Burger school: tips, recipes, and secrets from the grilling experts

The ultimate hamburger. It's an elusive creation: the perfectly charred crust; the juicy interior with the ideal amount of fat; the full, beefy flavor. To help you get it just right, we consulted two guys who really know burgers: Steven Raichlen, host of Barbecue University on PBS, and Chris Schlesinger, coauthor of The Thrill of the Grill and How To Cook Meat. Read on for their secrets to producing perfect patties.

What cut of meat should I use?

The foundation of a hamburger is, of course, the meat. Different cuts have different amounts of fat and flavor:

Regular ground beef, a generic category that can be any cut or a combination of several, may by law have as much as 30 percent fat. This isn't necessarily a good thing, though -- the high percentage of fat can make the burgers greasy.

  • Ground chuck has about 20 percent fat.
  • Ground sirloin has about 15 percent fat.
  • Ground round has about 11 percent fat, making it a favorite of dieters, but producing less-juicy burgers.

Both Schlesinger and Raichlen recommend staying in the middle of the spectrum. "I like equal parts chuck and sirloin -- the former for flavor, the latter for finesse," says Raichlen. If you're buying preground beef, remember that fat can be trimmed or added during the grinding process -- always check the percentage on the label: 15 to 20 percent fat is ideal.

If you can, though, go for freshly ground meat. When beef is ground at processing plants, bacteria on the outside can end up mixed in, which means that the middle of the hamburger should be cooked through in order to kill any microbes. But when a fresh, whole cut of meat is ground to order by a butcher on a clean machine, there's less chance of contamination.

Should I add any seasonings?

Schlesinger and Raichlen are split on mix-ins. Schlesinger insists his burgers be plain, but Raichlen is open to variations. "Especially if you're going to cook the burgers medium or medium-well," he says, "it can help to add some fat to keep the meat moist." He favors "a pat of butter enfolded in the center" for plain burgers, or grated cheese mixed with the ground beef -- his version of a cheeseburger.

Any tips on forming the patties?

"Cold meat and cold, wet hands," says Raichlen. "Chill your hands under cold running water, then work as gently and quickly as possible so as not to bruise or heat the meat." Handling the meat delicately prevents the burgers from getting too dense and firm, and keeping it cold prevents the fat from melting, which would also make the burgers tougher. Both Schlesinger and Raichlen favor thick patties -- at least one inch thick -- so they can develop a seared crust on the outside while still staying pink on the inside. An additional step that's helpful, but not necessary, is to let the patties rest in the fridge for an hour after forming. This helps them stay together better on the grill.

To salt or not to salt?

"Absolutely," says Schlesinger. Salt is essential to bring out the flavor of the burger, plus it crusts deliciously when cooked over the fire. But if added too far ahead of cooking, it will draw out the juices, drying out the meat. Sprinkle salt and freshly ground pepper very heavily over both sides of the burgers just before you put them on the grill.

What's the best way to cook burgers?

Start with a clean, oiled, hot grill. "First sear them over high heat to develop a crust, then move them to a cooler part of the grill to cook," says Schlesinger. "And be sure not to press down on them while cooking -- this will only squeeze out the juices and dry them out." Neither he nor Raichlen recommends barbecue or steak sauces, which just cover up the flavor of a perfect burger.

How do I know when they're done?

Raichlen favors the poke test: "Medium-rare is softly yielding, medium is semifirm, well-done is firm." Schlesinger takes a visual approach, judging by the juices: "When they start to come out of the top of the burger, it's medium. When the juices that have oozed out of the top get cooked (stop looking red and become a bit more clear), it's medium-well." A combination of the two techniques would work well.

The Classic

Steven Raichlen shares his favorite burger recipe, adapted from Louis' Lunch in New Haven, CT, where they've been grilling them up since 1898.

The Ultimate Hamburger

Kid Favorites

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Grilled Mustard-Dill Burgers

Grilled Mustard-Dill Burgers

Open-Face Roquefort Burgers with Grilled Onions

Sun-Dried-Tomato Burgers with Balsamic-Glazed Onions


Beef and Andouille Burgers with Asiago Cheese

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Indonesian-Style Burgers with Peanut Sauce

Jamaican Jerk Burgers with Orange-Chipotle Mayonnaise

See a lineup of non-beef options here!


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