Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Keeping it simple: The perfect burger

First, a confession. Last week was Australia week on the "Grand Tour" with my son. I did a lousy job. We talked a bit about marsupials, got a video from the library about how kids in Australia live, and drew a flag, but I lost focus. I never got around to getting vegemite (which is apparently huge in Australia), and I never made the pavlova I intended to make (thanks to Kendra and Sabrina for the suggestions though). And I never tried making meat pies, which I think would be pretty delicious. My apologies to Australia: I didn't teach my boy enough about you.

But I am anxious to do better this week, which is USA week in honor of the 4th of July. After spending a little time learning about the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War and drawing the flag this morning, dinner tonight was cheeseburgers, which definitely rank high on my top-ten American foods list.

Like most people in America, I have had all kinds of burgers: beef, turkey, veggie, lamb, with all kinds of toppings and all kinds of qualities (dry, juicy, flavorless, delicious, weird). Of course, burger preferences like all food preferences are subjective, but one of the keys to a great burger is juiciness. Don't get me wrong, great flavor is also important, but if your burger isn't a mess, with juices dripping off your hands as you eat it, then you are missing something fundamental about a burger: It's supposed to be a mess. If it isn't, you are doing it wrong.  

So how do you make that happen? Well, first and most important, you have to choose the right meat. I know really pure purists would probably have you grind your own meat from a particular cut but that's more ambitious and equipment-intensive than I am prepared for. I think it's probably OK to get ground beef from a vendor you trust, for example, from a farmer at the farmers market you feel good about or another trustworthy source of grass-fed beef (on grass-fed I will not compromise; it's better for the animal and for you). 

Another important feature of the meat is fat content. You can't have a burger made from lean meat. So put down that package of 95-5 beef, or even 90-10. Get the fatty stuff. Why? Because the fat is where the juiciness comes from. And it just plain tastes good. (Furthermore, I am not convinced that a  low-fat diet is all it's cracked up to be in terms of keeping you healthy anyway. This article from Mark Bittman raises this topic.)

All right, so now that you have some good, grass-fed ground beef with a fat content of at least 15 percent, you are almost done with making your burger. Because the success of this food hinges entirely on doing as little as possible. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the burger, but nothing more than that. Place it in the pan, but then leave it alone. Heck, walk away for a few minutes so you aren't tempted to fuss with it. Drop a little tasty cheese on it before serving, if you are so inclined. Serve it with salsa, guacamole, mayonnaise, whatever you want and have. But the important thing is to get the basics down. If you can't make a good burger completely undressed, you aren't really making a good burger. You are making good toppings. 


  • 1 lb ground beef, at least 15 percent fat
  • salt and pepper
  • vegetable oil for the pan
  • cheese of your choice (optional; I used an excellent local blue cheese)
  • 4 toasted burger buns
  • a little butter


  1. Divide the meat into four equal portions. Gently shape the meat into patties between a quarter inch and a half-inch thick. (Manipulate the meat as little as you possibly can. The less you mess with it, the juicier the burger will be.)
  2. Salt and pepper both sides of the burgers liberally. 
  3. Let the burgers come to room temp before cooking. 
  4. Heat the oil in your grill pan to medium-high heat.
  5. Add the burgers to the pan. Set the timer for five minutes and don't touch the burgers again. 
  6. At the five-minute mark, flip the burgers and set the timer for another five minutes. Place the cheese on the burgers. 
  7. Butter the toasted buns. 
  8. When the patties are done, place them on the toasted buns and serve.  (Next time I make these, I am going to make them with cheddar cheese and salsa. That's going to be good.)  

* Adapted from Bobby Flay's perfect burger.


  1. Don't worry - you didn't miss much by not getting the vegemite! Pavlova is way too sweet for me, but the meat pies are delicious!

    1. I like meringue, but the whole idea of a meringue cake seemed a bit much for me. I do love meat pies though. I have one that I like to make a lot. When it cools down a bit and when I get some more sausage from my CSA, I think I may try making some again. I haven't made them in ages.

  2. Yep, I so agree on the fatty meat makes a better burger! Great post...lots of great points. And I absolutely love bleu cheese on burgers!

    1. Blue cheese and meat were a match made in heaven. I don't know why, but they really are so good together.