For something that is practically our national dish, we dont always do right by the good ol American burger.
Pre-ground beef mixtures have such bad reputations, we dub them pink slime. Even if we use better ground beef, we underseason it or we season it at the wrong time. We slap it on a grill and squish it with a spatula.
We dont take the time to treat our burgers with respect, and then we wonder why they turn out disappointing.
For our national holiday, take a little time to think about the burger rules. After years of testing, experimenting and studying, I consider these truths to be self-evident:
1. Grind your own. Most debates about meat mixtures focus on chuck, sirloin, brisket and short ribs. Several years ago, I went through many combinations before settling on my favorite mixture: Chuck and short ribs, with boneless sirloin thrown in if available. For more details, check my blog, obsbites.blogspot.com.
Grinding your own meat sounds intimidating but its not difficult. A meat grinder is the easiest. But you can do a decent job with a food processor if you chop the meat in large chunks and put it in the freezer for about 15 minutes, until its very cold but not yet frozen.
If you dont want to grind, look for ground beef thats organic or pasture raised.
2. Keep it cold. You need some fat to make a good burger mixture, but if it isnt cold, the fat will end up smeared on your equipment instead of in your burger. Cold meat also grinds better. So chill everything, from the equipment, such as the meat grinder screw or the food processor blade, to the meat. Even the bowl you mix the meat in should be cold.
3. Add moisture. When I tested those meat mixtures, I also tested ways to add moisture, including water. The addition that actually made a difference? Heavy cream and grated onion, two tricks I found in an old recipe by James Beard. Trust a big man to know his burgers. Grating onion adds subtle flavor; cream adds flavor, but also acts as a binder.
4. Know when to salt. Salt makes meat lose moisture and it dissolves meat proteins, making meat dense and spongy. Both result in dry, tough burgers. Instead of mixing salt into the meat, wait until just before the burgers go on the grill, then season the outside liberally with salt and pepper.
5. Shape it right. A burger thats too thick will burn on the outside before its done on the inside. Aim for 1 inch thick, the depth of the first joint on your index finger. Dont pack the meat too tight; aim for a loose shape with some crannies for holding juices and cheese.
6. Dimple it. Meat fibers clinch up when they cook, giving you a burger thats shaped like a softball. After you shape your burger, put a dent in the center. It will disappear as the burger cooks.
7. Dont squish. Pressing a burger with a spatula may cause flames to jump and look impressive. But all youre doing is pushing out the fat and moisture you just took the time to add. Flip all you want theres really no reason not to turn a burger several times if it gives you something to do. But dont squish it.
8. Use an instant-read thermometer, inserted sideways into the burger. Whether you want medium-rare (135 degrees) or well-done (160 degrees), its the only way to know for sure. Since youre cooking it at home, well leave it to your conscience to decide which is right for you. (If youre feeding children, pregnant women or people who are being treated with immune-suppressing drugs, please cook to medium, 150 degrees.)
9. Let it stand for a couple of minutes. Standing time improves all meats. The temperature will climb a couple of degrees and the juices will settle back into the meat, where they can give you that juicy experience.
10. Pick your bun. Theres no reason to get all fancy. Something soft and bland can let the burger stand out. Brioche or kaiser rolls are nice, but our favorite: Martins Potato Rolls. Theyre inexpensive, they toast up nicely and theyve done well in many taste tests. Theyre also higher in protein and lower in calories than several other supermarket brands.
To see printable versions of the recipes, click on the recipe names below: