The Burger Deluxe
A step-by-step guide to reaching hamburger perfection, whether starting with ground beef or grinding it yourself
Experts have homed in on the humble patty as the key to making the ultimate burger. Chefs swear by their secret proportions of muscle mixtures, which often comprise meat from the chuck, short ribs, brisket, skirt, and sirloin, but can also include the knuckle and other less familiar cuts in the steer. But what if you want to make a simple, delicious burger with meat from your local market? What follows are general guidelines for getting to the perfect patty.
Chuck All the Way
For the home cook, the best beef for hamburgers comes from the chuck, the large shoulder section in the forequarter of the steer that happens to have a good proportion of muscle to fat. Fat equals flavor, and many experts will tell you that the juiciest, most flavorful burgers are made from chuck that is at least 20 percent fat.
If your store doesn't carry that proportion, don't be shy about asking for it. If fat percentages aren't listed, use your eyes: The more speckled with white the ground meat is, the more fat it contains. Also: When buying pre-ground chuck, hunt for packages whose sell-by date is the furthest on the calendar-as with most raw ingredients, the fresher the better.
The chuck's other advantage? According to Antonio Mata, Ph.D, a meat scientist and creator of a cut called the Vegas Strip Steak (for which Mata is honored on Fast Company's 2013 list of The 100 Most Creative People in Business), chuck contains more of a particular type of connective tissue that melts into rich gelatinous juices when submitted to the dry heat of a grill, and less of the more complex connective tissues that require slow, moist cooking in order for them to dissolve into gelatin.
Grind It Once
The industrial grinding process overworks ground meat because it's ground twice, first coarse and then fine, creating a texture that's almost pasty at times. Your best bet is to select a well-marbled boneless chuck steak with a good amount of fat around the outer edge, and ask the meat department to grind it for you. Be firm that you want the meat ground once, not twice, and if you like a more chunky texture, with a satisfying chew, ask for it to be ground coarse. If you want to try grinding your own burger meat, see our easy grinding guidelines and recipe.
See more: Mac & Cheese: The 3 Best Store-Bought Options
Season Just Before Grilling
Overworking ground meat makes it tough, so a gentle hand is key. For this reason, we recommend seasoning the meat after you form your burgers. Divide the ground meat into mounds-we think a 6-ounce burger is a good size-and gently form each into a 4-inch-diameter, 3/4-inch-thick patty. (For even cooking, even cooking, the thickness matters more than the width-it shouldn't be thicker than 3/4 inch so it can cook through.) Chill the formed burgers on a wax paper-lined plate, covered, until ready to grill.
Once the grill is hot, oil one side of each burger then season the oiled side with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place the burger on the grill, oiled and seasoned side down, then just before flipping it over, season the other side. Of course, there are many recipes that call for seasoning the meat beforehand with salt, pepper, and spices, as well as other ingredients like raw or sautéed onions, or chopped chipotles. In that case, distribute the additions as evenly as possible over the ground meat first then incorporate them as gently as possible.
Keep It Flat
Use your thumb to make a depression in the center of one side of the burger to help keep the surface level while it cooks and to keep it from puffing up. After grilling, a slight indentation may remain where the initial dip was made, but your burger will be essentially flat.
Oil the Meat, Not the Grill
There is debate among grill professionals about whether it's better to oil the hot grill grates or to lightly oil the food to keep it from sticking. When you rub the hot grill rack with an oil-soaked towel or cloth, the oil tends to burn off immediately. In our own burger experiments, a light coating of vegetable oil on the side of the burger hitting the grill first proved to be the best method for preventing sticking. If your meat is on the lean side, you might want to lightly brush the other side with oil before turning it over.
Press Your Shirt, Not Your Burger
When grilling, refrain from pressing on the meat with your spatula. You want to keep those delicious meat juices inside the patty. Resist checking the underside of your burgers every minute to see if they're browned yet and just let the burgers be-they need time to create their crust. Remember that because you didn't pack your burgers into shape, they are going to be a bit more delicate, so the less movement you subject them to, the better.
Be Direct with Medium Heat
For the home cook, grilling a burger should be an easy, stress-free process. There are plenty of intriguing, more complicated ways to cook hamburgers on the grill, and if you have the time and inclination to explore other options, you could well end up with a fabulous burger. Still, we prefer a simple straightforward approach and recommend grilling burgers over direct heat, using medium-hot charcoal or medium heat on a gas grill. High heat chars the outside of the burger before the center has had a chance to cook, whereas medium allows the burger to cook through while still developing a delicious browned crust. If your grill tends to run hot, consider lowering the heat to medium-low. And don't forget to cover the grill (charcoal or gas) while the burgers are cooking.
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Take Your Burger's Temperature
The only way to ensure that each burger is cooked to the United States Department of Agriculture's recommended temperature of 160°F is to use an instant-read thermometer, preferably a digital one. According to Meathead Goldwyn (his preferred name), creator of AmazingRibs.com and author of the forthcoming book, The Science of Barbecue and Grilling, a high-quality digital thermometer is an essential piece of equipment for anyone who grills. High-end digital versions like the ones chefs use can register a temperature in three seconds, but excellent affordable digital thermometers take only six seconds. You can't judge doneness by appearance because different cuts of beef when ground and cooked to the same temperature will vary in color.
To Rest or Not to Rest
Many grilling guides recommend letting hot-off-the-grill burgers rest a few minutes, so the juices can redistribute more evenly throughout the patty. Others maintain that resting allows for carryover cooking time, which is the reasoning behind those who cook their burgers to 155°F with the assumption that the meat will rise to the USDA's recommended 160°F after a few minutes. But there's plenty of debate on the matter. Dr. Mata maintains that there is no carryover cooking with something like a burger and Goldwyn's research shows that resting has no real impact on juiciness. Whatever you choose to believe, you can count on the fact that it will take a few minutes to transfer cooked hamburgers to buns, serve them up, and wait for everyone to add their favorite condiments. By the time the first bites are taken, the burgers will have had the equivalent of a brief rest.
The Burger Deluxe
makes 4 servings
Ingredients: 1 1/2 pounds ground beef chuck (20% fat), 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, 4 slices American cheese, 4 potato rolls (such as Martin's or Oroweat)
Preparation: Divide meat into 4 equal portions (about 6 ounces each). Place 1 portion on a work surface. Cup your hands around the meat and begin to gently shape it into a rounded mound. (Use light pressure as you shape so you don't pack the meat too tightly.) Lightly press down on the top of the meat with your palm to gently flatten it. Continue rotating and cupping the meat, patting the top of it occasionally, until you've formed a 4"-diameter, 3/4"-thick patty. Using your thumb, make a small indentation in the center to help keep the burger flat as it cooks. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with remaining portions.
Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to high. Season one side of patties with salt and pepper; place on grill, seasoned side down. Grill until lightly charred on bottom, about 4 minutes. Season other side, turn, and top with cheese. Grill to desired doneness, about 4 minutes longer for medium. Transfer burgers to buns and let stand for 3 minutes before serving.
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