Grilling the perfect hamburger is not difficult, but judging by the number of rubbery, crunchy charcoal lumps I see coming off the grill every spring and summer, one would think that achieving burger perfection is about as likely as stumbling across the holy grail. One would be wrong. In fact, grilling the perfect hamburger is ridiculously easy, but how can something so easy go so wrong so fast? I don’t know the answer, but I am here to help. Think of this essay as a guiding light to lead you out of hamburger purgatory and into hamburger paradise. Jimmy Buffett would want you to make this journey, as do I.
Meat selection is crucial. Hamburger purists would tell you to grind your own meat, but I am a realist, and I understand that most civilized people have no interest in grinding up a bloody chuck roast in the food processor. It’s messy and mildly horrifying and, in my opinion, does not increase the quality of the end product enough to justify the trouble.
Do not use ground round. Do not use “lean” ground beef. Do not use ground sirloin. These ground meats do not contain sufficient fat content to produce an edible hamburger (or at least any hamburger I care to eat). I use 80/20 ground chuck. The meat-to-fat ratio is just about perfect and will produce (if handled properly) a juicy and flavorful hamburger that all will enjoy. 75/25 ground beef will work, but it is not ideal. I would never go so far as 70/30, unless you want to constantly battle flames from the dripping fat.
Once you select the meat, you must prepare it. That means opening up the package and patting out patties, right? Then maybe sprinkling a little salt and pepper on the patties before grilling, right? Not so fast. Meat preparation is a crucial step on your journey to the perfect hamburger, and it is so very sad that so many people avoid this step altogether. The genesis of a bad burger is more than often found in the lack of meat preparation.
For this step you will need a butter knife and a cutting board (sanitary polyethylene please, or rubber – not wood!). Put the ground meat on the cutting board and “chop” it apart with the knife until it’s broken apart into little crumbles. Now, we season. I use a generous amount of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Use your best judgment here, but when you think you have salted and peppered enough, you probably need to add a little more. Much of the seasoning will seep out with the fat during the cooking process, so you must account for that flavor loss by over-seasoning just a bit. Also sprinkle with garlic powder and onion powder to your taste, McCormick brand. That’s it for the seasoning. Use of pre-mixed spice blends is absolutely forbidden. Just don’t waste your time or hard-earned money. And, for goodness sakes, please do not sprinkle the meat with or otherwise soak it in Worcestershire sauce or Dale’s. This is heresy, and it accomplishes nothing except for a crumbly-textured weird-flavored hamburger. Salt. Pepper. Garlic powder. Onion powder. That’s it.
With the meat properly prepared (i.e. seasoned), now is the time to form the crumbled meat on your cutting board into patties. First, use the aforementioned butter knife to gently turn over the meat crumbles until the seasoning is evenly distributed. That way, the seasoning is actually inside the meat patty, and not just sprinkled on the outside as an afterthought (this should be a light bulb moment for you patty sprinklers – you know who you are). Pick up an appropriately-sized amount of meat to form a patty. If you are old enough to read these words, then you should know the correct size for a meat patty. If somehow this knowledge escapes you, then understand that the patty should fit the bun. It should be ¾ to 1-inch thick. Now you know, if you didn’t know before. Very gently form the ground meat into a patty, turning the patty around in your hands and pressing it until it magically turns into a circle. Use your thumbs to press along the edges of the patty. Some of you may be very strong, but avoid the temptation to use your hands like vice-grips. You want the patty to be formed and pressed enough so that it doesn’t fall apart, but overworking the patty and pressing too hard will result in a dense, tough, hocky-puck-ish textured burger that is not at all perfect.
Now it is time to grill. Well, almost. During the previous step you should have been pre-heating your gas grill to a minimum of 500 degrees. If you forgot, then fire up the grill for preheating, which should take about 15 minutes. Charcoal will work, but it takes a little extra effort and lots of briquettes to achieve the desired temperature. But, if you’ve got a kettle grill and are game, then go for it. I like to use a gas grill for burgers, and I highly recommend a Weber (though there are plenty of other very good gas grills out there that will do just fine).
With the grill up to temperature and the grilling surface clean and oiled, put the patties on the grill. During the grilling process, you will tempted to fall victim to several age-old unfortunate and ingrained grilling habits passed down from previous generations of imperfect grillers. You will want to watch the burgers cook. You will want to open and close the lid a dozen times to watch the big billows of smoke. You will want to press and press and press the patties with your burger-turner. Avoid these temptations, and you will be blessed with a more perfect burger.
With the patties on over direct high heat, shut the lid, and keep it shut. Keep the lid shut for 4-5 minutes. Do not peek, no matter how strong the urge may be. Run around the house a couple of times to work out your anxiety if needed. I promise you that the burgers are just fine hanging out under the closed lid. In fact, they are more than fine – they are doing great, because they are actually cooking, which is very hard to do without burning the patties to a crisp if you keep opening and shutting the lid and letting out all the heat.
After 4-5 minutes, open the lid and flip the burgers. Here you want to be super-fast and efficient, to lose as little heat as possible. You can practice your flipping technique using aluminum foil wads on an unlit grill. Once flipped, shut the lid for an additional 3-5 minutes, depending on how well-done you want your hamburger. Four minutes on each side will produce a medium to medium-well burger. You can adjust your time accordingly, but don’t let the burgers linger over the heat much longer than 8 minutes total, or you will not have a perfect burger.
During the flip and subsequent burger-removal process, you will be tempted to press the patties. Patty-pressing is the cardinal sin of burger grilling. I do not condone it in any form or fashion. You gain nothing from it, other than a dense, dry, tasteless patty that is not at all perfect.
Remove the burgers from the grill and place onto a metal pan. Cover loosely with aluminum foil. By this point, you are probably very hungry, but you must let the burgers rest for approximately 10 minutes. The resting process gives the burgers sufficient time to re-distribute juices, and complete the carryover-cooking process. Trust me – 10 minutes is worth the wait.
Now, at last, you have grilled the perfect hamburger, and you are ready to eat. I like my burger adorned very simply with the common condiments. I have no problem with buns-in-a-bag, so long as they are fresh. In fact, I prefer them to the fancy bakery buns. I mean, these are the instructions for a down-home backyard-grilled burger. You’re not running a 5-star restaurant here, so don’t waste your time with a bakery bun* or exotic condiments.
As you can see, grilling the perfect hamburger is ridiculously easy. It’s all about the meat selection, meat preparation, and grilling technique. I hope that this essay will help lead you out of the darkness and into the light. Cows are noble animals that give us so much, and if we go to the trouble of killing them and grinding them up for consumption, we should honor their great sacrifice by grilling them perfectly.
*One exception: Susan’s homemade kaiser rolls. Of course, most of you will have a hard time getting hold of one of these!