Summer is gone, and standing beside a hot grill no longer feels like an act of torture. That means it's time to fire up the charcoal, and one of the easiest way to coax the most flavor out of your kettle grill is by cooking top-notch burgers. Skip the preformed pucks the grocery stores try and sell you and take the time to hand-form your own patties. It's the best way to get the right texture and best flavor out of your burger.
If you've delved deep into burger mechanics or spent time reading a food writer's prose about seared, ground meat served on a pillowy bun, you've probably heard the term "loose pack." The phrase refers to the lack of compression used to form the patties which end up a little irregular, and if you're doing it properly, seem like they'll almost fall apart. It's basically exactly the opposite of what you would do when forming a meatball, meatloaf, pate or any other densely molded meat recipe.
If you're really interested in why loose packing makes for juicier, more evenly cooked, and delicious burgers you're more than welcome to spend some time on this blog post where an MIT graduate turned recipe developer talks fat ratio, surface area, and fractals of all things, or you can just trust me and pretty much every burger pro on the planet: Loose packed burgers are the way to go.
Here's how I get the loosest pack I can at home in addition to some other tips and tricks for making the best burger possible.
Secure the best bun you can. Most buns you pick up in the prepackaged bread section of the grocery store are terrible. The buns get squished from being stuffed into plastic bags before they're shipped around and they're always dry. Hit the bakery section of your grocer and ask for freshly baked buns. Central Market has brioche buns you can call ahead and order that are as good as the buns you'll see in Dallas' better restaurants.
Back that bun up with the best beef available. It's really simple: The better ground beef you use, the better results you'll have. Make sure the blend is at least 20 percent fat if you want the most flavor possible and buy the best possible quality you can afford. Skip your standard grocery and go to a butcher like Rudolph's.
You're looking for a light, airy grind that's been handled gently, not a dense pasty mass that's been stuffed into Styrofoam and shrink wrapped. Make sure the package doesn't get squished by other ingredients on your way home, and get it into the fridge as soon as you walk through the door until you're ready to work with it.
Want the best burgers possible? Grind the meat at home right before you cook it.
Keep things light. Carefully break up the meat to uniformly cover the pan. Do your best to preserve the individual strands of ground beef and not overwork the mixture. Now you're ready to season.
Salt and Pepper. Many dishes you make at home can be tasted and adjusted, but you pretty much have one shot to season a burger properly. Burgers can take a ton of salt, so be aggressive with your seasoning. With the meat broken up you have a chance to season your burgers inside and out, so don't skimp. Use freshly ground pepper at your own discretion.
Loosely form the patties. Gingerly divide the sheet pan into portions and then carefully bring the patties together. Don't pick them up and work them, just gather the meat and gently press it together. Again, you're trying to preserve the original structure of the ground meat without working it into a pulp. That's the key to a tender and juicy burger. As soon as your patties are formed cover the pan with plastic wrap and get it back into the fridge until your grill is fired up and ready.
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Use a timer and your brain. A timer will help keep you on task and prevent you from forgetting about your burgers as they turn into hockey pucks. I've found on a Weber kettle fired up as hot as the surface as the sun that four minutes per side on a half-pound burger produces a perfectly juicy, medium doneness. You can't completely rely on a timer though, as weather conditions, hot spots and other variations will cause constantly shifting results.
The only way to achieve real consistency is practice. When you make burgers like this over and over again, you'll constantly get better. Don't complain about this. I'm giving you an excuse to cook and eat more burgers.
Also watch for flare ups. With really fatty beef and hot coals bursts of flame are inevitable, but if your grill looks like the inner ring of hell, you'll end up overcooking your burgers. Have a water bottle at the ready.
Don't skimp on toppings After all that work, don't put a bland tomato slice on your burger and call it a day. Hit up your local farmers market and get the best lettuce, tomato and onion you can find. If you're going going to do mushroom Swiss burgers, buy high quality fromage and sautée those mushrooms till they're golden brown. Bacon cheddar? Bake the bacon in your oven till it's perfectly crisp and use slab-thick slices of cheddar. When your toppings are as thoughtful as the beautiful burgers they adorn, your guests will really notice, and you'll end up with a burger that looks as good as this...