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I'm a pretty good griller (gas barbeque). I can turn out perfect steaks, fish, duck breasts, and even an entire leg of pork. The one thing that eludes me is the simple burger. Even with lean beef, I get constant flare-ups and greasy black smoke. What's the trick to grilling the perfect burger? (fresh meat, hand pressed, not a recipe question)

Edit: Definition of a perfect burger

  1. Cooked through with just a suggestion of pink in the center.
  2. Juicy on the inside - Your bun should soak up lots of beefy goodness after it's been bitten
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I must say I agree with Daniel's answer. I'm from South Africa and here we're grill nuts. But we use charcoal or wood fires 90% of the time. While convenient, gas is frowned upon here since it just doesn't give the meat the same flavour and it takes away that satisfying part of building your own fire. We grill anything from red meat, to white meat, to fish, shellfish, vegetables even to halloumi cheese. One thing we do not, however, grill is burgers or hot dogs. I can't imagine why you would waste a grill fire on burgers. –  DeVil May 13 '11 at 13:01

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Honestly, don't grill.

Don't run away!

Hamburgers were originally cooked in pans, not on grills. One of the reasons for this is thta with grilling you lose any fat and moisture that comes out of the burger.

So I use Heston Blumenthal's method now. While I tend to ignore the preparation elements (I have neither the time nor the money to hand-grind my burgers with a specific ratio of this cut to that cut to the other cut), the cooking method is flawless:

Make your burgers.

Over very low heat, place a pan with just a little oil (or bacon/duck fat, which is lovely). introduce burgers to pan. As soon as they release easily from the surface, flip. Thirty seconds later, flip. Repeat until cooked through. (fifteen to twentyish minutes).

This will give you the juiciest, most tender burgers you have ever had in your life. I promise. Essentially what you're doing is basting the burgers in their own fat.

Alternatively, if you have an immersion circulator, cook your burgers sous vide and then just mark on the grill when done. I've had burgers done this way and they are excellent.

Burgers will flare on the grill--that's all the fat (and therefore flavour) being squeezed out by the action of cooking and burning away.

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Blasphemy! But probably delicious. I especially agree with the "flip often" part. –  michael May 11 '11 at 19:14
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Nice option, but I won't accept it. This is about men, meat, grills and beer. –  Chris Cudmore May 11 '11 at 19:42
    
That's a very interesting method daniel, I'm going to try it next time I make burgers. Totally agree re. grilling burgers: if you want beef on a grill, then for heaven's sake, use steak. The only exception perhaps being if your grill has a solid griddle plate. –  ElendilTheTall May 11 '11 at 20:01
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Ah. Gender stereotypes. I'd forgotten that they are an integral part of any recipe. You want great burgers, use my method. Beyond that, you will get flareups when you grill. This is just physics at work. –  daniel May 11 '11 at 20:23
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@chris Real men don't eat anything made of ground meat, they eat slabs cut off an animal side with a big knife :-) –  TFD May 11 '11 at 22:32

The smoke is unavoidable, sorry.

Flare-ups are also unavoidable. Small flare-ups can be ignored; if there's a big one, just move the meat away from that spot until it goes away. Or close the lid for a few seconds to cut off the oxygen supply. Some people like to use a squirt bottle of water to douse the flare-ups; this works, but I personally don't think it's necessary.

Do not use lean beef. You need fat for a tasty burger.

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My take/thoughts:

The over-smokiness may be an indication that it's time to do a thorough grill cleaning with soap and warm water, especially in the burner/heat-diffuser area (not the grate--see daniel's comment below for that). Additionally, it's good to do some simple cleaning and lubrication of the grate before and after each use. Before: Grill brush (brass if you've got porcelain) and vegetable oil (consider oil with a high smoke point). After: oil again to soften the what the food left behind.

Preheat the grill. It also helps to have thick, heat-retaining grating. Once you've achieved temperature, you can turn the flames down a bit. The residual heat in the grate should give you a good sear (grill lines) with less flare-up. I also try to preserve the pre-heated air by expediting the placement of food-stuffs.

Make sure you're keeping your grill cover down. This allows the top side to cook a bit at the same time as the flame-side. It may also suffocate some would-be flare-ups.

