I’ve finally been to enough backyard “barbecues” where burger patties the size of half dollars are served up and I have to take six bites of bun and condiments to ever get to the beefy goodness of the burger. If you’re going to press and grill your own hamburgers, there are some fundamentals you should have permanently engrained in your grill master repertoire. I’ve been guilty of assuming that most of these would be common knowledge, and I have been proven wrong time and time again.
Fatty ground beef makes the best burger. If you want a good burger, get ground beef (sirloin, chuck, what-have-you) with 15-20% fat content. Fat is the binder and provides all of that juicy, flavorful burger goodness. Fat is what allows you to form your burger patties so they don’t fall apart when you put them on the grill. If you find yourself with only the extra lean stuff in your fridge, you’ll need to add some kind of binder. In the past I’ve used bacon fat, butter or an egg.
I’ve found that the pre-wrapped, long shelf life “tubes” of ground beef just aren’t good for much beyond dehydrating for beef jerky or for tacos where the seasoning is going to mask most, if not all of the flavor anyhow. I buy the stuff that the grocer’s butcher grinds in the store. For you Austinites, Newflower Market has the most flavorful ground beef in my opinion. Even better: get to know the folks at your local meat market (I’m guilty of not doing this).
You know those 1/4 lb. 100% Certified Black Angus (you could probably omit the “g”) burgers on the menus at TGIFridays, Chili’s, Applebee’s, etc? Look at the fine print: “Weight before cooking”. A burger is going to lose a lot of its weight in the cooking process in the form of water in the meat protein and the fat that drips off. You probably lose 10-25% of the weight and size of your burger patty by the time you pull it off the grill. Compensate for that when forming your raw patties. When I press burgers, I make a 1/2 lb. raw beef patty.
When forming your burger patties, make them BIG. One of my culinary pet peeves is getting an itty bitty burger patty lost in a bunch of bun and lettuce. By the time I’m done chowing through hamburger buns to get to the patty, I don’t even want the meaty burger anymore. Form your patties 10-20% larger than your buns. I usually press them down to about 3/4″
Much like the gravitational pull of the earth, when a hamburger patty loses weight in the form of moisture, the patty gravitates toward its own center; meaning that the patty gets smaller in circumference. When you’re done cooking your burger patty, it should be the same size (if not slightly larger) than the circumference of the hamburger bun on which it’s going to sit.
If you can, grill on wood or coal. If you have a gas grill, get a little smoker box to infuse some smokey flavors. And don’t pay for wood if you don’t have to. Go out into your yard (or go for a walk) and snap off a couple twigs from an oak or hickory tree. You’re not wanting to smoke your burgers, just hit them with a little flavor. It makes a big difference if you only have a gas grill.
Throw your burgers on the grill, directly over high heat and remember the order on which you put them on the grill. I always use the left to right, top to bottom method (start at the far left of the grill and move to the right and then down a row repeating left to right — like reading a book). Let the burgers get kissed by the flames. Close the lid. Let them smoke up a bit, but keep close so you don’t start a grease fire or scorch your burgers. Let them sit on one side until you see the moisture pooling up on the top sides of the patties and you see that the undersides have a good sear. Flip your patties. This is when you should start getting some good flames licking up. The fat will now be healthily dripping off of your patties and onto the burners below. That white smoke that’s billowing up is what the American Dream smells like. It’s what makes your neighbors stop in their tracks, take a deep breath and say, “Awww man, that smells goooood! Somebody’s grillin’!”
If there’s not grease popping off your burgers and flames shooting up around the patties, firmly press down on the patties with your spatula. That will release lots of grease from the burgers and down onto the burners. Then you’ll see the flames and smoke and the smell that can only mean that you’re doing some serious burger grilling!
I won’t turn down a pink burger, but in my book, the only burger is a done burger. If your patties have a 15-20% fat content, they’ll be plenty juicy if they’re grey in the middle after being cooked. The easiest way to tell if a burger’s done is to take your index finger and gently but firmly press it into the center of the patty. Use your face (and your clean finger) as a gauge:
Nose: medium rare
When the center of the burger has the same “give” as my chin does when I press on it, I start pulling burgers off the grill. Keep in mind that meat continues to cook after you take it off the grill. Meat should also rest for a few minutes after being cooked. Remember that gravitation pull thing? While the meat is being subjected to extremely high temperatures, a lot of the moisture is being pulled into the center of the patty. As the meat begins to cool, the proteins begin to relax and the moisture is released and distributed throughout the patty again.
Raw or undercooked ground beef is a breeding ground for bacteria. Ground beef is just that – ground up beef. That means that the surface areas of the beef (that have been exposed to bacteria) are mixed in with the rest of the meat, so bacteria lives in and among the center parts of the patties. A steak, on the otherhand, is a cut of beef where only the outsides of the steak have been exposed to surface areas and bacteria, hence it being okay to eat a rare cut of beef so long as the edges have been seared to kill off the bacteria.
I like my burgers on a toasted sesame seed bun with mayonnaise, mustard, onion, sliced dill pickles, lettuce and jalapenos. How you eat yours is up to you. And I’m always open for an invite for a good burger!