Tips & Techniques - Making Perfect Hamburgers

What's it take to make the perfect burger? Plenty of things actually. In fact, the source article from which I got most of my information goes into much detail on how to make a perfect hamburger patty. I just want to summarize the tips and information that the great Meathead presents.

What kind of meat should I avoid?
Don't buy beef that is labeled as hamburger meat or any pre-packaged ground beef. You don't know what all is in those packages nor how long ago they have been ground. In fact, guess what is allowed to be in these labeled meats?
  • Flavor additives
  • Any muscle on the cow
  • Meat from old animals
  • Seasonings
  • Ammonia
  • Fat scraps (if labeled hamburger)
  • Up to 30% fat
Protip: Only meat that crosses state lines need to be inspected for sale by the USDA.

If you're buying pre-ground meat, here is some info from Meathead on what kind of meat you'd be getting based on their labels:
  • Ground chuck - from the shoulder, 15-20% fat,  good flavor and texture
  • Ground round - from the rump, 10-15% fat, "can be dry and tough, but has a nice beefy flavor"
  • Ground sirloin - from area just in front of the hip, 5-10% fat, dry and pricey

What kind of meat should I use?

So what do you do when you don't buy pre-ground meat? You have your butcher grind the meat for you (available in most major supermarkets). You can even ask them to mix in white fat trimmings if the meat you've chosen is too lean. The target is 20% fat, so the easiest method is to choose meat that is already at that point (rather than blending in fat). Below are some choices:
  • Short ribs - from the side, 20-30% fat, can be bought bone-in or boneless (if with bone, cut off and save for stock), top layer of fat needs to be removed to expose & discard "silverskin" on top of meat, tough to grind without professional grinder
  • Chuck steak - from the shoulder, 20-30% fat, most used by restaurants, don't mistake for chuck roast which is sinewy
  • Flank, skirt, hangar, sirloin - fairly lean and may need extra fat ground in
  • Brisket - two parts with the "point" cut being a little more fatty than needed so trim it and the flat cut that is fairly lean
In general, go for the USDA Choice Grade beef but not the highly expensive type seeing as fat can be added into a grind so doesn't need to necessarily already be present in the chosen meat.

What kind of grind do I want? 
Make sure the grind is coarse (1/4" holes), grounded just once, and packed loosely. You want air pockets for the fat and juices to seep into later while you're grilling. If you want to grind your own meat and not go to the butcher, you can also do that and add in some other source of fat such as finely chopped raw bacon while grinding.

How do I make the patties and cook them?
It's up to you if you want to do seasonings in the mix or just rely on the good ol' taste of beef. What's highly recommended, however, is to salt the outside of the burger very liberally before grilling it (but NOT mix salt on the inside). You may also want to consider putting oil on the outside to keep all the juices in initially. Also, when making the burger mix, try to avoid using sauces or watery ingredients like raw vegetables that will leak juices when cooked. These will make the patties difficult to stick together.

Form the patties loosely but uniformly so you can gauge how long to cook them all.  When cooking, make sure that you keep all variables the same. If experimenting, only change one variable at a time such as a different heating temperature or a different surface. Make sure you are also aware of the thickness of that patty as it will helped you determine when the patty is done. You want a nice brown, slightly crisp exterior while maintaining a juicy, safe-to-eat interior. If the meat still sticks on one side, it's not ready to flip! Use a meat thermometer if it will help you as well.

Make sure to let me know how your venturing goes in your quest to make a perfect burger. It will take a lot of trial and error but soon you'll have a signature burger for yourself to share. Of course, considering the amount of fat in the burgers, keep these tips just for special occasions and burgers, yeah?