5 Tricks to Making a Really Excellent Burger

June  6, 2014

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

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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!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
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Cara Nicoletti is a butcher and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Cara started working in restaurants when she moved to New York in 2004, and was a baker and pastry chef for several years before following in her grandfather and great-grandfathers' footsteps and becoming a butcher. She is the writer behind the literary recipe blog,, and author of Voracious, which will be published by Little, Brown in 2015. She is currently a whole-animal butcher and sausage-making teacher at The Meat Hook in Williamsburg.


Smaug July 2, 2016
I'm increasingly convinced that the secret to better burgers is to stay away from articles on how to make burgers.
702551 June 30, 2016
The second most important rule to make a really excellent burger is putting it on a great bun. You can basically gauge a burger's quality by the patty and the bun.

As a matter of fact, you should be able to enjoy either just by themselves: a plain cooked patty, a plain bun (it's bread).

Condiments are always extra. The overall quality is basically set by the patty and the bun.

Also, a burger cooked over a wood fire is incomparably better than something done on a stove. There's no way to impart the smokiness of a wood fire from a frying pan.

That's basically why people still cook over fire after tens of thousands of years of civilization.
Jo B. June 23, 2015
I always thought higher fat burger meat made better burgers but recently we've been buying the 93% fatfree from Whole Foods and it is delicious and surprisingly tender--more tender than the 80 to 85% we had been using, and less fatty, and hence less shrinky and flame-y. I mix in only salt and pepper, put in the indentation as suggested, and either grill or cook high heat in a cast-iron pan.
Malik O. June 23, 2015
Some of the best burgers I've ever made come from a YouTube channel called Ballistic BBQ. The Stockyard Butter burger is insane.
i-plus-i May 27, 2015
The author mentioned 20% to 30% fat... how can we tell how much there is and if below that, what type of fat can we add...
Nanda G. May 26, 2015
the one thing the author didn't address: how do you know when it's done (medium rare) without cutting into it?
susan H. May 26, 2015
press it lightly at its middle. if it springs back, it's done!
zoumonkie May 26, 2015
Press your thumb and forefinger together. If your burger is as soft as your hand between the two, it is rare. Middle finger and thumb is medium.
Emily L. May 26, 2015
My dad created a great way to season burgers and give them a great crunch at the same time; We add kettle cooked BBQ chips to the meat by slightly mixing in broken chips into the patties. I like to season with salt and pepper as well. I told my aunt in Canada that this is how we do it and her four kids pick which chips they want in their burgers! There's a great caramelized flavor added because of the chips charring as well.
Nancie M. May 25, 2015
Love this post! I'm an expat in Korea and gourmet burgers are all the rage here. Recently, I had one that looked fantastic, but when I bit into it the middle of the burger was raw. I'm not taking pink. I was not impressed, and overall I felt that the raw meat killed the taste of what could have been something delicious.I know that how long meat is cooked for is a personal preference. However, what do you think of 'raw in the middle burgers'?
susan H. May 26, 2015
i like my burgers cold in the center (aka raw). you know that your burger is done when you press it lightly at the center and it springs back. enjoy!
zoumonkie May 25, 2015
English muffin and blue cheese burgers need a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning.
Chopped green olives compliment the blue cheese.
You can never go wrong with camalized onions and bacon.
susan H. May 25, 2015
i like to serve burgers on well toasted english muffins, spread with blue cheese. a bit of arugula is great, as well. yum. s.h.
zoumonkie May 25, 2015
Add zip sauce to your burger
btglenn May 25, 2015
I would love a great version for turkey burgers.
Lisa S. May 26, 2015
1lb-ish ground turkey, 1 tsp thyme, 1/4 tsp black pepper, diced red onion, diced red pepper, and a couple drops of liquid smoke. Grill, and top with a grilled pineapple ring.

Fajita Turkey burgers - 2 pounds Ground Turkey, 3 teaspoons Ground Cumin, 2 teaspoons Dried Thyme Leaves, ½ teaspoons Salt, ¼ teaspoons Pepper, 1 Green Bell Pepper, 1 Red Bell Pepper, 2 Jalapeños, 4 cloves Garlic, ½ Onion, ¼ cups Cilantro, 1 teaspoon Hot Sauce. Makes 8 burgers. I top with salsa and guacamole.
Ashley U. May 25, 2015
One of the correspondents on this site suggested grating cold butter into the beef and I have to say it worked a treat for me.
Daniel B. July 16, 2014
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.
Lisa S. May 26, 2015
Yeah, I'd double-check the ingredients on the baby food. Contrary to what food companies want you to believe, they add plenty of chemicals and other junk to baby food. That's why so many people are choosing to make their own these days.
Sharon H. July 4, 2014
Thanks for the tips.
Nancy June 29, 2014
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.
Jo S. June 18, 2014
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 :)
anne June 15, 2014
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.
ride&cook June 12, 2014
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!
donald K. June 12, 2014
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.