Little Lesson #14: How To Grill A Great Burger

Life is a series of tasks. Some are easier to perform than others. Some are downright tricky. Some tasks we have mastered, while others remain, for one reason or another, a mystery. The Newtown Bee is presenting a series of short articles, “Little Lessons,” meant to light the way to a new or easier way to tackle those day to day duties, or even those less commonly encountered tasks, each one accompanied by a video at www.newtownbee.com. Welcome to the classroom.

An instant read thermometer inserted halfway into the burger after about 20 minutes of grilling is the only way to be certain a safe internal temperature has been reached, and that the burger is done.

Summertime calls for grilling, and grills call out for burgers. But mishandling the patty before it ever gets to the grill and bad habits during the grilling process means that many burgers end up overcooked, dried out, and plain disappointing. Steve Ford, owner and butcher at Butcher’s Best on South Main Street, has tips for serving up summer’s perfect burger.

First, if you want the perfect burger for the grill, make it by hand, says Mr Ford. Preformed burger patties made with industry machinery use a huge amount of pressure to form a patty. “It squeezes out all of the moisture and you end up with a dense finish patty that is dry,” he said.

Making a burger by hand produces a moist, delicate burger with great texture, Mr Ford said. “It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need any special equipment to make a burger that has retained a lot of moisture,” he said.

Before that burger is ever formed into a patty, though, the quality of the meat must be taken into account. “I like a meat that is 80 to 85 percent lean, and preferably ground chuck or 50/50 ground chuck and ground sirloin. That’s what we use at Butcher’s Best,” said Mr Ford. The sirloin gives flavor to the burger, and the chuck is used for its fat content, as well as flavor. A good butcher should be able to provide a combination of ground chuck trim and ground sirloin trim upon request, he said. “If that’s not available, work strictly with the ground chuck.” Lean ground round is another option for those watching fat intake, and while the result is a drier burger, it is fine if the burger is made by hand, he said.

Place the ground meat in a bowl. This is the point at which to put in the additions, such as crumbled bleu cheese, diced bacon and cheddar, or a special barbeque sauce or spice combination. “But the more seasoning you add, the less meat flavor you will have. If you have good meat to begin with, there is no need for more than salt and pepper,” Mr Ford advised. Then, using clean hands, “fluff” rather than stir the additions into the meat. “You don’t want to crush it, or ‘paddle’ it with a spoon. Your hands are the best utensils. The less the meat is handled, the better,” he said.

Next, using about 1/3 pound of meat per burger, gently form into balls. Moisten a work surface with a damp sponge and lightly press each ball to flatten it slightly to a thickness of about one inch. “Form the edges smoothly, but the less pressure you use, the better,” said Mr Ford. At this point, if time allows, Mr Ford suggests placing the burgers on a tray, covering lightly, and placing in the freezer while the grill preheats for eight to ten minutes. This helps the meat stay compact and firm when it is placed on the grill.

When the grill is hot, using washed hands, place the burgers on medium high direct heat, and grill with the lid open. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then grilling is heavenly. Mr Ford emphasized the importance of not touching the cooking meat with tools that have been used to handle raw product. “Keep the whole work area clean. That’s why I use clean hands to put burgers on the grill, then a clean tool to move them. Wash the spatula before you use it at the end to remove the meat from the grill,” he said.

Along with overmixing the meat and compacting it too much, the cardinal sin people commit when grilling burgers is to walk away, he said. “Be attentive to the grilling. You have to take into consideration the weather, for instance. Is it cold, is it windy, is it hot? That can all affect the product. You can visit with guests, but do it with one eye on the grilling,” he urged.

When the burgers have cooked for five minutes, use a clean spatula to rotate the burgers 90 degrees — but do not flip them over yet. The rotation averages out the hot and cold spots that every grill has, Mr Ford said, and is also a method of getting the burgers crisp on one side with minimal handling. Continue cooking for five more minutes, and then gently flip the burgers over.

“This is when people like to squash down on the burger. I think it is something they have seen their fathers and grandfathers do, but don’t do it,” pleaded Mr Ford. “That gets rid of all the flavorful juices and causes flare-ups that burn the burger,” he said.

When the burgers have cooked yet five more minutes, rotate them in place 90 degrees again. Cook five more minutes and then check the internal temperature with a small instant read thermometer inserted into the side of one burger, about half way. Don’t have an instant read thermometer? “Get one!” said Mr Ford.

If it registers 145 to 150 degrees, the burger is cooked to a safe temperature. If not, continue grilling the burgers, and check the internal temperature every two to three minutes. “It’s about 20 minutes for a one-inch burger, but that can vary. It’s important, for safety reasons, not to undercook it, or to overcook it either,” Mr Ford said, “and the 20-minute process is only a guide. That’s why you have to pay attention.”

When the burgers have reached the finish temperature, remove them to a ceramic tray and cover loosely with foil. Let them rest for about three minutes. Why the ceramic plate? “It is just cool enough to draw the heat off the surface of the burger, which sort of seals it and stops the juices from running out,” Mr Ford explained.

While the burgers are resting is the time to place a slice of cheese on top of a burger, if desired. “If you put it on at the end of grilling time, you will overcook the burger while you wait for the cheese to melt. The burgers are 145 degrees when you take it off the grill, and they are covered. It is hot enough to melt the cheese.”

Simple condiments like lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and slice red onion are all that are needed to top off the perfectly grilled burger. Mr Ford prefers a soft bun to a hard roll, but it’s all personal, he said.

How can you tell if you have made a great burger? “When nobody is talking at the picnic table,” said Mr Ford. “They’re too busy chewing!”