Basic Hamburger Tips

Tips for selecting meat and forming patties, the foundation of a perfect hamburger.

Select your Meat

If you're going to make a beef burger, your first decision takes place in the butcher or meat department. Your ground beef choices are usually chuck, round, and sirloin. Here is what you need to know to get the burger you desire:

  • Chuck is your classic burger meat and is usually the most flavorful, simply because it has the most fat. Ground round is the leanest of the three, with sirloin in the middle range. Sirloin has a great flavor, but it is the most expensive.

  • Packages either identify the percentage of lean to fat, i.e. 80 percent lean/20% fat (the maximum fat allowed by law is 30%), or sometimes just the primal cut, meaning chuck, sirloin, or round.

  • Fat gives beef burgers flavor and "juiciness," and if the meat is too lean, it has a tendency to dry out when cooking.

  • One of our favorite beef combinations is half chuck, half sirloin. You get the great taste of sirloin with the juiciness of chuck.

  • Other meat options are chicken or turkey, and bison. If your primary concern is nutrition, read the labels carefully and compare — this area can be misleading.

  • Ground chicken, if not labeled lean, can sometimes have the skin ground in. You will get a juicier burger, but it will be higher in fat.

  • Lean ground turkey is leaner, but less flavorful, than regular ground turkey, which can be a blend of light and dark meats.

  • Bison is comparable in flavor to beef, with 1/3 to 1/4 of the fat. But like all lean meats, it too can easily dry out.
     

Form the Perfect Hamburger Patties

Break the ground meat by hand into small pieces onto a large piece of waxed paper. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper to taste. Bring the meat together by hand, avoid kneading it, and don't worry if it sees loosely knit — this light touch keeps the meat from getting tough. Divide meat mixture into equal portions, then into balls by gently tossing from hand to hand. Gently form into 1-inch thick patties. Press the center each patty so it is slightly thinner than the edges. Burgers bulge when cooked — by forming the patties thinner in the center than around the edges, you end up with the model bun-ready shape after grilling.

Safe Handling

Burgers are one food we suggest cooking until well-done. With a solid cut of meat, the bacteria are on the outside surface. This means a steak can be safely cooked to medium rare because the outside will reach a high enough heat to kill any harmful bacteria. Ground meat, however, has the bacteria spread throughout. To be safe, you should cook beef burgers to 160 degrees F and poultry burgers should always be cooked to 165 degrees F. Preferably, use a clean instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature.

With raw meat, be careful to follow the usual food handling rules to avoid cross-contamination.

  • Wash your hands before and after handling raw meat.

  • Don't put cooked burgers back on plates that held them in their raw state.

  • Clean your cutting board well before using it for vegetables or fruit.

  • Carefully wrap raw meats and store them on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator where they can't drip juices into prepared foods.
 
Adapted from Food Network Kitchens Get Grilling. Des Moines: Meredith Books, 2005
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