What’s more American than grilling hamburgers? Hamburgers and hot dogs are the whole reason they put grills in public parks, in my opinion. Burgers and hot dogs are the whole reason we show up to the stadium 6 hours before the game (well, and beer I guess…). We discussed hot dogs the other day, so I wanted to step back and talk about how to grill hamburgers the right way. You see, hamburgers may seem easy to make, but I have choked down far too many dried out and burnt disks of beef than I care to remember. It’s time we did something about it, it’s time we take a stand, it’s time for me to stop complaining about it and start educating the masses! So let’s get down to it and talk about best practices for grilling hamburgers.
Like many other grilling recipes, people just need to slow down and pay attention to details and technique to achieve burger grilling deliciousness. Here are what I consider to be the key factors in hamburger perfection.
- Choose the right meat. Here’s a newsflash, fat tastes good! That may not be too PC, but it’s true. You know that last burger you had at the restaurant, the one you said “man, my hamburgers never taste this good”. I would bet my squirt bottle that the main reason theirs was better is that you feel guilty buying anything other than “lean” ground beef. Quit fighting it, fat is delicious! Need another reason, ok, we are in tough times and fatty meat is cheaper. There, doesn’t the desire to save money seem to dull the desire to eat healthy? I recommend ground chuck or ground sirloin for a good fatty ground beef. Check the label and ask your butcher, you want about 20% fat or so. Most serious hamburger junkies swear that grounding your own meat is the way to go. Sounds hard, right? If you have a food processor, it really isn’t. Start with some boneless (duh) chuck with the fat still intact, cut it into strips and ground in the food processor in small batches. Is it worth all of the effort? Personally, I don’t think so if you have access to great beef. If you live in the wilderness, probably, but you probably don’t have a food processor either. I’ll do a taste test one day to finally prove whether or not people can tell the difference…
- Use high heat and cook them fast! Like most thin meat products, it’s best to apply high and direct heat to your hamburger and cook it as fast as possible. Leave the lid open, crank up the heat and don’t cook them too long or they will dry out.
- Be gentle with that meat! Most people really pack the patties tight and then flatten them down too much. A loosely packed patty makes for a juicy hamburger! If you pack your hamburger patties too tight, you run the risk of drying out the meat and making them tough. The only thing I am going to recommend you do to that patty is make an indention, but we’ll talk about that in a bit…
- Don’t “squish”! PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE don’t EVER flatten or squish your burgers with a spatula while they are grilling. You might as well pick it up with your hands and squeeze out all of the juices. Why do people usually feel the need to do that? Because the burgers usually inflate or bloat in the middle during grilling, we’ll talk about how to prevent that if you stick with me below…
- Flip only once! As meat cooks, the heat pushes the juices away from the heat source. To achieve a juicy burger, you only want to flip the burgers once so that you don’t disrupt those juices any more than necessary. Most people ask, how long do you cook hamburgers on a grill? The short answer is “not too long” :). The real answer varies, based on the grill and the thickness of the hamburger, but one thing that does hold true is only flip once! We’ll answer the “how long” question in a bit, your meat will tell you when if you know what to look for. But for now, resist the temptation to keep flipping, please!
- Don’t skimp on buns. Why would you go through all of this trouble to learn how to make a better burger and then serve them between some bad buns? I like to go with french hamburger buns from my grocery store’s bakery.
So that is the very high level break down of the reasons why most people screw up a perfectly good hunk of ground beef. Let’s walk through making the perfect hamburger step by step.
Directions for making the Perfect Hamburger
- Get the grill going. Go ahead and light the grill and set it up for direct grilling over high heat.
- Divide your ground beef into equal portions, based on how many patties you are going to make. You want to end up with about a tennis ball sized portion of ground beef.
- Now gently form each divided portion of ground beef into a tennis ball like shape. Don’t overdue it, don’t squeeze it, just get it into shape.
- Once you have your ground beef balls, gently flatten each ball to make your patty.
- Now here is a secret. You have probably experienced the “bloat” phenomenon I mentioned above that makes most inexperienced grill masters try to flatten that patty during grilling. To lessen the bloat, simply use your thumb and create an indention in the middle of the patty before you put it on the grill. It doesn’t have to be too dramatic, just a little indention like you see in the photo above.
- For seasoning, I also suggest that you don’t over-think this one. Sure, there are many variations to the typical burger that will knock you off your lounge chair, but you’ve got to walk before you run! Once you can cook a decent, simple burger, I give you permission to get crazy, but let’s master this basic burger first. I personally think that adding onions or other veggies to your meat classifies as meatloaf, not hamburgers, but that’s just me (and besides, meatloaf is good as well!). Keep it simple for now, a little Kosher salt, some fresh ground black pepper and perhaps a little garlic powder and you are good to go, just gently rub the seasoning into your patties. Note that I can’t seem to resist filling depressions or voids in meats, so you will see some Worcestershire sauce in the indention in this photo, I give you permission to do that if you must :)…
- Ok, the fire is lit, your meat hasn’t been worked over too hard (other than a dent in the top) and you lightly seasoned your ground beef. Carry those bad boys out and slide them onto the hottest part of the grill. Our goal here is to sear the outside of the hamburger to form a great crust, while keeping the insides nice and juicy. Take note of what time you put them on the grill so you can time this exercise.
- After about 5 or 6 minutes (again, it’s hard to say how long it will take to cook a hamburger on your grill, but you’ll know after a few attempts), you should start seeing juices starting to collecting on the top of your burger. I like to call this burger sweat (doesn’t it look like it?). This is a sure sign that the meat is cooking through in the middle, which pushes the juices to the top.
- Flip the burgers over and grill for 1 – 2 minutes shorter than the time it took to start seeing the juices (about 3 – 4 minutes should do the trick for medium, but again, it depends on the grill). Not trying to scare you, but if you have seen any of the information on ground beef, you know that more than one cow went into making your burger meat. Therefore, it is imperative that you cook the meat thoroughly (just in case). The USDA recommends 160 degrees for all ground meat. Don’t take a chance, use a good instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen (the best!) and check the USDA’s latest recommendations. If you are an iPhone owner, check out our free MeatTemps app to look up the correct internal temps for meat. If you are making cheeseburgers, now is the time to slap the cheese on and close the lid just long enough to melt the cheese.
- Remove the burgers from the grill and let them sit for about 5 minutes while you toast a few buns on the grill!
That’s it, that’s all you have to do to cook the perfect hamburgers on a grill. Simple, juicy and delicious! Again, your times will vary based on your grill and how you like your burgers. One more thing I forgot to mention. Most of the time we Americans eat hamburgers, it’s usually at a time that you aren’t really expecting good food. Kid’s parties, get-togethers, tailgating, etc. My point is, people probably won’t even notice the amount of effort you went through to perfect your burgers. But when you are centering your perfect tailgate or potluck sign up around this protein, you want to put your best foot forward and know you did your best. So relish (get it?) those little comments like “I wish my hamburgers were this good” and have pride that you know why there’s aren’t!