Burgers hold a special place in the heart of America and are increasingly globally ubiquitous, for good reason. They're the ultimate comfort food, perfect for either lunch or dinner, and at their core, they only require two ingredients: meat and buns.
In spite of their amazingly simple foundations, however, it's surprisingly easy to make a disappointing burger. A few simple (and common) mistakes can result in a burger that is dry, tough, and bland. If you're having trouble consistently making tender, juicy, flavorful burgers, then this is the guide for you.
So how do you get a burger that's tender, not tough; juicy, not dry? There are just a few factors that account for most of your patty's consistency: the cut of meat used, how you handle the patties, and how long you cook them for.
A lot of people are trying to eat healthier and reduce their fat intake; we get it. BUT, one of the easiest ways to end up with a dry, tough, flavorless patty is to use meat that's too lean.
Fat is a huge contributor to the moisture and flavor of your patties, so we recommend not going for that extra lean stuff. Ground beef that it 70% lean (30% fat) is ideal, but 80% lean meat can still get you a fairly juicy and flavorful patty with a little less fat for those of you trying to be healthy.
While the fat content is the most important factor when choosing meat, it's also worthwhile to pay attention to the cut of meat. Most ground beef is made of chuck, which is a good and affordable option for burger patties, but does have a little more connective tissue than other cuts of meat, meaning it can be a little less tender than some other cuts of meat.
Another good cut of meat for burgers is sirloin, which is a very flavorful cut of meat with less connective tissue. Patties made of sirloin will be more tender. You can ask for ground sirloin or a mix of sirloin and chuck from the meat counter at your grocery store. Or you can use a grinder attachment for your stand mixer to grind meat at home. A food processor also works in a pinch.
Many burger novices (and some veterans) handle their ground meat too roughly when shaping it into patties. It can be tempting to smash and press the patties together repeatedly to make sure they hold together well, but the result is ultimately a dense and tough patty.
Handling the ground meat too vigorously can also warm up the fats and make them pliable. When the fats become pliable, they are more likely to come off on your hands and other surfaces the meat touches, leaving less fat—and therefore less moisture and flavor—in the patty.
When forming your patties, handle the ground meat as gently as possible, and don't worry too much if it's not holding together perfectly. You should have a patty that looks roughly like this one—those little cracks in a few places are fine, and a good indication that you didn't overwork the meat.
For help with getting your patties to hold together, try to keep the meat cool while shaping; some recipes recommend refrigerating or even freezing the meat for a period of time to help with patty cohesion and to keep the fats from getting too warm.
As a side note, we recommend that you DON'T salt your patties until just before cooking them. More on that later.
We can't stress this one enough. The easiest way to make a dry, tough, bland burger is to cook it into oblivion. A well-done burger is not your friend if you're after greatness; medium (about 145°F) is a great place to shoot for when it comes to burgers. That's about 3 or 4 minutes per side, depending on the heat of your grill/stove.
While we're on the subject of cooking the patties, make sure you're not pressing on the patties too much as they cook. We get it, you want nice flat patties that cook evenly, but you're also pressing the moisture out of your patties as you squash them. Instead, make a small indentation in the center of the patty before adding to the grill—this will help ensure it stays flat as it cooks.
The above three tips are going to make the biggest difference in getting a tender, juicy burger, but there are a few tricks you can try if you want to be really extra.
Much of the work of making a flavorful burger should already be done if you've followed the guidelines above, but there are a few things we'd like to add to help make sure you're seasoning and cooking your patties to flavorful perfection.
Burger afficionados often argue about how many times it's okay to flip a patty, with many promoting the flip-once-and-only-once method as a kind of sacred mantra. Others maintain that flipping a patty multiple times helps the meat cook more evenly.
The truth as we see it is somewhere in the middle. Flipping a few times while cooking can indeed help the patty cook evenly, and it's a good way to avoid burning the patty if that's a worry of yours.
The only danger with flipping more than once is that flipping too often can cause you to miss out on a nice sear, and that sear is a huge part of what contributes to meat's flavor (google "maillard reaction" if you're interested in learning more about this).
This is a major duh, but it's worth talking about in more detail. Seasoning your patty the right way is going to make a big difference in the flavor of your burger.
Many burger purists say all you need is salt, pepper, and the right kind of meat. And they're right! But if you don't have the world's best meat, or you just want a burger that's got a little special twist, there's nothing wrong with adding some more seasonings.
A common spice combo is onion (either powder or finely chopped), garlic (powder or minced), salt, and pepper, but you can use virtually any spice you want, so experiment! We like chili powder and sliced green onions in ours.
