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6 Essential Pro Tips for Cooking Burgers at Home

October 25, 2013
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by Danya Henninger

You can get a great burger at plenty of restaurants, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make your own just as tasty. We tapped our network of chefs for at-home burger-making recommendations and compiled their answers into a list of six essential tips. Read through, bookmark this page and then look forward to serving positively perfect patties at your next burger party.

1) Use good beef with relatively high fat content

The low-fat craze that swept through the nation in the past few decades has led supermarkets to offer ground beef blends with very little fat in them. Whatever it may or may not do for your health, this does not bode well for burgers. “Making burgers with 90/10 percent meat-to-fat ratio beef is pointless,” says Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen. “Use at least an 80/20 blend,” agrees Street Food Philly’s Mike Sultan.

Jared Canon, chef at Iron Hill Brewery in Chestnut Hill, goes even farther, suggesting a 70/30 blend for the most juiciness. “A lean burger is more than likely going to be a dry burger,” is the blunt observation of MilkBoy’s Joel Mazigian.

If you really want the best flavor, chefs will tell you to do what they do - buy cuts of beef and either have a butcher grind them to order, or just grind it yourself. “If you spend a little more money on beef, you'll end up with a better burger,” Jose Garces advises. “Grind the beef yourself for the best outcome,” adds Leo Forneas of The Twisted Tail. When you grind, Olunloyo provides another tip: “The meat should be super cold before being ground, so the fat stays emulsified.”

2) Season your meat well, but keep it simple

“A lot of at home cooks tend to under-season their burgers,” Square 1682’s Caitlin Mateo tells us, and Olunloyo agrees, “Surface salt is not the same as seasoning meat,” he notes. However, don’t go overboard with too many spices. “You’re not making meatloaf!” says Mike Stollenwerk of Headhouse Crab & Oyster Co., a sentiment echoed by Josh Kim of Spot Gourmet Burgers, who says, “Treat the meat like steak rather than like a meatball.”

“Don’t take away from the natural flavor of the meat,” he continues. Kim’s recommendation of kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper as the best seasonings was echoed by nearly all the chefs we spoke with - “Don’t be afraid of salt and pepper,” warns Mike Sultan, and Brian Lofink of Kraftwork and Sidecar Bar & Grille is even more direct: “Salt, salt, SALT!!!” he writes via email.

3) Make loosely-packed, smaller patties

Once the beef is seasoned, forming it into rounds is a critical step that can have a surprisingly large effect on the final burger. "Don't overwork the ground beef - it gets tough!" is the first tip Serrano’s Gina Rodriguez wants readers to know. “Keep the patties a little loose,” agrees Noir’s Marco DeCotiis. Chad Vetter of City Tap House explains some science behind this tip: “The heat from your hands can melt the fats in the burger causing the patty to lose flavor and moisture during the cooking process.”

“Make smaller patties - that way it’s easier to handle the meat less,” recommends Matthew Feldman of Lucky Old Souls, and Josh Kim agrees, “If you’re not a pro cook, don’t attempt a big burger. Smaller burgers are much easier to manage.” Kim offers an extra tip for patty forming: put a dimple in the center of each one, because burgers will puff up in the middle as they cook. “When that happens, and the center is too thick, the first thing people naturally do is press down on them when cooking,” warns Bruce Cooper of Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar. (That pressing down is a bad, bad thing, as you’ll find out a couple of slides forward.)

4) Cook your burger on a cast iron pan or griddle

If you’re not at a beach bonfire or hanging in your backyard - or even if you are - the preferred surface for cooking burgers appears to be a cast iron skillet. "I like to cook them on a griddle as opposed to a grill when at home. It gives you a good crust on the meat that you just don't get on a grill,” Jose Garces tells us. “The one mistake a lot of home cooks make is not letting the crust form,” says Leo Forneas, “which results in a burger that is steamed, not seared.”

“Cook the burger in a pan with a scant amount of grapeseed or other neutral oil at moderate heat,” advises Shola Olunloyo. “People should cook their burgers in a cast iron skillet,” Matthew Feldman agrees, adding, “The skillet's relatively easy to clean, although it does kind of make a mess of the stove with all the splattering grease. And you definitely run the risk of setting the smoke alarm off too, especially if you don't have an exhaust fan. But it's worth it for a good burger, right?” Right.

5) Do NOT press down on the patty when cooking

We’ve probably all done it, but chefs consider pressing on a patty while it’s cooking to be one of the cardinal sins of burger making. “Don’t manhandle the burger,” says Joel Mazigian, explaining, “Doing so is only going to press out all that fat - which is where the flavor is.” Noord’s Joncarl Lachman echos this more concisely when he says, “Fat is flavor! Don’t mash it out.”

“One flip, that’s it,” schools Josh Kim. Assuming you follow this rule and don’t mash the burger down, you can cook a patty all the way to well done and still have a moist burger, according to Jason Goodman of Frankford Hall. You also don’t want to cut the burger open to check the temperature, “or all the juices will flow out,” notes Olunloyo, and once the patty is off the heat, “Let it rest a bit,” he adds.

6) Use a soft bun and rein in your toppings

Once you have the patties juicy and resting, it’s time for the rest of the burger. Though this is of course a matter of personal taste, most chefs we spoke with recommend using rolls on the softer side. Nicole Loesch of Ants Pants Cafe elaborates: “Use a soft, fluffy bun like challah - it sops up all the meat juices and won’t explode when bitten into or scrape the top of your mouth. Mark Porcaro of Black Powder Tavern agrees, “The bun should not be overly hard, but it should be sturdy enough to hold the juices.”

What should go on the bun with the meat? If you’re not a pro, not too much, is the general feedback we got. "Remember more than anything burgers are a celebration of meat, not your vegetable cooking skills,” says Shola Olunloyo, who also provides this insight: “Never put raw onions on cooked meat, it kills the flavor.”

“A bold cheese and a thick tomato slice will do the trick,” suggests Porcaro, and Brian Lofink weighs in to say “A fried egg makes everything better!” We agree.

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