At Consumerist, we take burgers very seriously. So much so, that we wanted to share some tips we gathered from an expert about the basics every burger lover should know before they fire up their grill.
We spoke to Chef Howie Velie, Associate Dean of Specializations at the Culinary Institute of America, and here are a few things he says every home cook should keep in mind:
1. Use ground beef with an 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio
If you want something to be moist, like a burger, you have to maintain the moisture within the product. To do that, Chef Velie says, it’s important to use a ground beef with high fat content, because fat equals moisture.
He adds that whatever heat source you use, whether it be a grill or a pan on the stove, heat transfers very well through fat. That means the fattier the burger, the faster it will cook, Chef Velie explains.
2. Charcoal grills are great — but propane works too
Chef Velie says his personal preference is using lump charcoal in a charcoal grill, instead of briquets, but ultimately he says it’s a matter of personal preference.
“I like cooking over a fire,” he tells Consumerist, likening it to methods of cooking that go back thousands of years.
Propane grills will also do the trick, he adds — “you’re getting plenty of good flavor from that.”
Don’t have an outdoor space or a grill at your disposal? Cooking a burger on the stove works, too, as we found out when we previously tested Chef Velie’s burger-making tips.
“If you have a nice heavy iron, cast iron skillet or something like that, that’s gonna hold heat, you can get a really good char,” he notes.
3. Don’t press that patty!
You might’ve heard that moving a burger around on the grill is bad — that’s arguable, Velie says, but there is one thing you definitely shouldn’t do: smushing the burger with your spatula — even if makes your grill flare up in a cool way.
“A lot of people do that,” Velie admits, but says this common practice is “kind of the most tragic thing you could do because you’re basically just pressing out all the flavor.”
4. Salt & pepper are your friends
While you can add whatever seasonings you want to your burger patties, don’t shy away from good old salt and pepper.
“I think salt and pepper are tragically under utilized on burgers on grills,” Chef Velie says. “Salt and pepper are where you build flavor in everything. So you’re enhancing the meat flavor, you’re enhancing the char and smokiness of the grill by using salt.”
Beyond that, Chef Velie says he’s not a fan of mixing in or adding too many other things to burgers.
“If you’re gonna do that, make meatloaf and serve it with potatoes.”
5. Use a heat thermometer to make sure it’s done
When it comes to cooking raw meat, it’s important to get the temperature up to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit for safety reasons. And you can’t just judge by color, as the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service explains, oxidation from freezing and thawing can cause red meat to turn brownish without any cooking.
FSIS also notes that “some lean ground beef may remain pink at temperatures well above” 160° F.
Chef Velie agrees that a meat thermometer is the “guaranteed way” to make sure a burger is cooked thoroughly.
“Don’t guess. You can guess all day, but unless you’ve done it 10,000 times, you’re not gonna be good at it,” he advises, adding, “I know when it gets to 165 degrees it’s done, it’s gonna be juicy.”
Happy eating, everyone, from our stomachs to yours.
(Note: This is an updated and slightly revised version of a story that first appeared on Consumerist in May 2016.)