Memorial Day kicked off the unofficial start of grilling season here in the US of A, which no doubt means many of you are going to be pattying up some hamburgers over the next few months. A good burger is a thing to take pride in and a little extra attention will help get it just right.

(photo courtesy of SeoulBrother)

Start with the meat. We usually experience ground beef encased in styrofoam and cellophane wrapping, which introduces a whole host of problems. Unless the cut is specified (usually “ground chuck”), this beef comes from the trimmings of other cuts and is bound to be inconsistent. Pre-wrapped beef is labeled as “lean” or “extra lean”, meaning a fat content of around 9-12%, but a good burger should be more in the 15-20% fat range.

More worrisome than a dry burger, though, is the rare though very serious concern about e. coli. This nasty bug is a common cause of food poisoning and made more prevalent by mass-produced meat ground up who-knows-where. E. coli is a bacteria that lives on the surface of meat, and since grinding steak trimmings into burger increases the amount of surface area exponentially, it makes sense to make sure your meat is ground safely and not before being loaded into a truck and driven all over creation.

The easiest way to do that is to ask your butcher to grind it for you, which they’re usually happy to do. But what kind of meat should you grind? Traditionally, chuck roast makes good hamburger with the right balance of meat and fat and a flavor you’ll recognize. If you want a meatier burger, go for a steak like a sirloin, though it’ll be a little less fatty and therefore drier.

I’ve been experimenting with a mixed approach, combining about 50% chuck with 25% brisket and short rib for a rich, meaty burger (I stole the mixed meat idea from New York butcher Pat LaFrieda, who sells bespoke burger mixes to places like the storied Shake Shack). Traditionalists will insist on beef burgers, but lamb, pork, turkey and even duck are fantastic ground and grilled — the Lunchbox Laboratory here in Seattle sells duck/pork burger called The Dork that calls to my nerdy heart.

If you’re feeling particularly DIY, there’s nothing stopping you from grinding the meat yourself. Don’t have a meat grinder? A food processor will work just fine if you cut your meat into 1-inch cubes and pulse instead of letting it run full tilt. A few one-second pulses should be plenty; you’re not making pâté. The result will be different than what you’re used to - more chopped than ground - but it will patty up just fine and no one will know the difference once they take a bite.

I like to season mine with nothing more than kosher salt and pepper, and I like to do it before I form the patties. I usually sprinkle enough salt to dust the top, add a few fine grinds of pepper, then mix gently with my hands and repeat one more time. You are more than welcome to add any variety of seasonings, such as ketchup and mustard, an egg, chili powder, fresh herbs, onions, or worcestershire sauce, though too much and your burger starts to resemble meat loaf. When I’m using good quality meat, freshly ground, I like to let it stand on its own.

Then there’s the pattying. It’s important to try to make sure each burger is about the same size so that they’ll all cook equally. Six ounces per burger is usually perfect, though eight ounces is a little easier to measure out by sight — two burgers for every pound of meat. (A scale is really handy here.) Once the meat’s measured, it’s important not to work it too much and certainly don’t press it into something resembling a pancake or one of those frozen pucks that fast food joints use. The meat should just hold together with the final patty about 3/4 of an inch thick.

Here’s a trick that will make you the star of the grill — put a dimple in the middle of your patty. Just press your thumb about a quarter of the way into the top of your burgers and reshape as necessary. This will keep your burgers from ending up like little UFOs as they cook 1.

Medium high heat is just about perfect for burgers — for charcoal, start the coals in a chimney, let them burn until they’re dusted in gray ash, then spread an even layer in your grill. You should be able to hold your hand over the grill for 2-3 seconds. Let the burgers cook for 3-4 minutes, then flip and cook for another 4-5 minutes for medium rare. I find that only flipping once reduces the number of flare ups and keeps the burgers moist and flavorful. Whatever you do, do not press down on the burger with your spatula.

If you like cheese on your burger (who doesn’t?) add it in the last 30 seconds so it just melts. If you can keep your swarming guests at bay, let the burgers rest for a few minutes before digging in. Toast the rolls right on the grill for 30 seconds to keep them from turning to mush.

Condiments are up to you. Here again, I prefer to keep it simple — a thick slice of red onion that’s been grilled for a few minutes to cut back the bite, heirloom tomatoes when in season, crisp butter lettuce or fresh-from-the-window-box arugula for a little more spice, crunchy pickles and a smear of dijon. I’m told some even add ketchup or bottled barbecue sauce but you’re no doubt above such philistinism. You know what to drink with this: a cold beer, preferably from a cooler, fetched by someone who appreciates how much smoke your eyes have endured.

Neven’s Notes:

Jim’s advice is right on the money here. Regarding that thing where people press the burger into the grill - you’ve seen this in movies, now please unsee it. Pressing will merely dry out your burger and make it likelier to stick; it certainly won’t make it cook any faster. Putting down the grill cover will do that. If your grill has a built-in thermometer, you can check this - opening it constantly is the fastest way to lose heat (which, I should add, is not always a bad thing.)

As for the bun, the traditional view is that the perfect hamburger bun stays fluffy until the moment you press it with your fingers, at which point it should deflate into an easily mouthable flat with all the flavor of its formerly tall self. Supermarket buns usually aren’t great, but their spongy softness is a desirable feature. If your particular burger fits a ciabatta roll, go for it; I’m just saying the soft, moist kind of burger Jim writes about will do best on something fluffy and compressive. If you can find a brioche bun, give it a try - everything’s better with more egg and butter.

  1. You may have noticed that patties tend to bulge in the middle when you cook them — that’s because the burger cooks from the outside in and as it cooks, it shrinks. The meat in the middle cooks a little less than the outside, which is what leads to the wobbly shape. Your indentation will solve this problem once and for all!