Hamburger 101: The Ultimate Guide to Hamburgers.
Hamburgers are the quintessential American food, to the point that if you google “American Food” your first 10 pictures will probably be hamburgers. I spent the last couple days bordering on a beef overdose as I experimented with different ways to make a burger for the sake of figuring out how to make the best burger. There is no “best way” to make a burger, it’s more about how you like your burger, and don’t let anyone tell you how to enjoy your burger. For sanity’s sake I decided before I set out on this, to not include toppings in this project, that would have made this endless. This was about the meat, and figuring out how to prepare the best burger meat possible.
There is alot to this whole post, I did my best to keep things organized but it’s not easy. I broke it down into three sections
- The Meat
- Cooking Methods
- Condiments/Buns/Sauces Etc.
A couple things to note that I want you to keep in mind before we even get started.
- Keep everything cold
- Flipping burgers does nothing to effect juiciness, that’s nonsense.
- Only salt meat immediately before cooking. Salting meat and letting it sit will give you a texture more like sausage than hamburger.
- Eat burgers the way you like them.
Part 1) The Meat
I can’t stress enough how much better it is to grind your own meat at home. If you’re going to buy meat at the store already ground make sure its at least 80/20 fat content, the leaner stuff will not taste as good. It may seem scary but seriously its really easy. I’ve never understood how the cheapest cut of beef at the grocery store can be around 5$ per pound but somehow by taking it, paying a guy to grind it up, it becomes cheaper and is now $3 a pound. You have no way of knowing what kind of meat is in your pre-ground meat, you have no way of knowing if its sterile, you have no way of knowing when it was ground. As if those paranoid conspiracy theory reasons weren’t enough the grinding process does tend to compress the meat making it of a lower quality, and by grinding your own meat you get to choose the cuts/ratios/whatnot that you put in it.
Alternatives to using a meat grinder
- Food processor – You will lose a bit of the fat in the process from smearing but its still better than store-bought.
- Hand Chopping – Yes its possible, yes its a giant pain in the ass, and from all accounts its probably the best method if you have the patience to sit there and hand chop meat into tiny morsels.
Getting to it…
What type of meat to use is a ever evolving science, and everyone will have a different opinion on it. Sirloin, Chuck, Skirt, Short Rib, Flap, Hangar, Brisket, Ox Tail, Round their is a long list of options, however most people will agree that Chuck is the go-to all encompassing best option, and personally I think the Rib-Steak cuts are the best. You want something nice and fatty. For your first time out get a Chuck steak or Short Rib cut and use that, as you get more familiar/comfortable feel free to venture out and try out your own blends.
Keep everything cold. Put the grinder in the freezer before using, and a nice pro-tip is to take two bowls, fill one with ice and water, then put the other bowl into that bowl. This will keep the bowl and its contents cold. Fat that warms up starts to smear, the more you handle the meat the more the proteins start to intermingle and bond with each-other. This will result in a denser less tender burger.
Slice your steaks up into roughly 1″ cubes, then start feeding them into the grinder. Just work your way through it all making sure to keep everything nice and cool.
Small tip, when you’re done you can hold the end of a long sheet of plastic wrap and run it through the grinder to push out all the meat and avoid wasting anything. The blades shouldn’t cut the plastic wrap.
There you have it, you have a nice bowl of fresh unhandled ground beef. Put it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it and do everything you can to avoid having to handle it. Don’t be that guy that spends all this time doing this then just smashes it into a container defeating the purpose, leave it loose.
Part 2) Cooking Methods
- Pan Seared and Smashed
- Grilled and Thick
Pan Seared and Smashed
- This burger is for people that love that crispy/flaky crust bordering on burnt. That grease-house style burger. (Maillard Reaction)
- The downside is that because of its thin nature is that its not for people that love a medium-rare burger, its difficult to get this technique down and maintain a perfectly pink center. Its doable, just not the preferred method if that’s the most important thing to you.
Smashing allows you to get the most char, golden brown, burnt goodness out of your burger while avoiding completely overcooking your burger.
You may be thinking “hey man, smashing the burger will squeeze all the juices out of it, that’s crazy”. The answer to that is yes and no, its the timing of the smash that matters. If you smash a burger within 30 seconds of it starting to cook the moisture loss is something like 1%, basically nothing, whereas smashing it 2-3 minutes into the cook process will cause around a 20% loss in moisture, a pretty hefty amount of juice. So the key to smashing is to do it at the beginning, not at the end.
First, make mounds of meat roughly 2″ high and 2″ wide. A ball if you will, but don’t put too much pressure on them and start mashing them around, remember we want to handle the meat as little as possible while still forming it into a shape, you’ll have to learn the balance.
Next up take a pan, add a little bit of oil, and get it screaming hot. Place your meat ball onto the pan and either using a spatula or a press or whatever you have on hand, press that thing down into the pan. I used a bacon press.