This point functions in tandem with the one above, but we wanted to give it its own section, because it's important: DO NOT salt the patty until just before it goes on the grill/pan, especially if you are not going to cook it immediately after forming the patties.
Why? Salt is crucial to the flavor, but adding it too early allows it to draw moisture out of your patties and dry them out. Since moisture is a big contributor to flavor, premature salting can create burgers that are both dry and flavorless.
Not only that, but it can contribute to toughness as well, since it helps break down connective tissue in such a way that allows it to reform into denser and more rigid structures within the patty.
We've tracked down a few great recipes you can try now that you're a burger pro. Plus, we're breaking down what they do well and what (if anything) they could do differently. Let's get started!
What makes it great: It incorporates deliciously fatty bacon, bbq sauce, onion, and condensed mushroom soup into the patty for added moisture and flavor. In fact, that bbq sauce and soup is combined with panko bread crumbs to create a panade that also helps create a light texture.
What it could do better: It recommends you cook to an internal temperature of 165°F, which is well done. We don't recommend this at all if you want a tender, juicy, flavorful burger, though all the added moisture in the patty means that if you're the 'pink-is-poison' type or you're forced to cook for one, this burger should still turn out okay.
What makes it great: This delicious burger recipe from Rachael Ray incorporates mustard into the patty and recommends cooking to medium (not well done)That caramelized onion and bacom jam is also going to add a ton of amazing flavor.
What it could do better: It calls for salt to be added to the patties before they are formed instead of just before cooking. And you may want to shave off a few minutes from the 10-minute estimate it gives if you really want to end up with a tender medium patty.
What makes it great: Turns out Rachael Ray does burgers right. In this second Ray recipe, worcestershire sauce makes the patty moist and joins a ton of other seasonings that pack in the flavor. There's also a bit of oil in the patty to help make sure it retains a delicious amount of fat and flavor.
What it could do better: Again, it should wait to season with salt until after patties are formed. It could also use even fattier beef (it calls for 80% lean, but you can use 70% lean for even more greatness). And finally, it has you cooking up to 12 minutes for medium well, which is likely to give you something close to well-done. Shoot closer to a nice medium at 3 to 4 minutes per side.
What makes it great: For a burger with such a boastful name, it ought to check all the right boxes. This one has butter in the patty and uses sirloin tips ground at home for a tender, flavorful, and juicy patty right from the beginning.
What it could do better: Are we sounding like a broken record yet? Wait until just before grilling to season with salt instead of adding some before forming the patties. And though this recipe recommends cooking to medium rare or medium, it says that means about 4 to 7 minutes per side, but that's typically much too long for those doneness levels. 3 to 4 minutes per side is likely to serve you better if you're shooting for medium.
What makes it great: This burger from Chef Nathan Tate of Rapscallion in Dallas, TX seasons liberally and at the right moment for a flavorful burger that doesn't get tough. It also recommends cooking the patty to a juicy medium and accompanies with incredibly flavorful pimento cheese
What it could do better: If we're being nitpicky, it could use fattier meat (it calls for 80% lean), plus it could incorporate some of that mayo and mustard into the patty.
What makes it great: This decadent mix of sweet and savory calls for 70% lean meat and recommends you form the patties using a 4-inch ring, which helps you create patties to a perfect shape without being tempted to overwork the ground beef. It also has you season the patty with salt (and brown sugar—yum!) just before cooking and not before. It recommends cooking to a nice tender medium, which is perfect, though it tells you that means about 5 to 6 minutes per side. We recommend shooting for closer to 3 to 4 minutes per side for a true medium and adding more time if necessary.
What it could do better: If you like, you may choose to flip more than once for more even heating, or make the patty even more fatty and moist by adding bacon or herbed butter, but those are nitpicky suggestions.
What it could do better: It recommends cooking 5 to 6 minutes "or until cooked through," in other words, until well-done. Something closer to 3 to 4 minutes should get you closer to medium, and a more tender, juicy, flavorful burger.
What makes it great: This patty has plenty of seasonings including soy sauce and hoisin which will add moisture (though we recommend using low sodium soy sauce to avoid the premature salting issue). Adding fresh pineapple is also going to make the experience of eating this burger even juicier and incredibly flavorful.
What it could do better: Though the patties are pork and not beef, it's still okay to cook them to 145°F instead of 160°F like the recipe recommends. So you should only need about 4 minutes per side instead of 5 to 7.
What are your favorite burger tips and tricks? Is there anything you think we got wrong? Drop us a note in the comments and help everyone learn to make the best possible burger—because no one deserves a bad burger.