For some of us, spring is a three-month-long warm-up session for burger season. We're just waiting around until we can dust off our grills, or for those of us trapped in the urban sprawl, at least eat our griddle cast iron skillet. But we know there are some of you out there who dread burger season because of the burger mistakes we've all made at one point or another -- maybe they're overcooked, maybe they're rubbery, maybe they're dry or boring. If your hands have gone all clammy, take a deep breath, you're in the right place.
Like all other kinds of instinctual cooking, no one can really tell you exactlyhow to cook a burger. There are tons of variables: meat quality, cooking method, temperature preference. Like all things worth cooking, you have to mess a few up before you hit your stride. Since Memorial Day is coming up, we figured now was a great time to address these mistakes head-on so that your burger season is delicious and stress free.
Without further ado, we give you the eight most frequent mistakes we all make with burgers:
Buying very lean, cheap or frozen meat.
Flickr: Darran C
We say it all the time, we'll say it again: good meat costs money. We shouldn't eat a burger every day, we should treat it as a luxury -- so we shouldn't buy cheap, overly-lean, mystery-composition, (especially) frozen hamburger meat. You want to throw a backyard BBQ with 40 friends? Buy whatever kind of hamburger meat you want. But if you want to make you and a few close friends the best burgers ever, treat it like you treat bacon, steak and poultry and get something nice.
Nice or not, make sure it has enough fat in it -- at least 20 percent. Ultra-lean beef is great for other stuff (we suppose), but a burger needs fat because fat makes juice, and we're all after a juicy burger. If you want to get really advanced, do like Meat Wizard Pat LaFrieda does and grind your own blend (or ask your butcher to do it for you! They will!).
Over-working your burgers/adding a bunch of other stuff into the mix.
"But," you might be thinking, "my burgers are the best because I add onions, parsley, worcestershire sauce and an egg to the meat." You are wrong. That is a meatloaf, not a burger. At best it is a meatball.
Here are the things you need to form a great burger: good meat with plenty of fat, salt and the occasional onion/garlic powder if you MUST. When you mix a bunch of stuff into burger meat, or handle it too much as you form the patties, you warm up the fat in the burger, which then emulsifies and makes your meat rubbery. Pack your burgers lightly, minimally, season the outside generously right before you cook them, and then leave them alone.
Making round patties, without a divot on either side.
Flickr: Alexander Dibbo
This isn't a huge mistake, unless you're planning to add toppings to your burgers that you want to stay on as you eat (so, every burger). When burger meat cooks, it expands, which pushes the edges out, making your burger rounded. If, when forming your patties, you gently press your thumb into the top and bottom of the burger, creating small divots, the burger will expand to a perfectly flat, toppings-holding machine.
Being afraid of heat.
No matter your cooking method -- be it a grill, grill pan, cast iron skillet or broiler -- it has to be hot. Really hot. Instant sizzle hot. Because you want to sear your meat, not steam it (steamed cheeseburgers can be great, but that is another post, guys). As long as you get your cooking surface hot enough that your burger REALLY sizzles when you set it down, you're doing a great job. Is it burning? Turn it down! It will all work out.
Smashing your burger down as it cooks.
We understand the urge to smash a burger down with a spatula: it makes it sizzle, it feels satisfying and it makes you think you're speeding up the cooking process. What you are speeding up is the emergency evacuation of all your burger's juiciness. Don't do this. The more juice stays inside the burger, the better it tastes. The only excuse for smashing your burger down onto the grill is an Oklahoma onion burger, which is again, a different post.
Cutting into the burger to test the doneness.
You're better than this. What happens when you cut into a burger while it's still cooking? The juices run out. Again, worst thing ever. You're going to get to know what a perfectly-done burger looks like. We are medium-rare folks -- that burger is seared on the outside, and feels a little springy to the touch, like the part of your hand where your thumb attaches. If you like burgers well-done, your life is way easier. Just cook and cook and cook. You'll find your preference, but DON'T cut it open, try not to poke it with a meat thermometer and just let it do its thing.
Not letting your burger rest.
Flickr: Yuwen Memon
Again, we're talking preservation of burger juice. Just like any other cut of meat, the juices need time to redistribute through the meat. GIVE YOUR BURGER THE TIME THAT IT NEEDS TO BE GREAT (sorry, but we really mean this one). Otherwise you'll end up with a soggy bun, a dry burger and sad feelings.
Not experimenting with toppings.
Guys, it's your life and your burger, go nuts! That burger up there has kimchi and spicy mayo on it. Want to spread peanut butter on the bun and melt cheddar on the burger? Definitely do it. Life is way too short for boring burgers.