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Grill a Juicy Burger; Top It To Your Taste

A refresher course on perfectly grilled burgers—with inspiration for savory toppings that make them even better

Fine Cooking Issue 45
Photos: Amy Albert
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Choosing the right ground meat, shaping it, managing the fire, and cooking to the right doneness are all critical when it comes to making great hamburgers, and it does take some attention to get all that right. But after you’ve mastered the basic burger, you may find yourself wanting more and striving for ways to make your burgers even more delicious. As a burger lover and a chef, I’m continually on that quest—especially when summer comes.

I’ve learned that the key to irresistible, memorable burgers can lie in the embellishments. So, first, here’s a quick refresher on making and grilling burgers that are full of flavor and cooked to your liking. And then, there are ideas for condiments that will give the burgers your own trademark and that will take the classic American backyard fare to a more delicious and sophisticated level. (I’ve even included the recipe for my killer tomato-­chipotle ketchup.)

Use ground chuck that’s not too lean and not too fatty

When you’re shopping for ground beef, you’ll find ground round (from the hind leg), ground sirloin (from the small end of the back), and ground chuck (from the shoulder). I prefer chuck, but round is next, and sirloin (the leanest of the three) is next on my list. The fat content in ground chuck ranges from 10% to 22%, the maximum allowed by government standards. On the package, it may be the percentage of lean, rather than of fat, that’s on the label.

For a lot more flavor with just a little more fat, select 85% lean ground chuck. I’ve found that 80% lean makes tasty grilled burgers but it can also cause grill flare-ups from fat drippings, as well as noticeable shrinkage during cooking. On the other hand, I find hamburgers made with 90% lean to be pretty dull. A certain amount of fat brings additional flavor to whatever you’re cooking, and the meat for burgers is no exception.

Simplicity makes the best burger

Ground chuck and salt and pepper are all that go into Steve Johnson’s burgers. He uses 85% lean for flavor without flare-ups.
Gentle mixing—not squeezing—will produce a tender, juicy texture.
A generous patty that’s not too tall—between 1 and 1-1/4-inches thick—will cook evenly and fit well on the bun.

Light a hot grill, but not too hot

Building a fire for burgers isn’t any different than building a fire for steaks or other food you’ll grill quickly. I’m a charcoal fire purist, but you can certainly grill burgers on a gas grill, too.

For best aroma and flavor, I like a combination of hardwood logs and lump charcoal to build my charcoal fire. I use these both at home and at the restaurant, but if you don’t have logs, an all-charcoal fire is certainly okay. Skip the starter-impregnated charcoal briquettes, which impart an unpleasant, petrochemical flavor; instead, use the stuff labeled lump hardwood charcoal.

Build a fire that offers different levels of heat intensity. Arrange an even layer of unlit coals across the bottom of the grill, rather than a pyramid in the middle. Light one side of the coals (or empty a chimney starter full of hot coals over one side) and let the fire “walk” across the coals. This way, when one area is hot, another will be medium hot. Think of the walking fire as the equivalent of the control knob on your range. You’ll have better control over what you’re cooking, and an area to move food to if flareups occur.

If you’re using a gas grill, set one burner to medium high and the other to medium low, and then add some wood chips for smoky flavor. (Always put the wood chips in a metal or foil container; left loose, they can clog the gas connection.)

The fire is about the right temperature for cooking hamburgers when you can hold your hand two inches above the grill grate for two seconds without yanking it away.

The beef’s just half the equation. “Once I’ve got the grill going, I turn my attention to concocting tasty toppings, ” says Steve Johnson.

When is my hamburger done?


Basic seasonings, generous toppings

After you’ve lit the fire, you can turn your attention to seasoning and shaping the burgers, and to preparing the toppings and condiments before you get on with the grilling.

As far as seasoning the meat, all you need are salt and pepper; save the bold flavors for the toppings. Let the suggestions below be your inspiration and take it from there. Think of ingredients, flavors, and condiments you really love. Grilled or roasted vegetables, cheeses, meats, greens, and herbs are all delicious. Try your favorite salsa, tapenade, or a spicy homemade ketchup. For cheeseburgers, lay a medium-thin slice of cheese on during the burger’s final minute or two of cooking, so the cheese begins to melt. My favorites for cheeseburgers are good New England cheeses like Great Hill Blue from Marion, Massachusetts, or a sharp Vermont cheddar like Shelburne Farms.

As for buns, store-bought ones are fine, quickly and lightly toasted on the gentle-heat side of the grill. With due respect to a slice of great bread, it just doesn’t cradle a burger as well as a bun does. And rolls are too bulky a mouthful, overpowering the juicy meat and savory toppings. After all, it’s about the burger.

Customize your burgers. Steve Johnson’s favorite condiments include chipotle ketchup and marinated onions.


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