Burger

Wait—Have We Been Grilling Burgers All Wrong?

Here's the utterly unconventional, entirely superior way to do it.

August 17, 2020
Photo by Matt Moore

There is perhaps no dish more quintessentially American than the hamburger. Like most other foods, its creator and origin are up for debate, yet the hamburger is, without a doubt, solidly stitched into the fabric of everything that is Americana.

Sure, there are bad burgers out there. And dare I say, they are still satisfying. Great burgers, though? They can be prophetic.

Truthfully, great burgers are hard to come by. And this is because, in my humble estimation, most of us are not making our burgers correctly.

When it comes to making the perfect burger, I subscribe to the "keep it simple, stupid" mentality. After all, to me, a meal is only as good as its ingredients. And for a hamburger, one must start by asking: “Where’s the beef?"

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“You have no idea what you're talking about. The best and most delicious crust on any kind of beef is achieved with an iron skillet, because of the direct contact with the surface. If you don't agree, you don't know how to handle an iron skillet properly. Grilling the beef directly on charcoal is a completely different thing. It's delicious too of course - it adds lots of flavours - but the crust is inferior. No matter how hot your grill is, it's still hot air that makes the crust. It looks different and tastes different. This idea does nothing else than adding a little smokey flavour to the iron skillet method. I'm seriously asking myself why I never came up with this myself, but I will definitely try it. It makes perfect sense. Maybe I'll even go a step further and additionally grill it on charcoal for a moment, either before or after the skillet. Will try both. ”
— Toni O.
Comment

Aside from Ernest Hemingway’s marvelous concoction of hamburger ingredients, I believe in always sticking with fresh ground, 80/20 beef, and nothing else. I always form patties loosely by hand—and á la minute—and refrain from picking up anything that’s been already formed at the store. I season simply and liberally on both sides and around the perimeter with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper.

Got it? Good. Time for the grill...well...

Sure, it’s hard to deny the smoky, primal flavor that one gets from grilling over charcoal. The problem is, as the burger cooks, the juices simply drip onto the coals. While this method is ideal for BBQ meats and other long, indirect cooking methods, for the burger, this scenario often results in a patty lacking in the fatty, juicy flavor we all crave. As a self-confessed Serial Griller, I will tell you—a grilled burger is grand, but it's only half of the story.

So what’s the other half of the story, you might ask? It lies in the flattop method: griddling and cooking the burger on a flat surface, surrounded by its own juices. Yet, while fatty and juicy, this method lacks the smoky flavor and char beloved from grill.

But I believe you can have your cake (well, burger) and eat it too.

Photo by Matt Moore

Now’s the time to break out that cast-iron skillet and put it right on the grates. After a quick preheat, you can throw that just-formed, loose patty on the grill. A well-seasoned charcoal grill will still impart plenty of flavor (despite any drippings), and the flat surface of the cast-iron pan will create a slew of conductive heat for the sear, while also holding on to those drippings for the perfect 1-2 punch.

In other words: Best. Burger. Ever.

Toast your buns, melt your cheese, and serve with whatever else you want as toppings. Done and done.

Photo by Matt Moore

How to Grill a Burger

Ingredients

  • 1 pound 80/20 ground beef
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 hamburger buns
  • 4 slices melty cheese (preferably American)
  • Mayonnaise
  • Yellow mustard
  • 1/4 white onion (preferably Vidalia), finely chopped
  • 3 to 4 small pickles (preferably sweet gherkins or cornichons), finely chopped

Method

  1. Prepare a charcoal grill for direct cooking over medium-high heat (a chimney starter can be helpful for this, but you don't need one for sure). When your charcoal bricks are at least 50 percent gray and ashy, scatter over the charcoal grates and top with grilling grates. Close the grill and let heat for 10 minutes or so, or until 450°F. Open bottom and top dampeners half way, or to the correct setting to maintain an internal grill temperature of 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. By hand, loosely form ground beef into four 1/4-pound patties. Season both sides and the perimeter of the burgers with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
  3. Open grill, and place a cast iron skillet directly on the grates, over the fire. Close grill and preheat skillet for 2 minutes. Add butter, swirl in skillet (be careful with the handle!) and place patties into the skillet. Close grill and cook patties, undisturbed, 3 1/2 minutes.
  4. Flip patties and cook an additional 3 minutes, or until an internal temperature reads 135 degrees Fahrenheit for medium-rare. For additional doneness, continue to cook to desired temperature, checking every 1-2 minutes.
  5. Remove patties from grill and place the buns, cut-side down, onto the grates until slightly charred.
  6. Prepare burgers by spreading a thin layer of mayo on the bottom bun and topping with onions. Add burger patty, followed by the cheese. Add mustard and pickles to the top bun and place on top of burger. Serve.

