgers.
That's it. Easy right? Now if only we can convince Mother Nature to give us a sunny summer.