6 Tips for Building a Better Burger

August 23, 2013

Welcome to our new weekly series On the Grill, where our Sunday Dinners columnist Tom Hirschfeld will be showing us how to grill everything from steaks to salads with confidence (and style).

Today: Tom goes over burger basics -- and then some.


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6 Tips for Building a Better Burger on Food52


If you think about it, a hamburger is nothing more than a sausage without a casing. Once you accept this notion, you open yourself up to endless burger possibilities! I mean really, there are as many burger recipes as there are cooks. Everyone has their own little tweaks and a go-to recipe.

6 Tips for Building a Better Burger on Food52

With that being said, I am not going to sit here and try to convince you this is a recipe for the best hamburger in the world --- even though it is --- because someone will undoubtedly draw a line in the sand, slap me with gloves in hand, and challenge me to a duel. It's inevitable.

More: How to Make Any Burger In 5 Steps

But there are some guidelines I might offer the newbie. I am sure many of you out there can too, and I welcome each and every one of them in the comments section below. I might even get lucky and toss in an idea or two the seasoned cooks amongst you might not have known. Nevertheless, seasoned cooks -- fill in the blanks.



6 Tips for Building Better Burgers --- and Cooking Them Too:

Form your own patties
Put down that log of preformed beef! Yeah, the one with the additives for shelf stability that sweat like a fat man in a sauna when you see it resting on that black foam tray. Do you want to feel like a deer at a salt lick? No, I didn't think so. Put it back.

Check the fat ratio
Even sausage has a ratio. In good sausage, it is 1 part fat to 3 parts protein. For burgers, a meat buyer's guide will tell you ground beef shouldn't be more than 22% fat. The buyer may request a higher fat content, but it cannot exceed 30%. However, the beef can come from anywhere on the cow (with the exception of guts and organs). Ask your butcher about the type of meat and fat content they buy.

Grind your own meat
For the most part, I grind all meats myself. Here is why: there is bacteria on a steak that remains on the surface of the steak; it doesn't claw its way to the interior. So when you cook the steak, it is easily killed by the heat. However, if you buy ground meat at the grocery and don't cook it in a reasonably short time, the bacteria from the exterior that have been ground into the burger have a lot more surface space to grow and hide from the heat that kills them. If you buy ground beef that has been sitting in the meat case at the store, you should be nervous about cooking it to anything below an internal temperature of 165? F, or well-done, which makes for a dry burger, especially since you're using leaner beef. If I buy good whole cuts of beef and grind it myself, I have no fears of cooking it to medium-rare or medium.

Find the cut of meat you really like and use that
I like chuck. It has a good fat content (20% or so -- remember: just ask!), great flavor, and is very reasonably priced. For a good, all-around burger, it can do the heavy lifting. Beef round or sirloin are also a good choice, having a 15% or less fat content, but are more expensive and obviously leaner.

The grill
I like the charcoal to burn down a touch from its hottest before I cook burgers. The burgers flare up as the fat drips out. If the grill is too hot, not only is there heat under the grill grate but on top, too. You want a burger to caramelize but not burn. It can be a fine line. Medium-high heat, closer to the medium side, is what I shoot for.

Don't ignore your buns!
Grill those buns, damn it. No excuses. A grilled, buttered bun makes a better burger.

Here's the recipe for my favorite burger.

The Grilled Lake House Burger

1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
3 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh squeezed lemon juice

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.


6 Tips for Building a Better Burger on Food52


Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

Tell us: What are your burger tips? Share away in the comments.