This is the time you want to season the meat, sprinkle salt/pepper (or whatever you’re using) onto the burger patty. Let it cook for about 90 seconds, then flip it over. Give it another 30 seconds for a more medium-medium/rare type burger. If you really want more char/golden crispness let it go as long as you want.
A nice golden brown/blackened crust should be what you end up with.
If adding cheese, add it after the first flip.
- This burger is for people that have alot going on and dont want to have to stand there watching the burgers. It’s also for the people that love the medium-rare style burger and are more after a perfect pink center. If having a perfect level of pink is what you’re after then this is the king.
- The downside is it takes a while, and can often lose that smokeyness that people love.
Ah yes the Sous Vide burger. Most people in the grilling/burger community will probably look at you and go “ew boiled burgers” which is stupid and gets me riled up but if you’ve spent any time reading this blog you know I love to Sous Vide just about anything and burgers are no different.
Usually when using an immersion cooker I will use the vacuum sealer but in this case we don’t want to compress the meat, so use a small ziplock back and use the immersion technique to get the air out of the bag.
About 1 hour before you’re ready to start cooking, 1/2 tsp of salt to the meat, lightly form it into a patty, and place into a bag. This one hour of salt time will help the salt start to bind the patty together so it doesn’t fall apart in the water.
Before dropping into the water, add 1 teaspoon of oil into the bag.
Choose your level of doneness, 129 degrees for medium rare, and let it cook for about 45 minutes. Once it is finished it will be a very unimpressive grey but the interior will be a glorious pink.
Now you have two options on how to proceed. You can go the epic route or the standard route. The epic route involves filling a pot with 1-2 inches of oil and deep frying the patty at 420 degrees. This option is amazing, yields an amazing crunchy crust, and I can’t say enough about it but it might be impractical for some.
The other option is to use a torch, and give the patty a quick sear to get some crunch/browning going on.
Right before serving you’ll want to put cheese on each slice and (from a distance) lightly torch them to melt.
Grilled and Thick
- The good thing is that it arguably develops the deepest char flavor and just tastes really good.
- The bad thing is that it requires a bit of management, and is easy to undercook/overcook.
The grill is a borderline art form because you really need to know your own grill, its heat, and where its hotspots are. First and foremost when forming your meat go ahead and make a patty that is a good 3/4-1″ high. Put your thumb in the center of the patty and give it a dimple, this will help avoid your burger having that weird over-inflated center and make it an oddly shaped burger.
You will want to set up your grill/charcoal setup in a way that has two areas, one with medium-high heat, and one with medium-low heat. First up you want to put your patty down on the hot area, give it a good sear, let it sear for 2 minutes and turn it 90 degrees. Give it another 2 minutes. This will give your burger a cross-hatch pattern and will also increase the amount of area with the char on it increasing flavor.
At this point flip the burger, but transfer it to the medium-low heat area. Let it cook for another 3-5 minutes, do the same 90 degree turn, and let it cook for another 3-5 minutes.
After that let it rest in a warm spot for around 10 minutes, add some cheese, and you’re golden.
Part 3) Buns, Sauces, Condiments and everything else.
First and foremost let me reiterate that the correct answer will always be WHATEVER YOU LIKE, these are just suggestions.
Personally if its a single-patty thinner burger I like the grocery store potato buns. Brioche is becoming extremely popular as well but for my money, my absolute favorite bun is just using the standard Ciabatta style sandwich rolls. They develop a nice crunch on the inside when you toast them and they have the integrity to stand up to a really thick/juicy burger without turning into mush.
When prepping a bun just give it a quick brushing with butter (can use oil as well, I just find butter to be better) and depending on what method you’re using either put it on the grill, put it under the broil setting of your oven, put it on a hot pan, whatever…just toast it.
An untoasted bun in a burger is a shame.
Feel free to put whatever you want on top of the burger. Cheese, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, fried onion rings, whatever. Its your world, do what you want.
Two suggestions that I highly recommend for sauce however.
Sauce 1 – Basic Fry Sauce
- 1 Tablespoon Mayonnaise
- 1/2 Tablespoon Ketchup
- 1/2 Teaspoon Relish
You’ll find fry sauce at just about any burger joint, its that pink sauce that seems to make its way on every burger. The standard base is always mayo+ketchup but I like to put alittle relish in mine.
Sauce 2 – Onion Mayo
- 1 Tablespoon Mayonnaise
- 1/4 Teaspoon Onion Powder
- 1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Juice
If you’ve ever eaten at Jack In The Box, you’ve had an ultimate cheeseburger with that strange gooey white-mayo that doesn’t taste like mayo and pairs perfectly with all that cheese, well this is just about as close as you’re going to get and I love this blend. It’s by far my favorite topping for burgers.
After all that talking you may be asking “well shit Dave what is YOUR favorite?”
For me this is probably the best.
1/2 pound patty, grilled to medium, 1 slice american 1 slice havarti cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, toasted ciabatta bun, and onion mayo,
Making me drool talking about it.
…aaaaand that’s it! All there is to know to make your perfect burger. I knew this would be quite the undertaking when I started, hopefully it made sense and was organized well.