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When does it seem to be OK to eat burgers cooked medium and sometimes not?

I live in the UK and for many years it has been well-instructed that you cook your burger through to ensure that any surface bacteria has been ground-in is killed. I have noticed that this has changed a lot recently and I have eaten in lots of burger restaurants who cook their burgers medium and never have any issues. In fact some of them are 5-star rated by hundreds of people online and you can never find a single review mentioning food poisoning. It's also a good point to mention that I also know loads of people who eat medium burgers without issue.

I know that in the rest of Europe they mostly eat medium-cooked burgers and have many French friends who admit to considering our roots of "over-cooking" burgers to be a bit weird and I kind of see the sense in that considering how much nicer a medium burger tastes.

I mentioned before that I know loads of people who eat burgers cooked-medium but I don't know anyone who cooks them medium at home and personally I'm too scared to-do-so.

Am I missing a crucial part of the grounding/cooking process, or is it just not as bigger issue as people once thought?

P.s. This feels like the sort of question that has already been asked so please do let me know if that's the case but I couldn't find it.

  • this is a very odd question. In France if you order medium meat, that would be considered a "crime" and some restaurants might even refuse to serve you. Meat from supermarkets is washed and "cleaned" with so many chemical products that you can eat anything raw as long as it's fresh. – Eagle1 Jun 24 '15 at 14:19
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    "Meat from supermarkets is washed and "cleaned" with so many chemical products that you can eat anything raw as long as it's fresh." - this is not true at best and dangerous at worst. – ElendilTheTall Jun 24 '15 at 15:04
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    @Eagle1 I'm not sure why you believe it's an odd question. It's perfectly valid in probably most countries. I have eaten in France many times and never seen someone turned away for ordering medium meat, in fact I'm sure some of the French may be disappointed to hear those remarks. The comments you make regarding supermarket meats is absolute nonsense and you have provided no references to backup your claim. – connersz Jul 1 '15 at 10:27
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You're right with your assumption that surface bacteria should to be killed and by the process of grinding meat the surfaces bateria mixes into the interior. BUT:
There is also steak tartare which is basically minced beef consumed raw. The trick is to get the meat from a trustworthy source, store it at low temperatures, process it in an environment which is as clean as possible und to do it fast. It's not perfectly safe like eating completely cooked meat. You have to weight up the risk of getting food-poisoned and the better food. A compromise suggested by John Dyer in terms of making steak tartare:

If you are really nervous, a trick I have heard of is to start with a really thick piece of beef. Then sear it on both sides in a hot pan. At this point the outside would be deemed safe and the interior is typically safe so you cut away the cooked parts. Then proceed to make the steak tartare with the still raw inside part. As a bonus those nice browned parts from the outside are a treat for the chef.

Since you are searing the whole thing anyway and the taste of the products after the Maillard-reaction is desirable you can sear the beef first, then mince the meat including the seared parts and then proceed as usual. No need to cut the brown parts.

For further reading: How safe is steak tartare?

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    @JoshCaswell Please re-read again what I wrote: "In you case you can sear the beef first, then mince the meat including the seared parts and then proceed as usual." This does not waste any meat. John Dyer suggested in his answer to cut the seared part because the meat is used for steak tartare which originally is raw meat. The seared part can be further used as "a treat for the chef". He never told to discard the seared part. Since the minced beef is cooked anyway, mincing the whole thing is no problem. – Ching Chong Jun 23 '15 at 20:43
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    @DavidRicherby : the searing kills the pathogens on the meat before cutting. If you don't do it, then trimming the meat has a chance of spreading the pathogens to what had formerly been interior ... either through transfer from the knife or the cutting board. – Joe Jun 23 '15 at 20:44
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    @JoshCaswell Are we talking about steak tartare or burger patties? Steak tartare: If you're paranoid you won't have another choice except not to serve steak tartare. After searing most bacteria are dead. The goal isn't to keep the meat sterile but to reduce the amount of pathogenes. If you don't like the answer, you can give feedback under this answer: cooking.stackexchange.com/a/4489/23376 Burger patties: I never suggested to cut these parts away. – Ching Chong Jun 23 '15 at 20:56
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    @Josh Caswell you would be correct if you stored the beef back in the fridge, but you are expected to eat it straight after processing, there is no time for bacteria to become dangerous – TFD Jun 24 '15 at 3:01
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    @Josh Caswell No, because most people do not butcher their own cows, their will be a week or more between killing and you searing steak – TFD Jun 24 '15 at 3:46
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Beef has a firm, closed texture, which prevents bacteria penetrating far into the meat. This is why it's relatively safe to eat a rare steak: you kill the surface bacteria by searing it, and the middle is relatively bacteria free.

