Great burgers are the stuff dreams are made of: a perfectly cooked and seasoned patty sandwiched between a sturdy bun, the juices from the meat making a delicious mess, and memories of summertime barbecues lending a subtle note of nostalgia. Whether you like your burger topped with just a few classic ingredients or prefer to be more experimental, when it comes to making a great burger you’ve got to nail the basics ― especially the all-important patty. To help us out, HuffPost asked some industry experts to share their top tips.
For the ground beef, an 80-20 meat-to-fat ratio is ideal.
Experts interviewed for this story differed in the cuts of beef they like to use, but they agreed on the 80-20 ratio for ground beef to achieve the right balance of moisture and flavor.
“It’s imperative that the meat has a good ratio of fat content in the grind,” Terry Chandler, outlaw chef of Fred’s Texas Café in Fort Worth, Texas, told HuffPost. “You don’t want anything leaner than 20% fat ― any less and the meat will be dry and break off into your mouth as you eat it. The truth is there is more beef flavor in the cheaper cuts of meat, like the chuck or brisket, than choicer and more expensive cuts.”
Chandler explained that fat and collagen contribute most to the flavor of beef, and while the choicest cuts get their flavor from fat content (which is often referred to as marbling), the chuck contains a high percentage of both collagen and fat. “When ground into a burger, all the collagen and fat are mixed with the lean muscle to deliver that wonderful taste you seek in a burger,” Chandler said.
Ratios and cuts of beef aside, Anya Fernald, co-founder and CEO of Belcampo, emphasized the importance of sourcing ground beef from reputable purveyors that prioritize human health and the environment. “I think that chefs have been leaning on claims about all the different cuts they use to mask the bigger question of where the meat comes from,” Fernald said. “A lot of people are making expensive burgers out of cheap meat and saying what the cuts are to distract people from that fundamental issue.”
Patty size will vary depending on what cooking surface you use.
Recommendations on size also differ depending on which chef you ask, ranging from as small as 4 ounces (“anything more can be too big for the bun,” Ashley Abodeely, executive chef of The Firehouse Hotel in Los Angeles, explained) to 10 ounces (recommended by Chandler ― everything’s bigger in Texas, right?).
“When cooking on a griddle or plancha [at a lower heat], I use no more than four ounces of beef,” Alvin Cailan, chef of The Usual in New York City, said. “For the grill, I like a 6-8 ounce patty, so the exterior is nice and seared and the interior is perfectly pink and juicy. When pan searing, I like a 7-ounce beef patty. It holds well to the high heat and is hard to overcook because of its thickness.”
When forming the patty, avoid overworking the mixture and use chilled meat.
Less is more when it comes to shaping burger patties. “If I am at home, I just grab a ball of meat the size of a pool ball and gently flatten it out,” Adam Biderman, chef/owner of The Company Burger in New Orleans, said. “Do not mess with it too much as you want to keep it loose-packed, so that when it cooks, it stays juicy.”
Working with chilled meat will help keep you from overworking it. “When forming the patty, the colder the meat is, the easier it is to work with and the patties stay together better,” Chandler said. “I knead the meat like bread a little to stick it together, then I form it into a ball before flattening it into a patty using my hands to keep the edges nice and smooth.”
Don’t season the beef before you form the patties.
“Do not season the meat before forming the patties; the results will become dense like hockey pucks!” Cailan said. It’s the kind of mistake that, once cooked, will give your burgers a meatloaf-like texture ― not ideal.
“The salt or seasoning will draw out the moisture from the meat and the meat will stick together like glue,” he explained.
When it’s time to season, don’t hold back. “Always avoid underseasoning burgers,” Matthew Hyland, chef and co-founder of Emily and Emmy Squared restaurants in New York, told HuffPost. “You can’t salt the inside of a burger, so make sure you heavily salt on the outside. The burger juices wash away some of the salt, too.”
Create a hard sear to lock in flavors and add texture.
“Regardless of how it is cooked (open barbecue or a griddle), searing the exterior while keeping color on the interior is the only way to taste the meat,” Pat LaFrieda, CEO of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, said.
The third-generation butcher recommended using high heat and a shorter cooking time. “I like to cook at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for burgers that are 1 inch thick,” LaFrieda said. “That gives me a sear and doesn’t overcook the burger.” To determine when to put the burgers on your cooking surface, LaFrieda recommended using a surface heat thermometer. If you don’t have one wait until the grill is hot enough that water sizzles when dropped onto the surface.
Flip once, and only when the burger is ready to be flipped.
“The number one mistake I see is people pushing the burger around the pan and trying to flip before it’s ready,” Fernald said. “Your burger should be flipped one time; you should be able to nudge it slightly with your spatula to test if it has released from the bottom of the pan and is ready to flip. If you are scraping at it trying to flip it, it’s not ready yet.” She recommended cooking burgers in a very hot cast iron or stainless steel pan for best results.
Another indication that it’s time to flip is “when you see the edges of the patty just starting to shrink in a little bit,” Biderman said. “Burgers will shrink just a touch as the fat renders and proteins denature.”
Hyland is another supporter of the single flip ― a crucial move that results in a satisfying sear. “I think you get a better crust on the outside of the burger with the extended surface contact instead of flipping frequently and losing heat on each side,” he said.
For those cooking burgers on a grill, Chandler recommended waiting until the patty releases “as the raw meat sticks when initially put on the hot grill.” He added: “Place the patties on the grill gently, so meat isn’t forced down between the grates, and for heaven’s sakes, never press down on the patty once on the grill.”
Don’t spend too much time on the hottest part of the grill.
At The Firehouse Hotel, Abodeely cooks burgers on a wood-burning grill ― first on a high heat “to seal in the juices quickly on both sides,” then at a lower temperature before removing from the heat and resting the meat. “I’m always surprised by how quickly burgers can overcook,” Abodeely said. “Cooking burgers on too high heat is a common mistake.”
Cailan takes a similar approach, but cooks on the hot part of the grill at the end rather than the beginning. “Cook on the warmer side of the grill until you get to an internal temperature of 118 degrees F and then finish the sear on the hottest part of the grill for 30 seconds on each side,” Cailan said.