Now that it's prime grilling season, you've probably been flipping burgers in your backyard for weeks. But have you really mastered how to grill a perfect hamburger – one that's packed with flavor and oozing with juiciness?
It's surprising how many of us just wing it, assuming that we know what it takes to cook this quintessential American dish, but then turn out mediocre burgers.
James Beard, the legendary authority on American food, wrote in "American Cookery" that "the hamburger is the delight of outdoor cooks, who, as often as not, maltreat it." But at its best, he adds, "It is an excellent dish, not to be regarded with condescension."
So how can denizens of the backyard barbecue move from maltreatment to excellence? First, it helps to hear from experts. One might assume the techniques for a great burger would vary wildly among chefs or involve complicated steps. But chefs agree on many tips – and they are surprisingly simple.
Choosing a top-quality burger meat is essential. While some chefs opt for sirloin, top round, more extravagant Kobe beef, or a mixture of meats, most prefer freshly ground chuck. A meat-to-fat ratio of 80-to-20 is ideal. Any less fat would create a dry burger; any more would make it mushy.
"It might seem obvious, but you must use the freshest meat you can find," says Chris Schlesinger, co-author of cookbooks like "The Thrill of the Grill" and "How to Cook Meat" and owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass. "Without fresh meat," he adds, "it's impossible to make a great-tasting burger."
For this reason, Eric Bogardus, executive chef at Vox Populi, a stylish American bistro in Boston's Back Bay, insists on daily deliveries of freshly ground chuck.
Freshly ground meat is the only way to go, concurs Emile Castillo, chef at Le Parker Meridien Hotel in New York. He suggests home cooks ask their butcher to grind the meat to the proper texture.
"Beef for burgers should be coarsely, not finely, ground," he says. "Otherwise, it will be too dense." (He even goes so far as to specify that the grind for his burgers be 1/16th of an inch.)
When shaping patties, Mr. Castillo says it's important not only for the meat to be cold, but for the cook's hands to be cold, too. "It's important to wash your hands in very cold water before molding the meat," he says. "That way, the fat in the beef won't melt and turn into soggy burgers."
For those who don't want to use their hands, Castillo suggests using a patty mold, widely available in kitchen stores. It helps make evenly sized, flat-topped patties, which means burgers cook consistently. But by all means, he says, don't use an ice-cream scoop – the thickness of your patties could vary too much. Finally, he advises, don't overwork the meat because it will dry it out.
Some people forget that burger patties shrink a little when they're cooked, says Chef Bogardus. That's why he shapes his burgers into large disks that are about 1/2-inch thick, 4 inches in diameter, and a whopping 10 ounces in weight.
Mr. Schlesinger prefers not to make uniformly shaped burgers. The shape, he says, depends on preference.
"I like them rare in the center," he says, "so, for medium-rare, I would make them slightly rounded on top. For a more cooked burger, I'd make a flatter patty."
'Less is more'
If you start with top-quality beef, these chefs insist there's no need to embellish the meat with special seasonings, minced onion, bread crumbs, or other add-ins. The old adage that "less is more," is one they embrace.
But they don't hold back on good-quality salt (preferably kosher) and freshly ground black pepper, which simply enhance the beef's natural flavors. It's best to salt meat at the last minute, just before grilling, says Castillo. Salting any earlier will only dry out the meat.
"Cooking a burger properly is the hardest thing about making a burger," says Schlesinger. "Chefs hate cooking burgers since they're used to touching things for doneness that are more contiguous."
When he's cooking for friends at home, Schlesinger might commit what he calls "an act of heresy": He cuts into his own burger to check it out. He jokingly calls it the "nick, peek, and cheat method."
At his restaurant, he might do the same. "If our grill cook just got the tuna sent back, you can believe he'll be checking the next couple ones," he says.
The cooking time is key, of course. To achieve a medium-rare burger on a medium-hot grill, Castillo says, about 3 to 4 minutes per side should be just right. For medium, 5 to 6 minutes, and for well-done, aim for 7 minutes, he suggests.
Bogardus agrees. "On a medium-hot grill, which is best, I can pretty much guarantee that 3 to 4 minutes per side is perfect for medium rare, even with a 10-ounce burger."
Those bubbles and juices oozing out of the burger also hint at doneness. "For a medium-rare burger," says Castillo, "turn it after you see those first droppings of juice." For medium, wait until the juices turn brown.
Some chefs may "nick, peek, and cheat" while others watch the clock. But ask them about the amateur practice of pressing burgers with a spatula while cooking, and you'll hear unanimous outcry. "That's just criminal," shrieks Schlesinger. It's the fastest route to a dry burger.
If you're adding cheese, put it on the burger about two minutes before the meat is done. That way, the cheese will melt just enough.
Once again, the quality of ingredients comes into play. Steer clear of processed, sliced cheeses and go for premium, flavorful ones. At Vox Populi, for instance, Bogardus serves his much-loved burger with aged Vermont cheddar. While he refuses to jazz up the freshly ground chuck in his burgers, he doesn't hold back on fixings, which include smoked bacon and thinly sliced red onions with sliced tomatoes and Romaine lettuce on the side.
"For four years," he says, "I've kept this burger on my menu, and almost everyone wants it just this way."
But when he's at home, Bogardus prefers simpler adornment, adding a spoonful of caramelized onions and a dollop of Dijon mustard. He grills a white bun just slightly to give it a little crunch. "The best thing about a burger," says Bogardus, is that "there are a million different things you can do with it."
But Schlesinger couldn't be bothered. "I like my burger like that Jimmy Buffett song 'Cheeseburger in Paradise,' " he says of Buffett's description: "with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes."