Building the Best Burger in the Universe

best burger in the universeI knew that when I started a finance blog, there was a chance for contentiousness somewhere down the road. I didn’t realize, however, that my recipe for hamburgers would be ground zero.

My burgers have been declared “the best in the universe”. But I’ve found, through minutes and minutes of research, that my recipe flies in the face of the collected wisdom of most grill masters.

The only reasonable conclusion is that all of these experts are wrong. Let’s set them straight, shall we? First, let’s discuss what not to do.

BAD BURGER ADVICE

Things that are not and never will be true:

A Good Burger Needs a Crust?
Right. Because when you’re hankerin’ for a nice, juicy burger, you definitely want to start with crunching through a charred outer shell.

The art is keeping them juicy, and cooking them safely, without a crust. Feel free to grab a notepad, Bobby Flay. Burger school’s in session.

Be Gentle with your Ground Beef?
Some folks say handle your ground beef as little as possible. Don’t “overwork” it. 

Well, I have some really sad news for these folks. The time to intervene and save your meat from trauma was before it was dropped into an industrial meat grinder. It has had more vicious violence visited upon it than you can possibly imagine. Pretending it’s suddenly some delicate flower is ridiculous. Knead your ground beef as much as you like. It’s past the point of caring.

Don’t Add Anything to Your Ground Beef?
A burger is, by definition, a mix of stuff. Plus, the meat most of us proles use isn’t exactly ground filet mignon (nor should it be). Cheap ground beef with high fat is the ideal choice, and you’re not risking anything by adding stuff to it. If you want a pure & singular meat experience, go eat a steak.

Leave Your Meat Loose?
Some argue that you need to leave ground beef loose so that there are air pockets left in the mix. You know, because air tastes so good. Or it keeps the burger juicy somehow. Or they’re just plain lazy. Leaving it loose has no real advantages and some disadvantages, so avoid it.

Don’t Use Salt?
A modest amount of salt enhances the taste of almost every kind of meat (and food, for that matter), and burgers are no exception. Some folks say salt will dry out your patties, but as long as you do it in moderation, there should be no worries.

 

The Most Important Part of My Burger Recipe Isn’t an Ingredient

I actually agree with the folks who say you shouldn’t touch your ground beef too much. But not because it’ll damage it or hurt its feelings. It’s because raw ground beef is pretty disgusting.

That’s why the most important part of my burger recipe isn’t even an ingredient: it’s vinyl gloves.

There’s a lot of handling and mixing and even throwing of ground beef below, and it can leave a slimy mess on your hands. Before my vinyl glove epiphany, I had to lather for a long time to clean the slime off, and it still felt kinda gross (here’s the acid test: if you aren’t happy running your hands through your hair, they’re still not clean). Handling raw ground beef is a big disincentive to making burgers, and that’s a problem.

Disposable vinyl gloves are the solution. For about $.20, you can keep your hands pristine while you are still able to work your meat properly. They also reduce how much your hands warm the meat. Steven Raichlen (who says to chill your bare hands in cold water), take note. Rookie.

STUFF YOU’LL NEED

best burger ingredientsIngredients:

  • Ground beef: 85% lean / 15% fat (ground chuck or ground round is just fine).
    15% fat is the magic number – you don’t really need more, and you definitely shouldn’t go with less. I use 2 lbs to make a bit more than our 4 person family can eat.
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Egg
    Many burger aficionados say don’t do it, but my mom did it so I do too. I’ve tested with and without, and it does help the taste a bit. Plus mom is always right.
  • Steak sauce
    This is the secret ingredient. Either A-1, or, if you’re cheap like me, its generic equivalent (p.s. the ingredients are the same…). Try it and you’ll be hooked.

Supplies:

  • Vinyl gloves – get disposable ones labelled “safe for food handling”, and wash them with soap (just like you would your hands) as you start
  • Big bowl to mix stuff
  • Fork
  • Spatula

A note on seasoning:

  • Salt: I use it sparingly. This is an area you should start slow and adjust to your taste over time. Too much salt is bad, and too little is no big deal.
  • Pepper: it’d be hard to use too much, so experiment away. I normally use about 2x as much pepper as salt.
  • Steak sauce: be as liberal as you like. A good range is ~2-3 (fluid) ounces per pound of meat. Play with the amount over time to hit your sweet spot, but remember that one of its ingredients is salt. If you load up on steak sauce, you can probably skip salt altogether.

 

STEP 1: Mixin’ and Ballin’

best burger mixing

Yum!

Plop the ground beef in a bowl. Sprinkle salt and pepper lightly on the up side. Then pour some of your steak sauce and add the egg. Mix it up and flip it around with the fork, and then try to add a little more salt, pepper, and steak sauce to the unexposed areas (don’t be lazy and try to do all your seasoning in a single shot). Use your fork and then one of the vinyl gloves to thoroughly mix and mash everything together – you want everything spread evenly throughout.best burger mixing

Form the meat into equal-sized balls – get this right so they’ll cook at the same pace. I form my 2 pounds into 8 balls of equal size (for the mathematically inclined, that makes these quarter pounders).best burger balls

 

STEP 2: Baseball – the Most Important Step

Start throwing a ground beef ball to yourself like a kid with a baseball and a new mitt.

This is where the magic happens. You need to throw it HARD, but build up to this because at first it will be a weird motion and you could (ahem) actually miss and send a ground beef baseball somewhere it shouldn’t go. The goal is to pack the meat really tightly. You’ll need quite a few hard throws (with no misses).

best burger baseball

best burger baseball

 

best burger baseball

I know lots of experts say I’m wrong, but a few brave restaurants are with me on this. If you’ve never tried this you owe it to yourself. In my experience, packing the meat really tightly makes the burger:

  • Much juicier. I know I’m missing all of the “air pockets” that some folks crave, but I think a tightly-packed patty is more like a steak. And steaks, through some wonder of physics, can be pretty juicy with no air pockets at all.
  • Much easier to handle on the grill. You can flip them earlier and easier, and they are far less likely to crumble or leave half of themselves behind on your grill.

 

best burger making pattiesbest burger pattiesOnce you have the meat really nice and tight, form it into a flat patty. Repeat until you have all of them ready for the grill.

Peel off one of your vinyl gloves (the more disgusting one) and throw it away. Carefully remove the other glove so it stays outside-out and hang on to it. You’re going to use this one to put the burgers on your grill.

 

STEP 3: Grilling

Fire up your grill to the neighborhood of 325 to 350. I know this is cooler than some recipes advise, and I don’t care.

best burgers placing on grill

note the indentation in each patty

Put the patties on the grill very carefully using your vinyl glove (I switch hands from the one I used mixing so the vinyl glove surface isn’t slippery – the goo from mixing is on the back rather than the palm). The vinyl glove will let you lay down the patties very gently – almost touching the hot grill – rather than drop them. As you put down each patty, give it a little push with two fingers in the middle. This will make the middle thinner and allow the patty to more evenly cook. Even though it seems to make the patty misshapen, some sort of burger magic will make the indentation go away by the end of grilling.

As I do this for each of 8 patties, I treat the grill temperature as a precious commodity. I have a wild “jerk open / lay down / press / close” routine that I repeat 8 times. It looks weird and scares my cat, but it saves a lot of heat and keeps me from needing to intentionally overheat the grill at start.

Keep the grill closed and leave your burgers alone. Don’t even look at them; just keep an eye on the temperature. At about 5-6 minutes, I peek to confirm they’ve completely lost their pink color and are browning nicely. If they are, I flip them over as fast as possible. Having a super huge spatula helps.

 

best burgers ready to flip

halfway done and ready to flip

best burgers after flipping

just after flipping – sorry to all of you crunchy crust lovers

After about 4-5 more minutes (depending on how much heat I lost in flipping and where I am in my beer run), they should be cooked through to medium / medium well and ready to come off. (Remember I’m cooking quarter pounders – a different size will cook a different time.)

best burgers finished grilling

ready to come off – notice the shrinkage from the original size

I’m at the point now where I can just eyeball when they’re done cooking – it’s a function of color and shrinkage. If you’re not sure, you can test a number of different ways:

  • Use an internal meat thermometer to confirm they’re at 160°
  • Make sure they’ve noticeably shrunk and the juice pooling on them is clear / clearish
  • Poke them and see if they’re pretty firm
  • Pull one of the burgers off and cut it in the middle to make sure it’s cooked all the way through. This is a bush-league way of testing, but you can serve that one to yourself.

For those keeping score, you should only touch the burgers twice during grilling – once to flip, once to take off. Don’t press, poke, squash, slice, tickle, or otherwise bother your patties while grilling.

best burgers done

STEP 4: Eating

Let them cool for just a little bit – a few minutes at most. As I pick them up with the spatula, I’ll lean them on end with the spatula for just a moment to drain off some of the juice so the buns don’t get soaked.

Fix them up however you like. It’s a free country.

best burger ready to eat

best burger in the universe

This Post Hasn’t Been Long Enough! Can You Please Tie This to Personal Finance?

Why yes.

I’m a huge fan of grilling because it’s better food at a cheaper cost.

Going out for burgers (before alcohol…) could easily be a $40 to $50 affair when it costs me <$15 to grill, but that’s just the beginning.

The experience is far superior when we make burgers at home. We’ll often open a bottle of wine (does anyone order a bottle at a burger joint?), the missus’ll whip up an appetizer, my sons will relax playing Legos or games before dinner, we’ll have great leftovers for school lunches, and my cat Snufkin may even get his head scratched. It’s like arbitrage, only with burgers.

best burger in the universe

“the best burger in the universe”

If you’ve got your own burger secrets to share, let me know in the comments. If you’re outraged with my burger blasphemy, feel free to sound off, but I’d also suggest you try the recipe.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Building the Best Burger in the Universe

    • It’s serous business. There are a ton of decisions to make in burger prep and a lot of heated debate as to the right one on each. I’ve tested most of them over the years, and the above is my collected wisdom and very personal choice, but the main thing is to be aware of all the variables you can control.

    • Yeah, I figured as much – I can see you with your super heated pan right now. You’re in good company with the Bobby Flays of the world, but whenever you’re ready to try something different (and perhaps take it to the next level?) give the above a try 🙂

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