15 Tips from Chefs on Creating the Perfect Burgers
It may seem easy enough to fire up the grill and make some burgers, but there are several things to consider before attempting to create that perfect burger, which comes down to the quality of meat, temperature, the type of buns, and toppings. In celebration of National Burger Day, here are 15 pro tips from restaurant and Food Network chefs on what to do (and perhaps as importantly, what not to do) in attempting that perfect burger.
1. USE HIGH-QUALITY MEATS.
Chef Tony Chu thinks texture is important. “Blending different grades of ground beef influences the burger’s texture,” he told Charleston Eater. “Too fine and the burger will feel like beef pâté. Too rough and the burger will look like a meatloaf. From my experience, brisket, short rib, and chuck are a good start to the perfect burger.”
2. GRIND YOUR OWN MEAT.
Chef Nathan Thurston of Charleston’s Thurston Southern recommends grinding your own meat at home because you don’t know exactly what you’re buying from the store. He says to grind a mixture of ground chuck, brisket, and boneless short rib.
Serious Eats’s chief culinary consultant J. Kenji López-Alt’s motto is, “Once you grind, you never rewind.” He recommends an electric meat grinder or a food processor to grind the meats. “Just dice your meat into one-inch chunks, spread them on a rimmed baking sheet, put them in the freezer for about 15 minutes until they’re firm but not frozen, then working in 1/2-pound batches, pulse the meat to the desired grind size (about 10 to 12 one-second pulses),” he writes.
3. ROLL THE MEAT INTO A SAUSAGE-LIKE TUBE, AND KEEP THE MEAT COOL.
Chef Heston Blumenthal of Bray, Berkshire, England’s three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck did scientific research on how to make the perfect burger, and he found that rolling the ground beef into a tube with all the grains of meat facing the same direction worked well to create a juicy burger. After forming the meat tube, he covers it with plastic wrap and refrigerates it for half an hour, then slices the meat into patties the way a sushi chef would.
4. THE FAT TO LEAN RATIO SHOULD BE 80 TO 20.
According to chef Jonathan Waxman of Barbuto NYC, 80 to 20 is the perfect ratio for leanness (80 percent) and fat content (20 percent). Executive chef Josh Keeler of Charleston’s 492 suggests not to overpack a burger or make it too dense. “I think you need to have air in your patties and a really nice crust,” he told Charleston Eater. But if you happen to like more fat in your burger, New York City-based Delmonico's chef Billy Oliva says to use a 76 to 24 ratio, resulting in a “juicier, more flavorful patty.”
5. THUMB-PRESS THE PATTIES BEFORE COOKING.
Burger maestro Bobby Flay—who has written several books on grilling—says once you shape the patties, use your thumb to make an indentation in the center of each burger. “This does two things,” Flay says. “One, it prevents flying saucer-shaped burgers—you know the ones I am talking about: all puffed up and bulging in the center. As the meat cooks and expands, the depression magically disappears, leaving you with beautifully shaped and cooked burgers.” The thumb-press also prevents the burger from shrinking up.
6. SUBSTITUTE A SKILLET FOR A GRILL.
You don’t necessarily have to use an outdoor grill to get a charred burger. The Chew host Michael Symon suggests using a skillet. “A grill is too difficult,” he told The New York Times. “A hot skillet is what you want.” Flay also prefers a skillet. “My favorite way to cook a burger indoors is on cast iron, either in a skillet or grill pan, or on a griddle,” he has said.
7. ONLY SEASON THE OUTSIDE OF THE MEAT.
According to Symon, it is best not to season the inside of the burger. Use only salt and pepper, and you can salt the meat before placing it on the grill. “You’re going to need more salt than you instinctively think,” Symon says. “There’s nothing wrong with salting the meat right before putting it on the grill, but what makes a burger extra juicy is when you season it ahead of time, giving it a minimum of two hours or a maximum of 12 hours.”
8. MAKE A THINNER PATTY.
The average burger is about six to seven ounces, but the larger the patty, the more you start to get into meatball territory. Nate Whiting of Charleston's Ristorante Juliet suggests cobbling together thinner patties, around five ounces. “To me, a great burger should have an equal amount of crumble and stability,” he told Charleston Eater. “Meaning, it should hold together enough to allow you to cook them correctly.”
9. DO NOT PRESS DOWN ON THE PATTIES WHILE COOKING THEM.
The meat should be handled as little as possible, so if you take a spatula and press down on it, the juices will spew out. "It drives me crazy when people push the burger down," Eric LeVine of New Jersey’s Paragon Tap & Table and Morris Tap & Grill says. "Pushing down on the burger presses out all the natural juices. Then people ask why their burgers were so dried out."
10. BUTTER THE BUN.
The bun should always be toasted and buttered. Symon recommends a softer bun—he suggests buttering a challah or brioche roll and then putting it on the grill. Waxman agrees, but he also suggests buttering the bun a bit more after you grill it. “People are always like, ‘what’s that flavor?’” he says.
11. YOU CAN FLIP THE BURGER MORE THAN ONCE.
It may seem counterintuitive to flip a patty several times while cooking it, but López-Alt says it’s okay to flip a burger a lot. “Flipping your burger repeatedly (as often as once every 15 seconds) encourages faster, more even internal cooking, shaving off as much as 1/3 of your grill time,” he writes. Blumenthal flips his burgers every 20 or 30 seconds. His reasoning for this: “It drives a much more even temperature through the meat.”
12. SQUEEZE THE SIDES OF THE PATTY TO MEASURE DONENESS.
Trying to determine if a burger is done cooking? Whatever you do: Don’t cut into the patty to check if it’s done. Chef Ken Wiss of Diner and Marlow & Sons suggests squeezing the sides of the patty, not the top. The sides should “show some springy resistance for medium-rare,” he says. You can also use a cooking thermometer to detect doneness—130°F is an ideal temperature for a medium-rare burger (pink and warm), while 150°F is good for medium-well.
13. MAKE SURE TO MELT THE CHEESE ALL THE WAY.
“Most people don’t melt the cheese enough,” Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef and owner of NYC’s National Bar and Dining Rooms, tells The New York Times. “You want a curtain of cheese to enrobe the meat. The rennet in it really adds a lot of flavor.”
Waxman explained to the Daily Meal how to properly melt the cheese. Using a grill with a cover, grill one side of the patty, flip it, and quickly place the cheese on top. Cover the grill so it’ll melt. He also suggests using grated cheese, as it melts better than sliced cheese. “You can always put a clump of grated cheese on top of the middle of the burger so it melts out, otherwise a slab will just melt out and over the burger onto the grill,” he says.
14. LET THE MEAT REST.
Once you remove the patty from the grill or the griddle, let it cool for at least five minutes on a cooling rack. This method gives the burger more time to cook on the inside. “It also lets the juices on the exterior redistribute within the patty, allowing for maximum juiciness when you take that first bite,” Oliva said.
15. USE CRISP LETTUCE AND MEATY TOMATOES.
“Tomato always goes on top of the burger and lettuce needs to always be underneath so it can catch some of the juices from going through the bun,” Symon told Epicurious. Crisp lettuce, like bibb, is best. Chu sings the praises of using San Marzano tomatoes. “The meaty tomato, which grows on the volcano ash in Italy, brings moderate acidity and prolongs the lingering taste of the burger,” he told Charleston Eater. “Balance the tomato with a leaf of Boston lettuce.” But for those seeking a more unusual topping, LeVine likes kimchi. “Its acidity really helps cut through the fat of the burger and adds a nice contrast,” he said.
All images via iStock.