When you grind beef, you of course mix the surface with the middle, which increases the risk. To be safe, you should therefore limit the surface-to-middle ratio, ie use as few separate pieces of beef as possible.

Your average supermarket pack of mince may have any number of pieces thrown together, and so it's not a good idea to make a medium burger with it. The safest option is to grind your own beef, ensuring your equipment is very clean and your meat has been handled properly throughout its lifetime. I believe at least one UK gourmet burger chain grinds their own meat fresh daily.

The other option is to use irradiated beef, which is virtually sterilised by being exposed to a burst of radiation. I'm not sure how easy that is to find in the UK, however.

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    "it's not a good idea to make a medium burger with it." unless UK supermarkets have lower-quality beef than US supermarkets, this is paranoia. i've only ever eaten medium burgers, and i've never heard any warning against doing this. my guess is that in this respect i'm in the majority of americans. – dbliss Jun 24 '15 at 3:48
  • This is anecdotal at best, but I've been eating medium rare/rare burgers my entire life (yes, I was an odd kid) and I've never had food poisoning. – MikeTheLiar Jun 24 '15 at 10:39
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    I've eaten many ground RAW meat 'burgers' in France. It's called "Steak tartare". Never got sick... just sayin' – Philippe Jun 24 '15 at 10:57
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    To respond to comments like, "I've always done it and nothing bad happened"--that does NOT imply it is a safe practice. Ground beef is known to be contaminated sometimes and to cause serious illness; I'm glad it didn't happen to you. As for "steak tartare," it is usually prepared very fresh where the outer portion of a hunk of raw meat is often trimmed (to remove surface bacteria), and the inner portion is chopped or ground just before serving. That's a very different process from putting untrimmed mixed meat and fat in a meat grinder and wrapping it in a supermarket package for days. – Athanasius Jun 24 '15 at 15:02
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The only properly safe way to do it would be to cook the burger sous vide until it has been pasteurised. I've done burgers at 55C using thickness and the Modernist Cuisine tables to calculate the cooking time. You just have to be careful when browning them afterwards not to completely undo all your good work by leaving them on the heat for too long.

  • 55C is enough to pasteurize? Wikipedia says that 63C for 30 minutes is recommended for home pasteurizataion of milk. (Industrial processes use specialist equipment to get higher temperatures for shorter times but that's not really relevant, here.) – David Richerby Jun 23 '15 at 20:40
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    If you do it for long enough then 55C is fine - especially if your burgers are thin - check the Douglas Baldwin tables if you don't have a copy of Modernist Cusine. – Stefano Jun 23 '15 at 21:28
  • You should let them cool a little before browning. Helps a lot to prevent overcooking. That and use the hottest fry pan you can obtain (cast iron is good here.) – derobert Jun 23 '15 at 23:27
  • Pasteurization temperatures depend on the substance, @DavidRicherby, and it's not strictly about temperature. It's a question of holding some D temperature for some T duration. – jscs Jun 24 '15 at 0:09
  • @derobert yep, and the ideal is to dunk them in liquid nitrogen and then deep fry them so the outside is completely browned but the inside remains unaffected. I can but dream... – Stefano Jun 25 '15 at 10:24

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