Meat & Greet

5 Tricks to Making a Mind-Blowing Burger

By • June 6, 2014 • 25 Comments

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Each week this summer, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook is helping us get to know our favorite cuts a little bit better – and introducing you to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.

Today: From cuts to fat content to seasoning, Cara is teaching you 5 simple tricks to build a better burger.

Burgers on Food52

There is hardly any food, besides maybe apple pie, as quintessentially American as the burger. But, perhaps due to their prominent place in America’s food history -- and in so many people’s personal food histories -- hamburgers inspire a lot of strong opinions. In recent years, our collective love of the hamburger has manifested itself in an onslaught of fancified, outrageously expensive hamburgers made with swanky custom blends and piled high with showy toppings. Once a simple, fast, and inexpensive food, hamburgers are now priced around $15 on average in New York City, with some reaching as high as $120, $175, $295, and $666.

Because of all this hype, making burgers at home may suddenly feel overwhelming. I want to make clear one point: Burgers are, and should remain, a simple food. If you follow these guidelines, you can make the best burger you've ever tasted, right in your own kitchen (or backyard). So take a deep breath, and let’s get started.

More: With these new skills, you're going to want to throw a burger party. We've got everything you need. 

 Burgers on Food52

The number one most important rule to better burgers is this: BUY GOOD MEAT. Buy it from a source you trust; one that cares about how their animals are raised and the freshness of the product they are selling you. This goes for buying any meat, but it is especially important with ground meat, since pre-packaged ground meat carries a higher risk of e-coli, and is often filled with shady stabilizers to increase shelf life. Eat Wild is a great resource if you are unsure of where to buy good meat in your area.

Now let’s talk about cuts. Regardless of what food magazines and newspaper articles tell you, you do not need a custom blend of fancy cuts to make a good hamburger. In fact, the best burgers are made from the hard-working, cheaper cuts on an animal. Because these muscles are working harder, there is more blood flowing through them, which translates to more flavor. And, since you’re grinding the meat up, you don’t have to worry about the toughness that often characterizes hard-working cuts. Cheap and flavorful -- what more could you want?

Burger on Food52

These cheaper cuts, especially ones from the shoulder like chuck and brisket, will also have a higher fat content. This is paramount in making a good burger. For the juiciest and most flavorful burgers, you need a fat content that is, at minimum, 20% -- the best burgers have closer to 30%.

More: Better burgers deserve better condiments -- here are 11.

If you are itching to create a custom blend, or don't have access to a butcher you trust, try grinding your meat at home! Grinding your meat yourself gives you more control over fat content and freshness. To reach the fat content you’re aiming for, try a combination of fattier cuts like chuck, brisket, or short-ribs with leaner, cheap cuts like bottom round, sirloin, eye round, top round, or shank.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of quality, cuts, and fat content, let’s talk about some other tips to make your burger great.

Weighing Burgers on Food52

Weight: A super thin burger will be around 1/4 pound, or 4 ounces. A big, chunky burger will be around 1/2 pound, or 8 ounces. A regular, in-between burger is about 1/3 of a pound -- between 5 and 6 ounces. It's worth scaling out the burgers so that they cook uniformly.

Pattying: You don’t want to overwork your patty, lest your meat become tough and chewy. However, underworking your meat will lead to a crumbly mess. Try to find a healthy in-between. I like to form my meat into a ball and slap it back and forth between my hands about ten times before shaping it into a patty. If you don’t have a patty press, use a big jar lid to get your patties into a uniform shape and size. After working your meat, simply press it into the lid, and voila!

Patty Press on Food52

Indent: When any muscle cooks, it contracts. If you’re making a burger, this can mean that your meat will shrink up and become impossible to find inside your bun. Making an indent in the center of the patty solves this problem because it helps the burger to hold its shape as the meat contracts. After shaping your patty, simply place your thumb in the center and gently press to create an indent.

Indenting Burgers on Food52

Seasoning: Since you’re using fattier, hard-working cuts for your burger, you don't need much to season it. Salt and freshly-cracked black pepper work perfectly -- these good quality, cheap, and fatty cuts will have enough flavor on their own. Don’t work the salt and pepper into the patty -- Instead, simply season it on both sides once it’s about to go on the grill. Keeping these seasonings on the outside will help the burger form that coveted caramelized crust. 

Grilling: Clean your grill before cooking to avoid sticking. Get it warmed up, then scrape it down with a wire brush to help avoid sticking. Once the grill is clean, grease it using a paper towel or pastry brush dipped in neutral oil. Do not press the burger down with a spatula while cooking! Stop doing that! I know it looks and sounds cool when it hits the coals, but you are pressing all of the delicious juice out, so stop! Your burgers will thank you.

burgers on Food52

What are your best burger tips? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: meat & greet, burger, summer, grill

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Comments (25)


10 months ago Daniel Boiani

Tip. It works. Add one teaspoon of ... yes, it's true .... beef baby food. It's clean, pure beef (it's for babies after all). Incredibly intense beefy flavour and adds moisture. It's weird, but absolutely good, I promise.


