100 Techniques

Technique #17: Handle Meat Gently for the Tenderest Burgers

Make a divot and don't smash it!

Published Oct. 15, 2023.

This is Technique #17 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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A tender, juicy burger with a flavorful, browned crust is the stuff summer-cookout dreams are made of. The frequent reality, though, is dry, dense burgers that vaguely resemble a squashed tennis ball. Here's our technique for turning out perfectly tender burgers.

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Handle as Little as Possible

A prime reason for dense patties is excessive handling. The more you handle ground meat, the tougher and more rubbery it will become.

But it’s easy to prevent this. To ensure the gentlest touch, use only your hands rather than utensils to mix in seasonings. (Also, save salt for the outside of each burger patty; incorporating it toughens the meat.) 

Then, again with your hands, remove a portion of meat from the bowl, form it into a loosely packed ball, and flatten that ball into a loosely packed disk, working it as little as possible. Since burgers typically bulge as they cook, using your fingertips to create a slight divot in the center of each patty helps deliver ideally flat cooked burgers.

good burger, evenly cooked, loosely packedbad burger, dense and overly rare in the center

Gentle handling is key. Notice the difference between the evenly cooked, flatter burger on the left versus the dense, rounded burger on the right.

It’s particularly important to treat prepackaged ground meat gently. Commercially ground meat has already been aggressively handled—sometimes it is ground multiple times. This causes soluble proteins to be released, which act like glue and cause the meat to stick together in a dense mass.

If your supermarket will grind meat to order for you, take advantage of that. Grocers who grind meat in-house usually use whole primal cuts, whereas commercially ground meat typically contains more greasy trimmings. 

Only Flip Once

Whether cooking on the stovetop or the grill, flip your burgers only once. And—we beg you—resist the urge to press down on your burgers with a spatula. That only squeezes out the juices, which leads to dry patties.

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Fattier Is Better

Choosing a fattier ground meat option helps keep patties tender as well: 85 percent lean ground beef is our favorite for tender, juicy burgers. Leaner ground beef is more likely to turn leathery and tough.

For poultry, look for 93 percent lean ground chicken or turkey, which contains both light and dark meat. Ground chicken breast and ground turkey breast are generally 99 percent lean, and they will produce dry, chalky burger patties despite your best efforts.

Watch how gently our test cook handles these Skillet Turkey Burgers for the best texture.

Step by Step: How to Make a Tender Burger

Here are the key steps for the juiciest, most tender burger ever.

Step 1: Break It Up

Break ground meat or poultry into small pieces and add to large bowl.

Step 2: Mix Gently

Add any mix-in ingredients and gently knead with hands until well combined.

Step 3: Portion Patties

Divide meat mixture into equal portions, then gently shape each portion into 3∕4-inch-thick patty.

Step 4: Add a Divot

Using your fingertips, press center of each patty down until about 1∕2 inch thick, creating slight divot.

Step 5: Season and Cook

Season exterior of patties with salt and pepper and grill or pan. Cook, flipping only once.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Use your newfound burger-making knowledge with any of these recipes.


Classic Beef Burgers

Can't go wrong with a classic.
Get the Recipe

Buffalo Chicken Burgers

We took everyone's favorite combo: chicken, buffalo sauce, and celery and made it into a burger.
Get the Recipe

Classic Turkey Burgers

A lean, flavorful turkey burger is a delicious alternative to the classic beef burger, and we wanted to create a simple and satisfying patty using store-bought ground turkey.
Get the Recipe

Breakfast Pork Burgers

Breakfast in burger form. Is there anything better?
Get the Recipe

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