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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Honest Tony
    Honest Tony
  • Danny Mallory
    Danny Mallory
  • peartart
  • jen
  • Bubba Mac
    Bubba Mac
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Honest T. June 7, 2014
By the way since I used to work for a large chain grocery store for over 20 years before. I worked in the meat dept. and I can tell you this. If you pick up chuck meat and give it to the butcher or meat clerk. Make sure you can see him ground it. Often times they will unpack the meat and save it in the back. Grab some ground beef saved in the back and exchange it. Making the customer think it is the chuck steak they wanted grounded. Why do they do this ? Well too many reasons here to list. Just make sure you can see him or her ground it. If you cant see them ground the meat. Buy your meat at another grocery store. This is where buying frozen patties would be much easier.
Honest T. June 7, 2014
I finally found the best flavor to mimic McDonalds Cheese burger and Burger Kings Whoppers. I can't share that here, but soon I will make a YouTube video and teach everyone who watches. After 42 years of cooking and 30 years of BBQ experience I can finally say I make a great burger!
Danny M. May 2, 2014
And if I can add a little…bacteria can escalate/grow with time. So a chunk of steak that has been ground for 5 minutes will still have bacteria inside (inevitable), but will have less than one that has been ground and sitting in a case for a long time. I'm not a microbiologist or anything, just a lover of food science who coincidentally has taken a microbio class and picked up a few things all the way :)
peartart May 1, 2014
No argument here about freshly ground meat, cooked to medium rare, served on a really good toasted (or grilled) bun. Only thing I would add is about a tablespoon or so of fish sauce to a pound of meat. The added umami makes for an unforgettable burger!
jen August 27, 2013
For those who love mushrooms, as i do, some finely chopped portabellos added to the ground meat add extra flavor and nice texture
Bubba M. August 26, 2013
and I would add #7...when forming the patty...do so with gentle hands. Imagine you are handling raw eggs. I abhor those patty making machines that smash the meat into a perfect circle and compress all that yummy juiciness...I grab a big ball of just ground chuck and gently massage it into the size that is appropriate for the bun...push your thumb in the middle to make a dimple and then put it down...ready to grill. You want there to be some space inside the burger for the 30% of fat to hang out and not be squeezed out and drip away. If a burger doesn't drip down your chin...you messed up!
ATG117 August 25, 2013
I thought it was bible that good burgers only needed a generous salting after the patties are formed. Misinformed?
burns W. August 26, 2013
If you think of burgers like sausages, and then look at Ruhlman's ratio for sausage, the ratio of meat+fat:salt is 60:1 (by weight)
burns W. August 25, 2013
A burger like a sausage without a casing? Absolutely! This is indeed the way to think about it! It opens up so many possibilities. And takes you away from preparing sad overgrown meatballs with breadcrumbs for filler. And as for buns.... make your own! Be in charge! And while you are at it - your own ketchup, mustard, and mayo as well. I'm serious - not kidding. Yes you CAN do it!
Sterling August 25, 2013
What buns do you use? I just can't seem to find amazing hamburger buns anywhere.
Los Angeles
Locavore42 August 25, 2013
I had the same problem finding a good burger bun that was NOT sweet ...that is, until Whole Foods came nearby. If you have access check it out. Some great seeded buns for burgers there.
EMR August 25, 2013
For a low fat, moist burger, I add 1/2 cup mashed, cooked black beans per pound of 90% lean beef. No doubt any bean could be used. However, Rancho Gordo Midnight black beans are incredibly creamy and from my viewpoint, the best for this job.
Sam1148 August 24, 2013
One of the Alton Brown tips I use for burgers is put the mayo on the bottom bun. A toasted bun with a layer of mayo and place the burger directly from the grill to the bun. This insulates the bun and prevents 'soggy bottom' and stops the self destruct buns that sometimes happens with good juicy burger meats.
Pat E. August 23, 2013
CAn you grind meat effectively in a food processor or do you need a real meat grinder?
Pat E. August 23, 2013
I heard that about washing chickens years ago. I still rinse them and ALWAYS rinse again with white vinegar...I do the same with pork and fish. Maybe it's just my imagination but it seems fresher/cleaner to me. DOesn't affect taste at all.
ErinJ August 23, 2013
A story just came out today on NPR about how one shouldn't wash chicken. It actually spreads the bacteria - http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/08/23/213578553/julia-child-was-wrong-don-t-wash-your-raw-chicken-folks
thirschfeld August 23, 2013
I just read that too!
Vicky K. August 23, 2013
And what about washing the steak? Like washing chicken...would that help reduce the bacteria?
thirschfeld August 23, 2013
I suppose you could but if you buy good ingredients and treat them with a sense of urgency, in other words cook it right away, you shouldn't have any problems.
yoursjulie August 23, 2013
Great tips. I agree that you should grind your own meat when you can, but the argument about the bacteria doesn't make sense to me. Say you have a steak, and bacteria grows on its exterior. Wouldn't grinding up the uncooked steak still distribute bacteria throughout the meat, including potentially into the middle of the patty?
thirschfeld August 23, 2013
Absolutely it would, but herein lies the difference, the human body is equipped to handle certain amounts of these harmful bacteria, the body can kill it off without you becoming sick . So if you buy good quality fresh beef that has been properly handled, grind it and cook it you are prohibiting the growth of harmful bacteria to amounts that would make you ill.
Locavore42 August 25, 2013
Yeah. I thought the same thing and read it 3X for clarity. The recommended chuck is not steak, but the bacteria has no preference, right? Doesn't make sense.
Danny M. May 2, 2014
And if I can add a little…bacteria can escalate/grow with time. So a chunk of steak that has been ground for 5 minutes will still have bacteria inside (inevitable), but will have less than one that has been ground and sitting in a case for a long time. I'm not a microbiologist or anything, just a lover of food science who coincidentally has taken a microbio class and picked up a few things all the way :)