1. You don’t buy the right amount of meat.
AND SO: You have to make tiny burgers and everyone is miserable and riots.
2. Your grill isn’t clean and oiled.
AND SO: Your burgers stick to the grill and you look stupid.
If your burgers are sticking to the grill, it’s probably because there’s a bunch of crap on there that shouldn’t be there. To clean it, the basics steps are 1) start with a warm grill, 2) scrape clean with a wire brush, 3) wipe with an oiled paper towel.
Keep in mind that it’s much easier to clean gunk off of a grill when it’s still warm, so if it’s your first cookout of the year (woot woot!), you’ll need to heat it up and clean it before you start cooking. Otherwise, just clean your grill after each use while it’s still warm.
Martha Stewart has a good set of directions on how to clean gas and charcoal grills.
3. You’re not paying attention to the fat/lean ratio.
AND SO: Your burgers aren’t delicious and might not even be made of cow.
First, remember that once meat is no longer a cow, every step of processing and packaging introduces an additional chance of contamination. And let’s be honest — especially in the case of shrink-wrapped, pre-pattied ground beef, there could be anything in there.
Sketchy, cheap ground beef won’t necessarily make you sick. But when I have to buy and cook it (and we all find ourselves in that position, especially in rented summer houses in remote towns with tiny grocery stores), I cook burgers to medium to make sure to kill anything nasty. And that makes for a less delicious burger.
So get the best meat available that you can afford. That means ground chuck — and remember that the perfect ratio is 80% lean and 20% fat. Fat is important. And if you can, ask the person at the butcher counter to grind it fresh while you wait. That will make a huge difference.
4. You’re overhandling the meat.
AND SO: Your burgers aren’t tender.
The less you handle your ground meat, the better. Mushing it causes the proteins to get worked up, and that makes your burgers less tender. So for the best burgers, don’t do ANYTHING to it before you shape the meat it into patties. Don’t dump it in a bowl to add seasoning — not even salt and pepper — and mix it around.
That includes adding anything other than salt and pepper, like eggs, onions, or herbs. This is probably the number-one mistake that everyone is guilty of (including me because my friends are addicted to these weird meatloaf burgers made with buttered shallots, eggs, and BBQ sauce mixed in). But give it a try.
5. You don’t consider the bun size when you make the patty.
AND SO: Your burgers are pathetic and lack a soul.
Burger meat will shrink as it cooks. So shape each patty about 1 inch wider in diameter than the hamburger buns you plan to use. As for thickness — don’t go above ½- to ¾-inch thickness, and try to make them the same so they cook at the same rate.
6. You’re adding salt to the meat before you make the patties.
AND SO: Your burger doesn’t transcend all other burgers ever created.
First, always use kosher salt. Its shape and structure allows you to season more evenly. Also, kosher salt has no preservatives.
Next, don’t salt until your patties are formed and just about to go on the grill. The reason is that salt draws water out of meat and starts to dissolve proteins, which makes them cling to each other and become springy like you want a sausage, not tender like you want a burger.
So just after you’ve made your patties, season one side generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Put it on the grill, seasoned side down. Just before you flip it (about four minutes in), season the other side.
Above you’ll see a perfectly shaped and seasoned patty, courtesy of Bon Appetit/a>. (Except that technically you’d want to season the non-indented side first, since you want the seasoned side down on the grill, and the indentation side up.) Learn more about salting ground beef in Kenji Lopez-Alt’s in-depth post over at Serious Eats.
7. You’re not putting an indentation in your patties.
AND SO: Your burgers are spherical and refuse to play nice with toppings.
Burgers made on the grill contract while they cook, causing the middle to puff up. Plan for this: Make an gentle indent in the middle of your patty, like the photo in #6, and your burger will be nice and flat.
8. You’re packing it too tight.
AND SO: Your burgers hate you.
“Get it right, get it tight” does not apply to burger grilling. Be gentle; let the meat be loosely clumped together. Do the minimal amount of work to form a patty that will hold together on the grill. Trust: It will taste better.
9. You’re pressing on your patties with a spatula as they cook.
AND SO: Your burgers are literally bleeding out and dying right before your eyes.
You are pressing all of the delicious meat juice out of the burger and into the fire. Stop it.
10. You’re adding the cheese too soon.
AND SO: It’s too melty and it’s all over your grill.
Add patty to grill, seasoned side down, indentation side up. Grill four minutes. Season indentation side, flip patty. Wait two minutes. Poke the burger to see where you are — it should be firming up but still squishy. Add cheese. Grill two more minutes.
11. You are shutting the lid to speed things up.
AND SO: Your burgers taste like weird smoke and aren’t cooking evenly.
Make sure your grill is nice and hot before you add the patties, then grill them directly over the hottest part. If you shut them in there with a lid, it’s not really cooking them faster the way you want to, and they might end up tasting like acrid smoke.
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