Seriously, who doesn’t love a good burger? There are few applications of meat that are more universally loved than a good burger. Fast food, fancy, grilled, fried, covered in toppings, just ketchup and mustard… they can all be awesome. In its simplest form a burger is nothing more than ground beef cooked and put on a bun but there are so many common mistakes many people make that turn out a bad burger. Here are some of the mistakes people make while cooking burgers that really grind my gears.
1. Using meat that is too lean – Burgers are not meant to be health food, low fat, or healthy necessarily. If you use something ridiculous like 93/7 meat you will end up with a bad burger that is dry and falls apart. Burgers need fat in them for flavor, texture, and moisture. I don’t think I would ever use ground beef with less than 20% fat for my burgers and 25% (or even 35% on a good day) is preferred.
If you really want to up your burger game you can grind your own beef. It is very simple and really lets you customize your burger for your taste. My favorite combo is 2 parts chuck, 1 part brisket, and 1 part sirloin flap meat. The chuck gives a nice fattiness, the brisket gives a strong beefy flavor, and the flap meat adds a good texture. Short rib can also be good to use. If you really want to learn from the guy who probably has more meat knowledge than anyone else walking the planet check out this video from Pat Lafrieda. If you don’t want to grind your own meat order one of his custom burger blends at LaFrieda.com.
2. Packing the meat too tight – Burgers lose a ton of their texture and mouth feel if you pack them too tight. You want the meat to hold together but you don’t want it to be mashed together so tight it is a solid slab of beef. There needs to be some room between the meat for the fat to melt and for the burger to cook properly.
When you are making your burger patties by hand (of course you aren’t going to use a burger press or anything ridiculous like that… unless you have a super fancy automatic burger maker that costs thousands of dollars) you want to be gentle with the meat and not squeeze it. Use just enough pressure that your patties hold together.
3. Squishing the burger while cooking – I am not talking about smashed burgers (that is for another post) but I am talking about the people that put their burger on the grill, cook it for a couple minutes, flip it over, and then squeeze the heck out of it with the spatula to make that nice sizzling sound as the grease hits the coals. This just squeezes out all the moisture and will give you a dry burger. How dry? SeriousEats.com had a great article on smashing burgers a couple years back and if you squish your burger after 3 minutes of cooking it will lose 36% of its weight which is all liquid goodness. Just leave the meat alone and let it cook.
4. Putting stuff in the meat – I am not talking about stuffed burgers but I am talking about people who grind or mix other stuff in the meat. Binders like bread crumbs or eggs are totally unnecessary, onions or peppers should be toppings and not mixed in the burger, and there are even people who put mushrooms or tapenade in their burger. This is a hamburger, not a meatloaf! The only two possible exceptions here are if you want to grind bacon or cheese into your burger to give it some moisture but even then I would usually just have them as a topping.
5. Making the patties too thick – A thick juicy burger can be wonderful but if you get the meat too thick it takes way too long to get the middle of the meat cooked before the outside overcooks. It makes it much harder for the standard backyard griller or home cook to get the meat cooked properly so just go with a bit thinner patty until you know what you are doing.
6. Making the patties too small– If you make a bun sized burger patty you will end up with a burger that is much smaller than your bun after cooking. When making your patties try to make it at least an inch bigger than the buns you will be using. I would rather have some meat hanging out of the bun than having a bunch of bun left over.
7. Not seasoning the meat enough – I have had way too many burgers that would have been totally improved if the cook knew how to use a salt shaker and pepper grinder. I am a fan of simple seasoning and don’t like garlic or steak seasoning or anything like that on my burgers. Just salt and pepper but you have to use enough to bring out the flavor of the meat. Don’t mix the seasoning in the meat either. The salt will do weird things to the meat and give you a bad texture. Salt the outside of the meat just before cooking and you should probably use a bit more than you think you should.
8. Not getting a good crust on the burger – Whether you are cooking on your backyard grill or cooking in a cast iron pan or griddle on the stove you want to be sure you get some caramelization on your meat. That is where a lot of your flavor will come from. A nice crust from a cast iron pan or a nice char from a grill will totally add to your burger.
9. Using preformed, frozen patties – Of course they are convenient but really, how hard is it to grab a handful of ground beef and form a patty? The preformed, frozen patties you get at the grocery store will rarely have as good of flavor or texture as one you form yourself. And they usually taste weird.
If you are looking for a good burger recipe and good cooking method this is my favorite: Serious Eats Fake Shack Burger. This recipe is basically trying to replicate the Shake Shack burger which is a thing of beauty and I have to say this recipe comes very, very close.