Try mixing some panade into your raw meat. For whatever reason, a little bread paste results in juicier cooked meat e.g., meatloaf. For a pound of pre-cook burgers, I use approximately:

  • The bread interior from one or two white hamburger buns
  • Equal parts buttermilk and steak sauce (or maybe worcestershire?)--enough of the combined liquid to make the bread into a paste.

Not directly meat-related but I also like to have toasted buns that don't absorb too much grease. The key there is to serve the buns shortly before pulling the burgers off so that people have time to dress 'em with assorted condiments/veggies.

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Aaaaaagh what are you talking about with soap and water? No no no no no. You use soap on a grill about as often as you use it on a cast iron pan: never. To clean and season your grill, spray with a mist of oil, crank the heat, close the lid and let it cook for a while. Scrub off carbon deposits with a brush only. NO SOAP. And panade doesn't prevent the proteins from constricting and squeezing out water; it just adds more moisture. –  daniel May 11 '11 at 22:53
    
Not to mention, panade turns it into a meat loaf, not a burger. –  Aaronut May 12 '11 at 15:34
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@daniel Edited to clarify that soap and water are for the grill body/hardware and not the grate. Citation for soap and water in appropriate places: bbq.about.com/cs/cookingtips/a/aa051201a.htm –  steamer25 May 12 '11 at 17:48
    
@daniel Also edited to remove 'constrict'. Thanks. –  steamer25 May 12 '11 at 17:56
    
@Aaronut The amount of panade can be reduced if one prefers their burgers less meatloaf-y but don't knock it until you try it ;) . –  steamer25 May 12 '11 at 18:00

When grilling burgers, or any meat for that matter, flare-ups are the mortal enemy of good food. My first bit of advice would be to disabuse yourself of the notion that you will grill a perfect burger on a gas grill. Good? Yes. Perfect? No. The problem with cooking on a gas grill is that flare-ups are unavoidable. There is always a good oxygen supply that will cause the fuel you're adding via the fat from the meat to burn brilliantly.

I use a Weber kettle grill with a cast iron grate, and here's what I do.

  1. Segregate the hot coals to one half of the grill.
  2. Allow the grill to get nice and hot.
  3. Put the burgers directly over the coals, and put the lid on the grill.
  4. Wait 30 seconds, then give each burger a quarter turn. Spin the grate 180 degrees, so the burgers are now on the "cool" side.
  5. Allow the burgers to cook for 2-5 minutes (depending on the level of doneness you or your audience wants).
  6. Flip the burgers, putting each patty on the "hot" side, and close the lid.
  7. Repeat steps 4 and 5. After this put your cheese on, if desired, and close the lid to let the cheese melt.

It takes some practice, but this does produce a nice burger. You have virtually no chance of flare-ups, you get good initial heat to allow some Maillard reaction to take place, and you allow the residual heat of the grate and grill to do the rest of the cooking, while the fat from the burgers drip away.

You could modify this process for a gas grill, probably, but it may involve a bit more doing.

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My grilling method:

  1. Preheat grill to highest temperature.
  2. Assemble burgers (adding bread/milk mixture as described above).
  3. Make sure the entire assembly is close to room temperature before grilling.
  4. Turn grill down (low).
  5. Add burgers, leaving a few inches between patties.
  6. Flip early, and flip often (as soon as burgers separate from the grill).

I rarely see flareups on any grill I work with. Mostly this has to do with flipping often (sacrilege, I know, but it works), and keeping the patty from releasing it's greasy goodness.

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Good burgers are about good flavor no? I think the best flavor is the charbroiled one from CHARCOAL.

Cooking a burger in a pan is like deep frying pizza.......you ask yourself why?

As some culinary professionals and some grill experts probably already know......flip the burger as little as possible (yes this does require patience)

flip every 30 sec? honestly? lol. where'd all the juice that was holding flavor go? oh yeah you cooked it off :/

Eveyone likes THEIR burger.....it's just traditional to cook a Hamburger on a Charcoal grill. Otherwise you should just call it what it is.....

Searing ground beef. fail.

cook the flavor IN :P

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