05/10/12

How to Grill a Perfect Hamburger

Perfect grilled hamburgers

A bit of trivia: According to “The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, by John Mariani, one of the first known mentions of a “hamburg steak” in print was in 1884 in the “Boston Evening Journal.” The term “hamburger” appeared on a New York Delmonico’s restaurant menu which was believed to have been printed in 1834. In Mrs. Rorer’s New Cook Book (1902), the hamburg steak is described as beef put twice through a meat grinder and mixed with onion and pepper.

You may not know this, but in my “other life”, Chefs Terry, Chris, and I do a lot of bbq. Our team, Burnin’ Love BBQ throws down on the grill for a hundred or more hungry customers  pretty regularly.

I write a grilling column for Kenmore’s, “Grilling is Happiness” blog, as well.

So, it should come as no surprise, that with the sun shining, and my stomach growling, I’m thinkin’ about the grill today…specifically, I’m thinkin’ about burgers!

Who doesn’t love a good burger? There’s nothing like a thick, beefy, juicy hamburger cooked over the fire to make you turn your back on cardboard peddling drive-thru clowns forever.

Still, like anything else, there’s a right way and a wrong way (several actually) to grill a perfect hamburger, and doing it the wrong way can make a day-old Whopper seem like filet mignon.

Here are, in my opinion, the 5 most important tips for turning your ground cow into hamburger heaven.

First, let’s look at…

Fat, cold, and anti-social.

No, I’m not talking about your high school prom date…I’m talking about three key elements to making a great burger, before it ever hits the grill –

1. Fat

Fat is flavor, we know this. Fatty meat produces a juicier patty than lean meat. Lean ground beef is flavorless cardboard. You need a good 20-30% fat for the best flavor.

You can’t have a good medium well burger with 90 lean meat, you need the fat to give you juiciness and flavor at those temps.

Fyi…for an out of this world 80/20 beef, try grinding your own using a whole packer brisket. Not only in the flavor amazing…it’s cheaper than store-bought ground beef!

2. Cold

Warm meat = melted fat = dry beef = grilled hockey puck.

’nuff said.

Also, after you’ve formed your patties, salt them generously on both sides (just try it!), and put them back in the fridge to cool down again for 30 to 45 minutes.

Also, if you’re grinding your own, try keeping the grinder accessories for your KitchenAid (or whatever grinder you use) in the freezer until ready to use…you’ll notice a difference in the quality of your burger, I guarantee it.

3. Anti-Social

Think of your ground beef as that wild-eyed guy at the bus stop, who’s pacing and muttering to himself. As much as possible, do the smart thing…leave it alone.

Working the meat unduly will cause proteins to cross-link with each other like tiny strips of velcro, making your finished burgers denser and tighter with every manhandling of the grind.

Personally, I like to take an untouched “haystack” of ground beef, and use a ‘burger press’ (here’s my current favorite). Just gently load with a loose mound of ground beef, and press it softly until the burger is just formed. You want it to be just-about-to-fall-apart loose – to yield the juiciest results.

Like the Pointer Sisters, your burger “wants a lover with an easy touch.”


COOKING & SERVING

How to grill a hamburger

4. Give it to ’em HOT!

The hotter the better. You want to sear or char the meat really quickly so you have nice crust, color, and grill flavor.

Speaking of flavor, I like to toss some oak wood chips on my coals for added smoke flavor. Make sure to add them near, but not directly under your burgers (the flare-up zone). Also, before putting on your burgers, make sure the coals are completely gray, otherwise you risk grease flames, and the meat will scorch on the outside (yuck).

Cooking on a bbq chimneyHere’s a trick: If you’re just cooking one or two burger patties, just toss a grill grate over your charcoal chimney! A chimney that’s 3/4 full of glowing coals produces a volcanic amount of heat, and that kind of temperature does amazing things for burgers and steaks.

For more on this, see my postSearing steaks on a charcoal chimney“.

5. Cook until not quite to your liking, and then let it rest.

Like any grilled meat, you want to cook your hamburger patty to just shy of your desired outcome, and let “hold-over cooking” take it the rest of the way.

Personally, I like to use an instant-read thermometer. Note: if your burger patty is too thin to use a thermometer…your burger patty is too thin.

Here’s a rough temperature guide:

* 120°F and below for rare (red/raw in the center)
* 130°F for medium-rare (pink and warm – this is my burger, baby!)
* 140°F for medium (totally pink, starting to dry out)
* 150°F for medium-well (grayish pink, significantly drier)
* 160°F and above for well done (completely gray, very little moisture. What I like to call…”ruined”)

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After you take it off the heat, let the burger rest and redistribute its juices for two to three minutes, just like you would a steak. This way it won’t gush out all its juices at the first bite.

One more thing – it ain’t about the “stuff”…or maybe it is.

My wife’s perfect burger requires a bib, a pack of napkins, and maybe a drop cloth.

I know another guy who insists that a “real” hamburger is ruined if you add anything but a toasted bun (he’s an odd duck…but DO toast the bun, it makes a world of difference!). Me? It really depends on what I’m in the mood for…some cold, crisp lettuce and sliced garden tomatoes, a slice of American of cheddar cheese, and maybe a little horseradish sauce are hard to beat, as is a gooey layer of swiss cheese and sauteed mushrooms. (Here’s one of our favorites, the “Fully Awe-some” Burger.)

It’s true, a good burger doesn’t NEED anything to make it better, but since when is it about NEED?

Bottom line: Don’t let anyone tell you who you have to vote for…don’t let anyone tell you where you have to go to church…and don’t let anyone tell you what you should and shouldn’t put on your burger.

Try these tips for grilling a perfect hamburger, and then c’mon back and tell us what you think!

Happy Grillin’!

Chef Perry
BurninLoveBBQ