It’s burger-grilling season, which means we’re all getting treated to some doozies of bad burgers. You know what I’m talking about: They taste like soot. Dry, flavorless, firm as tennis balls. Some are even round like tennis balls, and they barely fill out the bun. Sure they’re hot off the grill, but that’s all they have going for them.
After picking up a ton of tips over the years from our experienced test cooks here at America’s Test Kitchen, I can confidently say: I know how to make a great grilled burger. I’ve collected my wisdom into a Letterman-style Top 10 list—follow these ideas and juicy, tender, beefy burgers will be in your future.
10. It Starts At The Store
Buy at least 85% lean ground beef. Too lean (like 90% or 93%) and you’re asking for dry burgers. On the grill, fat mostly melts away, leaving your burger with an open texture that’s tender and juicy. Better yet, if you're feeling up for it, buy an assortment of whole cuts and grind it at home yourself.
9. Barely Handle It
A light touch is necessary when shaping burger patties. If you overwork it, it'll toughen up and get chewy as sausage. Absolutely no squeezing or firm pressing. As our resident meat guru Morgan Bolling warns, "Ground beef is not Play-Doh."
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8. Skip The Gadgets
You know those hamburger presses to shape burgers? Skip 'em. We tested them and they compress the meat too much. You already own the world's best gadget: your hands. Use 'em, but you know, gently.
7. Know Your Ideal Burger Shape
After making thousands of burgers, my favorite patty shape remains a flat disk: 4 inches across and ¾ inch thick. For most hamburger buns, that's the perfect size and fit.
6. Put A Dimple In It
After you shape the patty, use your finger to poke a belly button right in the middle on one side, about ¼- to ½- inch deep. That way, it won’t puff up on the grill and give you a burger ball instead of a burger patty.
5. Clean Your Grill Grates
Want your burgers to taste like burgers intead of old soot? Clean the grill grates first. Let the grill preheat (all burners on high for gas) for a full 15 minutes, lid down. Scrub hot grates with a grill brush. Dip a wad of paper towels in vegetable oil with tongs, and wipe the grates to finish the cleaning. This also helps make your burgers stick less. Then and only then, add the patties. Do this every time you grill.
4. An Instant-Read Thermometer Is Your Best Friend
Some people say they know by sight. Others use their knuckles and claim they can feel the doneness. Really, the most accurate way to gauge doneness is by using a digital instant-read thermometer. Precision is the key to perfect burgers. (This is our all-time favorite thermometer; here's our favorite mid-priced option.)
3. Learn Your Temp
Once you have your digital thermometer, remember 125 degrees Fahrenheit is medium-rare, 135 is medium, and really, forget well done—unless you’re cooking for little kids or people who are immune-compromised. In that case, get it to 165 degrees for safety.
2. Resist The Urge To Flip More Than Once
Remember rule number nine above, about not over-handling? Same idea applies once your burgers hit the grill. Try to turn your patties only once on the grill; let them stay put and form good grill marks.
1. For Crying Out Loud, Don't Press Down
Listen. I know it's satisfying to hear that sizzle of the grill when you press down. Maybe some juices come out, hit the flames and flare up. But for crying out loud, cut it out with the pressing down while you cook. That just squeezes it to death and lets out precious juiciness. Speaking words of wisdom: Let it be.