How to make the perfect cheeseburger
Let me start this off by saying that I basically can’t cook a lick. I can do basic things like make scrambled eggs or throw together a simple pasta dish, but by in large I don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to preparing food (consuming is another matter altogether.) That being said, I probably make a better hamburger than you.
There’s a reason for this and here it is: Good hamburgers are assembled, not made. The secret is to buy the correct stuff, prepare it correctly and then get out of the way. Here’s how you do it.
The first thing you have to do it buy the correct meat. If you start off with ground beef or ground sirloin or god forbid ground turkey then you are already behind the game. You want and need the correct percentage of fat and that is 20%, which means you bypass all those other things and go straight for the ground chuck.
Next, you need to correct bun. You’re going to be making a pretty hefty burger (in the 1/4 pound range), so you’ll need a bun that can stand up to it, which means none of those smooth, lame excuses for grain that are labeled “hamburger buns.” The bread choice is highly personal, but I like a sourdough roll when I can find it (Publix makes a great one) or a Kaiser roll. Whatever you pick is fine, just so long as it doesn’t looks like it came from McDonald’s.
Now the heat. In a perfect world we’d cook just about everything on a charcoal or wood grill, but let’s be honest – if you’re making a couple of hamburgers for your family it’s really a pain to fire up the grill, let the coals burn down properly, and get the correct heat established. Since propane grills are the devil’s invention, I’d suggest purchasing a decent grill pan, which works just fine for our purposes, is convenient, and gives you precise temperature control. Take the pan out ahead of time and set the temperature on your largest burner to somewhere between medium and medium high. You want the pan hot enough to sear your burgers without instantly burning them, so the exact temperature will be a bit of trial and error based on your stovetop. Get the pan on the heat for at least 5 minutes while you are preparing the meat to ensure that it is nice and hot before the first burger makes contact.
We’ve got the two essential items purchased (we’ll talk about the rest shortly – the burger and bun are the building blocks, get these right and you are 100% fried gold.) and the grill or grill pan is heating up. You’ve bought quality meat, so all you really need to do now is season with a little sea salt and some cracked ground pepper, but if you like you can use some onion soup mix (just not to much) or garlic seasoning. I tend to think simple is best here, so I’m sticking with the sea salt and pepper. Assuming you’ve bought a pound of meat, divide your chuck up into 4 relatively even portions, and then roll each into a ball (gently, don’t maul it) until you are ready to press into a patty about 1 inch thick. The important thing here is to get the thickness as even as possible to ensure proper cooking. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but don’t rush. Before you put each burger on the heat, press your thumb down into the center of the burger and make an impression, as if you were giving a thumb print. This will keep your burgers from puffing up in the middle and resembling a tennis ball.
Once it is on the grill, DO NOTHING. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Don’t flip it constantly, Don’t lift it off the grill. And for the love of all that is good and pure in the universe never, ever, smash it flat. Unless of course you prefer dry slaps of gray matter that can sub in for a hockey puck in a pinch.
Now, how long to cook it? I like my burger a good medium rare, but I know people are squeamish about thorough cooking temps for raw meat. My thought here is that if you have purchased quality meat from a reputable establishment then there is probably nothing to fear from medium rare, but that choice is yours. I’ll generally cook my burgers on one side for about 6 minutes on one side for a good medium rare, if you want medium you can go about 8 minutes before you flip, depending on the heat of your grill/pan. The important thing to remember here is that, after you flip, you only need to cook about half as long on the other side. So, if you go for six minutes before flipping, you’ll go around 3 minutes on the second side.
(To be clear here though, I am not recommending in any way shape or form that you undercook raw meat. If you choose to go for a medium rare burger you do run the risk of getting sick. Caveat emptor.)
Now, this is important, so pay attention. If you are adding cheese, and I assume you will, it is imperative that you melt your cheese thoroughly. Nothing is more annoying than biting into a nice warm cheese burger and finding out the cheese was slapped on as an afterthought and is still cold and firm. Cheese needs to be warm and ooey-gooey (that is the technical term. I believe it is French for *%&*@ing delicious). To do this, simply add your cheese to the top of the burger for the last minute and a half of cooking time and voila, you are done.
Now, what kind of toppings do you use? Lettuce, tomato and pickle are a given, but the rest depends on the cheese you are using. There are 3 variations that I like:
- For cheddar cheese, mix up equal parts mayo and sriracha (rooster sauce!) and apply liberally. A slice or two of bacon is optional here, and if you do a decent barbeque sauce is acceptable.
- If you add goat cheese to my burger, mix up some basil or spinach pesto and use in place of the sriracha.
- Finally, the South Carolinian in me insist that I occasionally slather a burger with pimento cheese, and if you do some straight mayo or sriracha mayo is all you need.
That’s it. You are done. Plate those bad boys and serve and bask in the plaudits from your friends and family.
Now, I know what you are probably thinking: “JLo, WTH? You gave up red meat. Have you fallen so quickly?” The answer is an emphatic “NO.” Well yeah, just a bit tonight. I ate that burger pictured above and it was freaking glorious. Normally though I would substitute a meatless burger for my own, and again the key here is finding a decent one. I like the Morningstar Farms brand, either the Spicy Black Bean with option 1 above or the Portobello mushroom with option 2. Most of the veggie burgers actually taste ok, but there’s a big difference in texture I’ve found, and the Morningstar Farms brand is the best I’ve found. I’m open to suggestions here if anybody has any.
What is your burger secret?