10 Tips for Better Burgers

By admin | September 15, 2011

This one is for the carnivores and it may seem like odd timing, coming at the end of the summer. But I’ve been on a slider kick lately (sliders are mini-burgers). Mostly because I’ve discovered you can make burgers that are 50% grated/chopped veggies and 50% lean protein (turkey etc) and the kids will devour them. (In all transparency, I’m NOT hiding veggies in the burgers, b/c I think kids should KNOW what they’re eating and they should LEARN that veggies are good. So when I make them, I divulge we’re eating turkey/veggie sliders and The Kidlet has seen and even helped me grate zucchini and carrots to go in them.) I’ll post the recipe separately b/c I want to get to some other points.

In doing sliders as a demo, I realize quite a few folks don’t know how to treat meat. And now I see why people make hockey pucks instead of juicy homemade burgers, golf balls instead of fork-tender meatballs, and door stops instead of succulent meatloaf.

If this sounds like you, here are a couple of tips that will hopefully amend your relationship w/ ground meat.

1. Meat = Muscle. If you overwork it, it gets tough. Makes sense when you put it that way, right? So combine all the ingredients you plan to use EXCEPT the ground meat, then mix it in last and handle it as minimally as possible. OR if you have time, mix it up, form your patties/meatballs, then let it rest in the fridge for 20 minutes before you cook them.

2. For even cooking of a patty, form a divot by pressing your thumb in the center of the patty. By making the center slightly thinner than the edges, the cooking time for the entire burger will be about even.

3. Get your sear on! For maximum flavor, and to help hold your burger together, you want to get a nice sear on the outside. Sear does not mean burnt crust, so don’t get carried away. But you do what a hot pan or grill to start, and once you put your burger on the grill, LEAVE IT ALONE. Do not move it for at least 4 minutes. That’s about the minimum time you need for a hot pan/grill to sear one side of a reasonably sized burger. If you’re making monster burgers you may need some more time.

4. DO NOT MASH YOUR MEAT. Under NO circumstances is that acceptable. When you take that spatula and mash your meat, where do the juices go? OUT. Instant dry burger. Boo. Waste of meat, time, and charcoal. The #1 mistake most home cooks make is they “mess with their food” while its cooking. There’s all this poking and prodding, mixing and stirring, moving and mashing going on. Once the food hits the pan/grill your job is pretty much done. Let the heat do what it does best: cook. Mashing your burger is especially detrimental if you’re using a lean protein like ground chicken, turkey, pork. Or even salmon burgers. There’s not much fat or moisture to start with, and when you mash it, you almost guarantee a tough dry burger. Leave it alone.

5. Flip once. This kind of revisits #4 with that “mess with your food” thing. If you get a good sear on, there’s no need to keep flipping your burger. They’re like pancakes, really, in that they only need one flip. If in doubt, give your burger enough time on one side that you can see it’s cooked about 1/2 way through. Then you know it only needs a few more minutes (4-7) on the second side. When in doubt, use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature.

6. If you use a thermometer here’s what you’re looking for: Rare 120° to 125°, medium-rare 130° to 135°, medium 140° to 145°, medium-well 150° to 155°, and well-done 160° to 165°. [According to the USDA Cooking ground beef at moderate temperatures will reduce shrinkage and help retain juices and flavor. Overcooking draws out more fat and juices from ground beef, resulting in a dry, less tasty product.] It should noted that meat cooked to well-done or charred meats (burned) pose a risk of causing cancer because long exposure to high temperatures breaks down the amino acid creatine, forming heterocyclic amines (HAs), which are carcinogenic and are linked to cancer.

7. Be clean. Ground meat is especially susceptible to contamination and bacterial exposure. A steak has maybe six sides that can come in contact with contaminants, but ground meat, by being pushed through a grinder and then handled and mixed has an exponentially increased surface area and opportunities for contamination. So while I would never put and ice cold steak on the grill, (it’s good to let large cuts of meat, especially on the bone, come to room temp before cooking) I would also never let raw ground meat hang out at room temperature for any length of time. Keep it cold, keep it covered, keep it clean. And before you mosey off to cook those burgers, take a few minutes to go ahead and clean up your prep area (bowls, cutting boards, mixing utensils etc) to minimize the opportunity for ground meat to contaminate your kitchen.

8. If you’re using lean protein, add moisture. Ground pork, turkey and chicken can be dry. Salmon burgers can be even drier. To add moisture add grated zucchini or carrots, sauteed and finely chopped mushrooms, diced onions and bell peppers, grated broccoli stems. You’re only limited by your imagination and whatever veggies you have on hand. An egg can add moisture and protein, as well as help bind a burger that seems “loose” (but it also adds fat).

9. Binders. I used to be a breadcrumbs, milk, egg binder kinda gal, but I’m finding now that if there’s some fat in the meat (ground turkey is 80% lean, instead of ground turkey BREAST which is 99% lean) then the burger holds together just fine. The point of a burger is that you have a patty that holds together, so I’d save the super-lean stuff for something else that’s crumbly (like a lettuce wrap, or tacos). That’s just my preference b/c I want to taste as much meaty flavor as possible, and not binders and fillers. I may make exception for meatloaf, maybe.

10. Quality matters. When it comes to meat, the quality or cut of meat that your ground meat came from does matter. There are such things as “hamburger meat” and “ground beef.” I don’t mess with it. Too vague. Too many cow parts involved, and usually produces a very fatty burger that shrinks into a meat nugget and doesn’t “fit right” on the bun. [According to the USDA Beef fat may be added to "hamburger," but not "ground beef." A maximum of 30% fat is allowed in either hamburger or ground beef.] I want ground steak. Better flavor, less shrinkage, predictable end result. So I aim for ground chuck, ground sirloin etc. Those are actual cuts of beef that have been ground. [According to the USDA Generally, ground beef is made from the less tender and less popular cuts of beef. Trimmings from more tender cuts may also be used.] If I’m feeling really persnickety, I’ll ask the butcher to actually grind up some steaks for me, but I’m typically not that high maintenance, and can find what I need in the meat case. If you can, buy your ground meat from a [*reputable* -- can't stress that enough] place that grinds meat in-house. Fresh just tastes better.

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