Burgers, baby! One the one hand, they’re the first thing you learn how to grill, and deceptively simple if you do the traditional “torch and flip” method. On the other hand, if you can really shine here you can win some serious points as an ultimate grillmaster.
But what’s the “difference that makes the difference” between a mediocre burger and a great one? How can you kick some butt at such a seemingly easy task?
Fortunately, there are just a few things you need to know to really do burgers right and make them stand out at your next cookout.
A Quick Note on Health
This site is, first and foremost, for men to get their health and fitness dialed up. As such, one thing I recommend is that people reduce heavily processed foods as much as possible… including things like hamburger buns and ketchup.
But then again, I also advocate that everyone takes the time to do “cheat meals” as well in order to make the whole thing easier. Nobody wants to live a life of complete deprivation, and I don’t think you need to in order to be in better shape than 99% of the guys out there.
So, to be fair, burgers (as I suggest you make ‘em) probably end up more in the “cheat meal” category than the “healthy” one. No worries. Enjoy your cookout. You earned it. There’s plenty of other days in the week to eat better (as long as this isn’t your go-to meal every night!).
Learning how to grill is an excellent way to make some initial steps to eating better, so any step you can make in this direction is a positive one. Plus, it’s damned fun, too!
Burgers and Buns: How Difficult Can It Be?
The first and most important part of a hamburger is, of course, the meat.
One of the suggestions you’ll find thrown about is to use ground chuck instead of your typical ground beef from the grocery store.
The “dirty little secret” about ground beef is that it is essentially all the trimmings and remains left over after the butcher has cut up all the steaks, roasts, etc. This means it tends to lack the characteristic taste of, say, a rib roast or tenderloin.
So many grill gurus suggest you get whole chuck roasts and grind them yourself (or get your butcher to grind it), which leads to a hamburger with more flavor than your typical hamburger meat.
That’s all well and fine, but here’s a few things to take into consideration:
- On-site butchers in grocery stores are slowly disappearing, which means you’ll need to get a grinder of your own in many areas.
- Chuck, though it may be tasty, can also cost twice as much (or more) as hamburger meat.
- Not finding something tasty and creative to do with an essential animal product such as ground beef is a waste.
So buy chuck if you can afford it and can get it ground up. But for my demo here, I’ll be sticking with regular ol’ ground beef.
And speaking of beef, the fattier the patty, the better. More fat means juicier burgers. Don’t be the guy serving extra-lean burgers that are as dry as the Sahara.
I know I like to beat this dead horse a lot around here, but fat is not the boogeyman most of us have been led to believe all our lives. Animal fat in particular is one of the most healthful things you can eat. So go for the 80% lean meat, at the very most.
Don’t be tempted by the pre-formed burgers at the supermarket or make your patties with a burger press. If cookie-cutter burgers is what you’re after, you can head to the nearest drive-thru. If you’re gonna be grilling burgers, don’t wimp out. Go for the thick “steakhouse burgers” that can only be made by hand. It’s easy enough, as you’ll see later here.
Next up are the buns. Sure, grab the cheapest generic (bland) ones you can find at the store if you want. But it doesn’t cost much more to upgrade to some fancier buns, with sesame seeds or whatnot. Remember, you want your burgers to stand out from the regular fast food fare, and buns are one place where you can make a big difference.
If you’re trying to be super-strict with your diet, you can go “protein style” and wrap your burger with a piece of lettuce instead of a bun as well. Just be prepared for the rest of us to make fun of you a little bit.
What Are the Best Toppings?
The biggest place you can make your burgers shine, IMHO, are the “extras.” In-N-Out Burger here on the West Coast is famous for using really fresh ingredients, and that is probably the main reason that people keep coming back. Too many people associate limp shredded lettuce and unripe tomatoes with their burger extras.
Similarly, you don’t want to serve plain-Jane burgers with just meat and ketchup. Booooooo-ring! Get to the grocery store and get yourself some fresh veggies. Trust me on this.
Here are my personal suggestions:
- Lettuce: Get a fresh head of romaine lettuce. Tear off some leaves, and wash them under the faucet for a few seconds.
- Tomato: This one can be tricky. Bad tomatoes are really bad. Fortunately, tomatoes tend to be in season during the summer, when grilling is at its peak. Get yourself a big enough tomato that a slice will cover most of the burger.
- Onion: Get a sweet yellow onion like Vidalia or Walla Walla. (Honestly, any yellow onion will work here.) Slice it into rings.
