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Cooking is an act of love, so let’s protect the ones we love by making sure our food is safe. Unfortunately, the all-American hamburger can be among the riskiest foods due to E-coli.
Because meat is dense, the bacteria really can’t get beyond the surface unless the surface is cut. In the course of cooking, pathogens on the surface are killed almost instantly. But if you grind raw meat, contamination on the outside is now on the inside, so safety experts say the best way to be sure ground meats are safe is to cook them to 160°F as measured by a digital food thermometer—but that means a well done burger.
How to make medium-rare burgers safely
160°F can be on the dry side. You say want a medium rare burger? Me, too. To eliminate risk, you need to use pasteurized meat. There are three ways to do it.
1. Sous vide those patties!
If you haven’t heard of sous vide, you will be soon—and I’m betting you’ll own a sous vide device, too.
Sous vide is a method of cooking food by sealing it in an almost air-free plastic bag, then putting the bag in a temperature-controlled water bath. You can use a vacuum sealer to suck the air out of the bag or just slip the bag into a pot of water until the water pressure squeezes the air out of the bag, and then zipper it shut. You can warm the water on the stovetop or in the oven, but the best method is to use one of the many sous vide devices available. My favorite is the Joule from ChefSteps that I am beta testing. It is about the size of an old-fashioned flashlight, smaller than competitors and easier to store, and it uses a really well-designed smartphone app. It will be on the market in fall 2016 for less than $200.
Sous vide ensures even cooking, preserves moisture, allows natural enzymes to tenderize, and if you cook meat long enough, at temperatures at or above 130°F, it can pasteurize, which eliminates risk. Medium rare is 130 to 135°F and the meat cannot overcook because it cannot rise above 130°F, the water temp.
For a 6 to 8-ounce medium-rare burger, set the temp to 130°F for three hours. Why so long? When meat hits 160°F, bugs die in about 8 seconds, but at 130°F, it takes a long time to kill all the bad guys. After 3 hours, take the burger out of the bag, pat the surface dry with a paper towel, and sear the snot out of it in a screaming hot pan or on a grill to get a great dark brown Maillard crust. During the searing, the internal temp will rise to about 135°F, still perfect medium rare. And safe. And fantastic.
2. Hot tub a steak.
Since contamination on a whole hunk of unground muscle is most likely to be on the surface, if you dip a steak in boiling water (212°F) for 20 seconds before grinding it yourself, any pathogens on the exterior will die. Although the exterior turns gray, the meat grinds well and makes flavorful, safe, medium rare patties. The beauty of grinding your own burgers is that you can use really fresh meat and control the lean to fat ratio. Pick up a tasty cut like short ribs or chuck and grind away. You can buy an inexpensive hand crank meat grinder, or put an attachment on a KitchenAid stand mixer, or pulse the meat in a food processor. Then make delicious steakhouse-style or diner-style burgers.
3. Zap it.
Irradiation is a great way to pasteurize meat. The process uses electromagnetic energy to kill anything living without heating the meat or noticeably changing its texture, flavor, or nutritional value. And it is not radioactive!
This technique is used to sterilize medical devices and it has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, and the Mayo Clinic, among many others. The beauty of irradiated meat is that you can simply remove it from the package and cook. No fuss, no muss. Alas, because of unfounded fears, irradiated ground meat is hard to find in stores, but you can find it online. The most prominent source is Omaha Steaks, which irradiates all its ground meat. Get some and feel free to cook that juicy burger to medium rare.
How to make well done burgers juicy
If you can’t use pasteurized meat, then you can still make burgers cooked to 160°F juicy.
4. Don’t use lean meat.
At 160°F, much of the moisture from water is gone, but moisture from melted fat remains, and fat is flavor. So buy meat that is 20 to 30% fat (80 to 70% lean). Pick a nice fatty chuck steak from the case and ask the butcher to coarse grind it for you—this is a great way to get fresh meat. Form your patties gently by hand so there are pockets inside for the juices to hide. Don’t fear the fat. If you live to 80, you will eat more than 80,000 meals. An occasional fatty but delicious burger won’t kill you.
5. Don’t salt the interior.
Now this is one of those funny tricks of meat science. As you can see in the pictures by the AmazingRibs.com Science Advisor, Dr. Greg Blonder, if you mix salt in with the patty, it helps the proteins hold onto moisture, but it also makes the meat more compact and dense, leaving fewer pockets for melted fat to hide. Losing fat is more tragic than losing water. So don’t salt the interior, just the exterior.
6. Make a Jucy Lucy.
Invented by Matt's in Minneapolis, MN, this is an inside out cheeseburger, and that's right, there's no "i" in Jucy. Before the cooking begins, take a thin patty, top it with a 1-ounce block of yellow cheese, and lay another patty on top of the two. Pinch the edges of the two patties together thoroughly and tightly to seal in the goodness. Beware, the molten core of the Jucy Lucy can burn your tongue, so let the hot burger cool a minute or three before biting. Don’t ask how I learned this.
7. Stuff it.
Same technique as the Jucy Lucy, but you can use sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, jalapeños, foie gras, you name it. There's even a gizmo out now that helps you make stuffed burgers and Jucy Lucy’s called Stufz. It works pretty well.
8. Butterball it.
Mix pea-sized chunks of butter in with your ground meat. Try herbed butter.
9. Baconize it.
Very lightly cook some bacon, just til it starts to change color and the fat gets soft. Then chop it up and mix it in with the burger meat.
10. Ice it.
Form your patties, push an ice cube into the center, and seal up the opening really well. The ice will melt and most of the water will be trapped inside.
12. Dress it well.
Your guests may not mind the doneness if you dress the burger up with wet stuff like a tangy secret sauce, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, soft bacon, or with melted pimento cheese.
Meathead Goldwyn is the barbecue whisperer, hedonism evangelist, and culinary mythbuster behind AmazingRibs.com, the world’s largest and most popular outdoor cooking website. He is also author of the best-selling book Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, named by Amazon as Cookbook of the Year at midyear.