11 months ago Sharon Hardin

Thanks for the tips.


11 months ago Nancy

I always use a chopstick to poke a small hole in the center and several more around the burger. After cooking, they don't show and they allow the burger to cook evenly.


11 months ago Jo Switten

Season your burger with some anchovies worked in along with some smoked pimenton. After you grilled them, put them in the oven with some high quality chicken broth for ten minutes or so. Make sure they are in the broth only til halfway. They will be deliciously moist and still crispy because the top side is exposed to the heat of the oven :)


11 months ago anne

I feel very strongly that the only way to make a good burger is: Niman Ranch Beef. Period. Salt and pepper, medium-rare. Nuff said.


11 months ago ride&cook

I am a salt and pepper purist and I also add a couple shots of worcestershire to the meat. Put on a lightly toasted ciabatta with watercress on the bottom and ketchup on top. Hey, that's what I made for lunch!


11 months ago donald keys

Make your own buns. Good recipe from Comma Ca in LA. Grind your own meat, its super easy. Spread yellow mustard on the top of the meat before turning the patty over, gives a great taste.


11 months ago Sarah Susan Ladley

We like putting bernsteins Italian dressing and Johnny's seasoning salt on one side. Put it on the grill with seasoning side down and then sprinkle mountreals steak seasoning on!!! Delicious!!! Then add your onions, tomatoe, cheese and lettuce on a Keiser bun!!!! Love,love, love!!!


11 months ago Katie @ Produce On Parade

Trick to making the best burger ever? Make it a veggie burger! It's better for you, the animals, and the planet :D


11 months ago Ben C

I'd love to hear some good veggie burger ideas. My sister-in-law is mostly vegetarian and won't eat beef burgers. I hate throwing the standard Boca burgers on the grill because they're gross and I feel I'm just copping out on her since I spend so much time on our beef burgers.


11 months ago LysiaLoves

Aside from making your own, my mom likes the SortaSausage Hemp Burgers. there are some decent recipes online too if you wanna get fancy but bear in mind, they're a lot more work than a regular burger! Also, some people really like the rice-based ones and some prefer the bean-based. I know some love portobello burgers too.


11 months ago Mr_Vittles

I am one of those ever-so-common-now burger fanatics. The kind of person who is persnickety over his burger. My personal two cents: always cook on a flat top griddle. I bring out my cast iron behemoth when I grill outdoors, right on top of the grates. I also never handle my ground beef (and it should always be beef), instead of hand forming my patties, I use a large disher and plop them straight on to the griddle seasoning, then smashing them in to the hot metal. This creates a super crust and gives you a nice latticey edge to your burgers.


12 months ago Martha

Thank you for the great tips. I'll be adding the indent and telling my son he's right and I'm wrong about the seasoning!


12 months ago SipOfPerfection

Boy those look delicious! I wonder what the different sauces are on top?


12 months ago Akiko

Thank you for the great tips :) Especially the seasoning part was eye opening and worked wonderfully.
After we ate our first burgers, my boy friend took a bike ride to a butcher again to make his second one ... ;)
Really really tasty! Simple is the best. Thank you a lot!


12 months ago Foodness Gracious

Love the indent tip..I hate when my burger shrinks and becomes too puffy in the middle. I second the bun comment. Its very important to get a uniformed bite without everything going south. A nice toasted brioche is my fav!


12 months ago Pat in SoCal

I'm a fan of Julia Child's suggestion to work a bit of soft butter into the meat…and then stay pure from there….and if today ciabatta works out there will be burgers tonight!


12 months ago Catherine Lamb

Of course Julia would say to work in butter! That sounds incredible...


12 months ago Sietske van Schaik

Get a good bun. Nothing too hard/chewy or all your toppings will squirt out the other end when you bite into it. Or even bake your own buns. So worth it.


12 months ago Catherine Lamb

Good point! Nothing worse than a bad bun. Also, we have a small batch on it, so no excuses for anyone!


11 months ago Dawne Forrester

Sadly, Ingredient number1 makes that impossible for me :(
I haven't met a GF bun that works, so it's lettuce wraps...but it's just not the same.


11 months ago LysiaLoves

Have you tried the Udi's whole grain buns? Toast them lightly first. I like them but flavor-wise they're definitely on the whole-wheat side more than the sourdough or ciabatta side. But for me, better than nothing!! And DEF better than lettuce. To me :)

12 months ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Managing Editor of Food52.

This is incredibly helpful -- thanks for the tips!


12 months ago Merrill Stubbs

Merrill is a co-founder of Food52.

Perfect timing -- it's going to be a great burger weekend!


12 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Great post! Looking forward to seeing others' posts with their tips, here. ;o)