In recent years burgers have moved up from just being fast food faire to ultra chic and hip with top chefs creating all kinds of exotically flavored and constructed burgers including using outrageously expensive Kobe or Wagyu beef, stuffing them with Foie gras, wild mushrooms, truffles, the meat from braised short ribs or beef cheeks and more. I confess I’m one who likes mine in a simpler vein.
First we should probably define what a Burger or Hamburger is and where they came from. It all begin with a little history. According to Alan Davidson in his wonderful encyclopedic book The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford University Press 1999), the word “hamburger” has a relatively short history and first showed up in print around 1890. Cooked, flavored patties of meat however date a long way back and appear in many cuisines. It’s thought that the port of Hamburg in Germany and its Hamburg Steak, enjoyed by sailors there who introduced it to others in their travels, is probably the birth place for burgers as we know them today. Their fate was sealed when”hamburgers” served in a bun were introduced at the St. Louis World Fair of 1904 and the rest is history as they say!
Here are some of my tips for making a great burger.
6 Secrets for a Great Grilled Beef Burger
1. The right meat and fat content is critical. I prefer ground sirloin or chuck with 15 to 20 % fat. The old axiom “fat is flavor” really applies here and fat is also what keeps the meat juicy. More fat however doesn’t necessarily make it better. I’ve tried burgers made with 25 and 30% fat and though delicious and juicy, at the end they left a greasy mouth feel. Ideally meat should be freshly ground and if you have a store with a kind butcher ask him or her to do that for you. Alternately you can grind your own.
2. Mix in whatever seasonings you are using very gently. Like pie dough, the more you handle the meat the tougher your burger. Loosely mix to incorporate seasonings and the gently but firmly form the patties. Wetting your hands will help too to prevent them from getting sticky and helps the meat to come together faster.
3. Make patties a little thinner in the center. I shoot for something like 1 inch on the edges and about 3/4 inch in the center. As the meat shrinks during cooking they’ll even out and the meat also will cook more evenly.
4. Keep the patties cold until you are ready to grill them. This keeps the fat firm and helps it stay in the meat adding flavor and juice which is what we are aiming for.
5. Cook on relatively high heat. Obviously make sure your grill is hot, clean and well oiled to prevent the burgers from sticking. Remember too that the hood is your friend. Open the vents so that the fire stays hot but put the lid on while cooking. This provides an even heat and takes advantage of the convection of the heat rising and circulating around the meat. Note: I’m in favor of grilling as opposed to cooking beef burgers in a pan. If you don’t want to fire up your grill however, a ridged grill pan on your stove top is an acceptable alternative.
6. Turn the burgers just once. Resist the temptation to constantly turn them. The more you turn the more you are likely to toughen and dry out the meat. Also if you turn too soon the burgers are more likely to stick to the grill. Never press on the burgers while they are cooking. The juices you squeeze out are where the flavor and moisture is.