Have you ever grilled burgers this way before? Let us know in the comments.
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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Linda Boyd
    Linda Boyd
  • mmcdaniel
    mmcdaniel
  • Daisy
    Daisy
  • gandalf
    gandalf
  • Toni Ostarcevic
    Toni Ostarcevic
mattrmoore

Written by: mattrmoore

Author, cook, pilot, entrepreneur, Southern Gentleman

11 Comments

Linda B. September 13, 2020
Regarding the recipe for Ernest Hemingway's Hamburger, I remember Mei Yen Powder as being MSG.
 
mmcdaniel August 18, 2020
This is profoundly wrong. By eliminating the juices dripping into the charcoal, you lose the very thing that gives grilling its unique flavor. Those juices hit the coals and vaporize and flavor the meat in a way you’ll never get cooking in a skillet where the fat and juices don't vaporize. This technique eliminates the main reason for grilling. You're not going to get the grilled flavor using a skillet. If you’re going to cook it in a skillet, you might as well do it on your stove. It will taste exactly the same either way.
 
Toni O. August 18, 2020
You have no idea what you're talking about. The best and most delicious crust on any kind of beef is achieved with an iron skillet, because of the direct contact with the surface. If you don't agree, you don't know how to handle an iron skillet properly. Grilling the beef directly on charcoal is a completely different thing. It's delicious too of course - it adds lots of flavours - but the crust is inferior. No matter how hot your grill is, it's still hot air that makes the crust. It looks different and tastes different.
This idea does nothing else than adding a little smokey flavour to the iron skillet method.
I'm seriously asking myself why I never came up with this myself, but I will definitely try it. It makes perfect sense.
Maybe I'll even go a step further and additionally grill it on charcoal for a moment, either before or after the skillet. Will try both.
 
mmcdaniel August 18, 2020
I know exactly what I'm talking about. You need to learn to read more carefully. I wasn't talking about crust. I was talking about the grilled flavor you only get from the fat and juices dripping on to the coals and vaporizing. You just want crust - just cook it in your cast iron skillet on your stovetop. Exactly the same flavor you'll get putting in on your grill grates. Do some reading will you?
 
Toni O. August 18, 2020
That's irony - you seem to be the one that didn't read properly. I got you. My last sentence makes this very obvious. (additionally grilling it on charcoal shortly - to get even more of both worlds)
 
mmcdaniel August 18, 2020
So after telling me I have no idea what I'm talking about, you're agreeing with me. More power to you.
 
Toni O. August 18, 2020
Because you basically stated that this whole idea is nonsense. That's not the case. That doesn't mean that I meant that every single word you've written is false. I could have made a better choice on words, that's true, but otherwise, I think that I concentrated on the discussion in fair detail.
 
TexasBoogalooBBQ August 22, 2020
I guarantee my well seasoned flat top gives the best flavor with excellent crust.
 
Daisy August 18, 2020
The BEST burgers are made from ground chuck. 80/20's got nothing on ground chuck!
 
Smaug August 31, 2020
Chuck is pretty fatty- likely as not your ground chuck is 80/20 or thereabouts. What I wonder is how a butcher can possibly know the fat content of his ground meat.
 
gandalf August 17, 2020
mattrmoore -- If you head east on I-40 for a few hours, you will find me grilling burgers without a griddle or a meat thermometer (any meat thermometer that I've ever bought goes AWOL right away, so I don't even bother anymore). Instead, I look at the juice coming out of the burgers: if it's red, then the burger is rare; if it's pink, then the burger is medium-well; and if it's gray/clear, then the burger is well done.

Your article makes me want to go home and throw some meat on the grill right now!