If burgers were on a commercial airline flight, beef burgers would be way up in first class. And turkey burgers? Let’s be honest: Most are a middle seat in the back row that is somehow both right next to the bathroom and directly over the engines.
The point is that turkey burgers are the big time underdog. But when they’re done right, they can be really good—first-class even. Turkey just needs a little more help than beef does to be juicy and flavorful. Luckily, you’ve probably already got most of the helpful ingredients you’ll need on hand.
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Choosing the Right Ground Turkey
Before we get into enhancing your turkey, a quick note about purchasing it: You can buy 99% lean turkey at the store, but for burgers, you have to go with at least 93% (or fattier, if you can find it). This is for a couple of reasons.
First is that fat in any burger melts during cooking and adds the perception of juiciness.
And second is that fat carries a lot of flavor. And since turkey is a particularly mild-tasting meat, we’ll take all of the flavor we can get.
Enhance Juiciness with Baking Soda, Gelatin, Panko, and Butter
One of the main problems with turkey burgers is that they don’t cook up nearly as juicy as beef.
According to the book Meat Science and Applications (2001) by food scientists Y.H. Hui, Wai-Kit Nip, R.W. Rogers, and Owen A. Young, “Juiciness is determined by the moisture content, pH, water-holding capacity, firmness of the meat, and the residual fluid (moisture or fat) remaining in the final product, which is dependent upon the conditions of temperature and time imposed on the cut during cookery.”
So, to make a turkey burger seem more moist, we need to use other ingredients to help us alter some of those qualities. Here’s a little more on each of the four ingredients we chose.
Applying baking soda to raw meat raises its pH—and that makes a huge difference when it comes to water-holding capacity.
Baking soda alters the charge on the muscle filaments so that they repel each other and remain a tiny, tender distance apart during cooking. The result is that the muscle fibers don’t contract as much and therefore don’t squeeze out moisture.
As a bonus, higher pH also means better browning, as Maillard reactions favor an alkaline environment.
Gelatin is known for holding onto and trapping many times its weight in water. Just think about a Jell-O mold, where gelatin traps loads of sugary water, creating a solid.
Gelatin is largely what’s responsible for the juiciness we perceive in braised meat as it absorbs liquid and holds it in place. For turkey burgers, we aren’t working with a tough cut that is naturally rich in collagen, the protein that transforms into gelatin over a long, slow cook time. But that’s OK—we can simply add unflavored powdered gelatin to the mix.
We found that just 3 tablespoons of panko not only helped with juiciness, but the breadcrumbs also helped break up the tight texture of store-bought ground turkey.
Baking soda, gelatin, and panko are largely aimed at moisture, or water-based juices. But fat is also part of the juiciness equation. Using 93% lean meat is a good starting point, but we can make a marked improvement by adding just a small amount of additional fat.
In our side-by-side tests, 1 tablespoon of melted butter distributed over 4 patties made a noticeable improvement. Fat lubricates our tongue and provides the perception of juiciness.
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Boost Flavor with Soy Sauce and Parmesan
Now that we’ve nailed the texture, we can focus a bit on flavor.
Turkey is mild. We know this. The goal isn’t to alter that flavor but to enhance it: to create a burger that tastes like a savory, rich, best version of turkey.
One key point to focus on is umami, the mouthfilling savory taste we get from everything from mushrooms and tomatoes to soy sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Getting some umami-rich ingredients into these burgers will make them mouthwatering and satisfying. After a slew of tests with a wide range of ingredients, Cook’s Illustrated Senior Editor Annie Petito settled on adding two umami enhancers: soy sauce and Parmesan.
Parmesan cheese clocks in at almost 1700 mg of glutamic acid per 100 grams. And soy sauce is not far behind at 1100 mg. Both also bring complexity and some welcome salt.
With that, our flavorful, moist turkey mix is complete.
Want to learn more about how to make the best turkey burgers? Check out the latest episode of What’s Eating Dan? below.