Those are the “essentials,” as far as I’m concerned. But you might want to add some of the following as well:
- Cheese: I’m NOT a fan of melted cheese, but I know I’m in the minority. Do yourself a favor and ditch the Velveeta, though. Go with something with a little more unique flavor like Swiss or blue cheese.
- Bacon: Is there anything that bacon doesn’t go with? Fry up a batch to top off your burgers if you want.
- Avocado: Definitely brings your burgers into the “fancy pants” category. The fatty goodness means you don’t even need ketchup.
- Pickles, mushrooms… the sky’s the limit, really.
As for the condiments? You can’t go wrong with just ketchup in my book. Yeah, it’s pretty much high-fuctose corn syrup and red food coloring, but it’s a classic. And again, it’s not like I’m suggesting eating like this every night. Lighten up every now and then, sheesh! Mustard, mayo, and even BBQ sauce often make an appearance, but it’s hard to mess things up with our ol’ favorite neon red condiment.
The “Top Secret” Grill Setup
Everyone knows the traditional grill setup for burgers, right? Just let ‘er rip. Throw the burgers on directly over the heat and turn ‘em every now and then until they’re done.
But we can do better, folks. If you’re in a pinch, you can always do the plain-jane grilling, but this would be one boring-ass post if that’s all I told you how to do. Let’s take things to the next level, shall we?
Meathead (my grilling guru) from Amazing Ribs has taught me the wonders of 2-zone heating, and I’d suggest you do the same. In a nutshell, you pile all your coals on one side of the grill. This way, you can slow cook the burgers on the “indirect” side with the cover on to get the meat evenly done, then take off the lid and swap them over to the direct side for a quick sear. This way your burgers stay perfectly juicy on the inside while they get that great grill sear on the outside.
“Seriously awesome” burgers have two characteristics: they are juicy on the inside but have that nice grill char on the outside. The best way to get these two seemingly contradictory things is by using 2-zone heating.
(BTW, make sure you check out my post on the grilling gear I use to see exactly what I’m using–it doesn’t cost nearly as much as you’d think–so you can replicate this yourself.)
More work? Yes, but it pays off. Trust me.
The Recipe–”Cliff’s Notes” Version
Here’s your shopping list:
- Ground beef (get 1/2 lb for every burger you want)
- Yellow onion
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Feel free to fancy it up with any of the ideas above (or one of your own), but all you need are these basics for a killer burger.
Alright, so you got all your ingredients. Now onto the main show.
- Get your grill warmed up. You’re looking for a temperature on the indirect side of 200-250°F, so you probably don’t need a full chimney of coal to start out with. (You DO have a thermometer for your grill, right?) I’ve found the Smokenator works wonders at keeping this low temp. While that’s going on slice the tomatoes and onions and tear and wash the lettuce for the toppings.
- Then make the patties. Take 1/2 lb of ground beef and toss it back and forth into a ball. Softly press them into thick patties as shown here. Feel free to make ‘em thick. These are “steakhouse-style” burgers. You can always go to Mickey-D’s if you want flat-as-a-pancake burgers.
- If wood chips are your thing, now’s the time to toss them on the coals. Put the patties on the indirect zone of the grill and cover. Crack open a beer for yourself. Let the burgers cook for 10 minutes. While they are doing this, brush olive oil on the cut sides of the buns.
- Flip the burgers and cook, covered, for 10 more minutes. Take the temperature at the thickest part of the burger. You are looking for an internal temperature of 130-140°F. Once they hit this, it’s time to sear, baby!
- Brush olive oil on and salt and pepper the patties. Keep the lid off and transfer them to the direct zone. (If you’ve got a Hovergrill, you can put it right over the coals here.)
- Once one side of the patties has reached a toasty color, flip ‘em over to the other side. Once this side has been well-seared also, remove from the grill and let sit 5 minutes to let the juices go back into the meat.
- While the patties are resting, place the buns cut-side-down on the grill to toast. Keep a close eye on ‘em so they don’t burn.
- Pile your burger high with goodies and chow down!
As you can see in the pic, I ended up making my patties a little TOO thick. I’ll flatten ‘em out a bit more in the future, but they still tasted awesome. Flatten them a little more than I did here.
Grilling is a super-awesome way for us guys to learn how to cook. Although burgers aren’t the healthiest thing you can make on the ol’ Weber, they’re an easy enough way to start building your grilling skills from the bottom up.
Plus, I don’t care how strict you are, you gotta make room for a burger or two every now and then.
Happy Fourth of July, all!