For something you can get at just about any backyard cookout, a good burger can actually be pretty hard to find.
A burger done right can be a juicy, smoky, perfectly fatty and delectable experience. A burger done wrong can be rendered tasteless, dry, and just about inedible.
I gave up long ago trying to cook burgers. I’d get the leanest meat I could find and massage it thoroughly into smooth, fat patties. I’d drench a pyramid of coals with plenty of lighter fluid. Once the fire was nice and hot, I’d put the burgers on the grill, mash them hard with a metal spatula, and flip them a couple of times until they looked more or less browned on both sides. Then I would slap them on a plate and cut into them only to find they were still red in the center.
So I’d put them back on the grill and poke at them with a fork to make sure they were getting done. As grease dribbled out, hitting the coals and making flames leap up, I’d grab my nearby spray bottle, pump it a few times, and watch the fire subside into a soft cloud of wet, gray smoke. And then I would serve the burgers.
In other words, I did everything wrong.
[Related: How To Love Going Vegan]
So this week I reached out to a couple of local meat mavens who have close to 100 years of cookery experience between them.
Dan “The Pigman” Huntley set me straight about the meat. “Start with a good ratio of lean to fat, at least 80/20; if you dare, 75/25. Coarse ground sirloin if you can afford it, but ground chuck will suffice,” he said. Much of the meat we buy is the lean 93/7 blend. Lower fat produces a drier burger.
Next he explained how my zeal in making the patties was problematic and divulged a pro-tip from a chef friend. “The secret to a moist burger is to handle the meat as little as possible. Lightly roll it into a ball and gently mash it with your spatula. The more nooks and crannies you have, the more surface area you have and it’s less likely to dry out.”
Any good griller learns you have to wait for the flames to die down before the coals are ready. Spread them out evenly and when they look ready, wait some more. I was too impatient.
Home griller Kevin Soden adds salt and pepper but stays away from fancy ingredients. He warned me about over-handling a burger while cooking: “If you squish it down too much, you lose a lot of the juices.” It’s better to start out with a thinner, more even patty than a fat one. “Like a steak, you don’t want to constantly test or cut into it.” (He’s a physician so I trust his judgment on when to cut or not to cut into things.)
An average burger should take about four minutes per side to cook. Flip it once. The internal temperature should reach 160 degrees.
Soden lets his burgers “rest” for a couple minutes to help retain the juices before serving them to his family. They like onion rolls with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and homemade slaw atop the burger.
Like lots of families, the Sodens have tried the meatless burgers that are becoming popular, but they aren’t likely to replace the originals on the household menu. We talked recently here at WFAEats about the rising popularity of vegan foods, but the chasm between “real” and “fake” burgers is still huge.
People are passionate about their burgers and what goes into them. In fact, the Plant Based Foods Association is one group pushing back against a 2019 law in Mississippi that “prohibits companies from using meat terminology when selling vegetarian and vegan products.”
While that controversy sizzles, let’s agree that food you can form into a patty, cook, and serve on bread or with condiments is a burger, okay? That means we can buy (or make our own) burgers from turkey, tofu, pork, lamb, shrimp, soy, beans, grains, and a newish ingredient: “pea protein isolates.” Each of these products has different cooking requirements. Some are surprisingly good and others are…well, not. One brand has an equal number of 5-star and 1-star reviews.
And that’s what’s fun about burgers. Purists can keep it simple and refuse to use anything beyond the basics. Adventurers can grind, blend, season, and serve their own creations. That means my old family recipe for salmon patties actually qualifies for burger designation. They’re easy to cook on a hot, cast-iron skillet and really delicious when served with homemade tartar sauce or lemon wedges, and that makes me happy. Even better, there’s absolutely no lighter fluid required.
Amy Roger writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food scene in and around Charlotte.