Last Saturday I went to a steak house in downtown Charleston, WV. We picked it because it was close to the convention center we were at and not fast food, i.e. we didn't pick it because it was a steak house. Their sign said they have the best salad bar in the state or city or something. I thought that sounded good. The way their menu is priced, the hamburger and fries with a salad bar addition was only $0.84 more than the salad bar by itself, so I thought, "Hey, I'll add a hambuger and fries to my salad bar for 84 cents!" Yes, kids, math is a useful skill.
So to make a long story short, I'm writing this post as a public service, to advance a cause that I think needs advancing: Better Burgers. A burger is a sandwich, so all sandwich principles I've written about before apply here. However, burgers are so common and so commonly screwed up that they deserve a post dedicated to them.
Chances are, if you're reading this, you've probably had a burger at some point in your life. Here in the US, they are a common part of our diet, and are commonly massacred on weekends and at outdoor gatherings across the nation. I would say that most Americans think they know how to make a hamburger and that most Americans have, at some point, "made" a hamburger. I've had burgers in dozens of settings, by dozens of home cooks, and dozens of restaurants, and the worst burgers generally make at least one of three common Burger Blunders. These Blunders are not equal though, so I will present them in "worst to less-worse" order.
But first, a couple items of clarification.
What is a burger?
A burger is a sandwich which features a ground-beef patty. Most often, the burger is served on a round bun designed specifically for a hamburger. But really, the critical feature is the ground-beef patty.
Why is a burger delicious?
This can be summarized as follows: juicy beefiness.
There are lots of toppings and accompaniments that can be added, but if they over power the juicy beefiness, then the sandwich may as well not be a burger. It might still be a very good sandwich, but not a good burger.
Ok, let's start with the Blunders....
Blunder #1: Dry Meat
Not surprisingly, the worst way to screw up a burger (and which 99% of all burgers I've ever had totally screwed up) is to have dry meat. There is no juicy beefiness when the patty is dry. What makes a burger delicious is destroyed. Gone. Lost. Forever. Americans already have little respect for the animals that give theirs lives for their fleeting moments of gluttonous pleasure, but to over-cook their flesh and ruin it is the second greatest disrespect we can give to those animals. (BTW, the greatest disrespect is to throw it away without eating it).
As mentioned, over-cooking is the way to dry out a burger. Now, that doesn't mean you can't cook it "well-done", it just means you can't cook it too much. Well-done does not mean "over-cooked". Over-cooked is "poorly-done" or "sadly-done" or "incompetently done". I ordered my burger at that restaurant "medium", and it had pink in the middle, but it was still crumbly and dry. Burger King's patties are fully cooked with no pink, but they're still juicy. There's more to moist meat than just how "done" it is.
Moisture in a hamburger comes from 2 sources: fat and water. Meat naturally has both of those, and both are destroyed by cooking. Heat turns the fat to liquid, and then it runs off. Heat causes muscle fibers to contract, squeezing out water, which then runs off and evaporates. If too much fat and water are lost this way, then the meat ends up dry.
Let's talk first about fat. You can't add fat to the outside of the patty and expect the meat to soak it up. The fat has to already be there in the meat, before you start to cook. If you really have to stick with lean ground beef for health reasons, then you'll just have to focus on retaining water and cooking the patty properly. But if you can afford to eat something more delicious, use ground beef with about 33% fat. That'll give you more flavor and more margin for error when you cook it.
Now let's say a word about water. Again, your goal isn't to add water, but to retain more of what it has. Mother Nature and the laws of chemistry has actually made this really easy, and it also helps avoid Burger Blunder #2. The solution is salt. When salt diffuses into the muscle fibers, it causes the proteins to unwind a little bit (or something like that), and then they hold onto their water better. You can still destroy the meat by over-cooking, but the meat will be juicier at higher temperatures that if it wasn't salted.
Salting the meat can be accomplished in two ways. First, you can mix it in with the raw ground beef before you make patties. This has the added benefit of helping the patties stick together better. I use anywhere from 1/2 to to 3/4 Tablespoon of kosher salt per pound of ground beef. Start low and add only little bits at a time, because you can't take salt out once you put it in. Since the salt affects flavor too, you don't want to add too much, but some salt is better than no salt for the texture of the meat. Half a Tablespoon is not enough to make the meat taste salty (e.g. like sausage does), but it's enough to enhance flavor and texture. I usually use more if I don't have a seasoning mix or something else planned for the top of the patty. Mix the salt in, make the patties, and let them sit for at least 30 minutes before cooking. The salt needs time to get into the muscle fibers.
Second, you can lay out the patties on wax paper or a cookie sheet or something and sprinkle salt on them. Let them sit, salted, for at least 45 minutes before cooking to give the salt time to penetrate the meat. This will work just fine for pre-formed patties, but thaw them first. If the patties are thick, salt both sides. (Incidentally, this works great for steak, chicken, pork chops, and whatever cut of meat you have.)
With enough fat in the patty and some salt diffused into the muscle fibers, your juicy beefiness can only be ruined now by over-cooking. The correct cooking temperature depends on how done you want the middle. Hotter temperatures are required for less done middles. The trick is to get the middle done how you want and the outside browned how you want at the same time. If the temperature is too hot, then the outside will burn before the middle is done. If the temperature is too low, then when the middle is done, the outside isn't browned properly yet. Chances are, you cook your hamburgers too hot, because that's how most backyard-barbecuers I've seen do it ("Kill that meat, and desecrate that animal's memory" is the motto of most home cooks).
A better, but more difficult technique is to cook the meat at a hotter temperature and take it off before the middle is done how you want, because the heat from the patty will continue to move into the middle and finish the cooking off the heat. This produces noticeably better results.
Blunder #2: Unseasoned Meat
What's worse than a dry hamburger patty? A dry, tasteless hamburger patty. You know what's worse than a dry, tasteless hamburger patty? A thick, dry, tasteless hamburger patty. Unfortunately, that describes most restaurant and homemade burgers.
Salt is the most important seasoning for meat. It improves texture and juiciness as already described. But it does even more! Salt is a flavor enhancer. It helps your taste buds taste better. It brings the flavors out of food so you can experience them. Of course, if you put too much salt on food, the salt masks the flavors. That's bad. Don't over-salt your food. Don't turn your hambuger patty into a sausage patty (but a sausage patty is generally preferable over what some people serve as hamburgers).
If a hamburger patty is salted such that it enhances moisture, then the salt has permeated the patty. If cooked properly, it will be juicy and flavorful throughout, and it doesn't matter how thick the patty is (but how thick it is definitely affects how to cook it properly).
This is what makes Fuddrucker's such a sad burger joint. They have amazing buns, great toppings, good meat, and their burgers are quite juicy. But they don't season their meat! You have to have a lot of toppings to compensate for no flavor in the patty. They do so many things right (all the hard things, in fact), and that's why it's sad. They're so close!
Blunder #3: Mismatched Bun
If you've avoided Blunders #1 and #2, then you have a great hambuger patty. What are you going to serve it on? Your hamburger can still go wrong. If you're like most Americans, then the answer is: "Put it on a bun that's twice as big around as the patty." WRONG! I want a hamburger, not a bun with "I think there might be meat in there."
If you're making your own patties, then refer to your buns (no, not those buns....the ones in the plastic bag on the counter) when you make your patties. Here's the trick: make the patty bigger than the bun! Why? Because the patty is going to shrink when you cook it. The more you cook it, the smaller it gets. And remember, it's shrinking because it's losing juiciness, so don't over-do it!
It's ok to use pre-formed patties. Once they're thawed, salted, and rested for 45 minutes, cook them gently and only just enough. That'll help them stay as big as possible. I've cooked pre-formed patties plenty of times, and they do always end up smaller than the bun, but only a little bit smaller. They're still ok. However, most people over-cook the patty, and then they end up much smaller than the bun.
I remember when I was a kid, one hotdog company came out with "bun length hotdogs." It made so much sense to my little-boy brain. When I see a hotdog that is shorter than the standard hotdog bun or when I take a bite out of a hamburger and just get bun, I can't help but think, "How can this still happen in 2009? We put a man on the moon, but we can't make the bun and the meat match?"
Don't use lean ground beef. Salt the meat in advance, both for juiciness and for flavor. Cook it only just enough. Put it on a bun that matches its diameter. Now all you have to do is not mess up the toppings, but that's the easy part.
Home cooks have been destroying meat since the beginning of cooking, and hamburgers are definitely not the only victim of this mindless desecration. What makes hamburgers unique though is the frequency with which restaurants screw them up. Ordering a burger in the US should not be such a gamble. In 2009, with modern science, technology, and the information available on the internet, all hamburgers served should be juicy and delicious.