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Building a better burger

July 8, 2009 - Jenn Lucas
Be it beef, turkey or salmon, a great burger starts with great meat. You could go to a fast food joint and pick up something that passes for a burger but when you gain a little know-how and make it for yourself, you will be opened up to a world where burgers are more than just dried out beef patties drowning in ketchup.

To build a better beef burger, start with a good ground meat. You want a mix that’s at least 85 percent fat, with 80 being optimal. The less-fat mixes will yield a better-for-you burger but it will be turn out dry. You can mix in things like onion or mushrooms to beef up a less fat ground beef, but that’s a different column. That’s a meatloaf burger, not a true hamburger.

When at the meat case in the store, there are a few options for beef. If the store grinds its own, go for that. If not Angus or choice beef is the next best before the store brand, which is also usually fine but if you like it on the rare side, I’d go for the best beef you can find short of knocking off a cow yourself. If you’re really bold you can convert a stand mixer in to a meat grinder, but I just work with the pre-ground stuff.

Now that you selected the meat, things get tricky. Now you have to decide how big of a burger you want. I prefer them not fatter or rounder than about the size of a quarter pounder at a certain fast food chain. To get this effect, I take about a baseball-sized chuck of ground beef and flatten it in my hands, hitting it in a circle, like pizza makers do. Then, I take a piece of tin foil, place in on the counter, put the meat on it, then form it into a round patty. The key here is to make sure it’s thinner than the desired cooked size, as it will swell up while cooking.

I mix nothing into the meat, just season with some salt and pepper on both sides. Make sure your grill is hot and sprayed with a non-stick coating. You can also make a great burger in a cast iron griddle or frying pan – just make sure it’s hot before you put the meat in to get a good sear. Place the burger over the coals, if on a grill, and cook for about 5 minutes. Don’t press it, flip it or touch it. Repeat on the other side for 5 minutes, to yield a rare burger. I usually flip once more for about 3 minutes then flip again and add cheese until it melts for a medium done burger.

Cheese is a must in my book for any burger. Try to get away from American; there are so many wonderful choices out there. Munster, Gouda or Gruyere work well for a mild, melty burger. Sharp cheddar can take a burger to a new level. I don’t like Swiss or provolone on burgers, but everything in cooking is subjective, so if you like them go for it.

Make sure you have a bun that doesn’t have the store’s name on the package. Preferably, buy fresh-baked Kaiser rolls to get a better taste. The packaged buns disintegrate when the come in contact with the juices you burger will have. I like to toast the cut part of the buns for a little to add texture and provide a more stable resting place for the burger. I also was told if you like mayonnaise, coat each side of the bun to get a waterproof, or in this case juice-proof, seal against the bread. I’m a ketchup and raw onion girl myself and don’t like mixing ketchup and mayo.

Instead of a recipe, I’m going to end this column by offering some ideas to expand your burger offering beyond the basic American cheeseburger.


• Roasted red peppers and basil on top of a mozzarella cheeseburger. Roast them yourself while the burger cooks or use jarred pepper, both work well.

• Feta and sliced cucumbers mixed with sour cream and dill bring a Greek-inspired burger. Instead of mayo, try hummus.

• Caramelize onions and mushrooms in some red wine and top a Gruyere cheeseburger for a hint of France in an American classic.

• Make or buy some mango salsa and top a burger with some queso fresco and the salsa for a taste of the Caribbean

• Take some ham and pickles to top a Swiss cheeseburger and add some garlic mayo for a Cuban burger.

• Try jalapeño peppers or pepper jack cheese for a burger with flair.

• Make a hot pepper sauce by pureeing cooked peppers and use instead of ketchup on a burger with blue cheese.

• Use a good, coarse stone ground mustard and some Butterkäse for a taste of Germany.

• Don’t rule out veggies — spicy arugula can add zip, while a cabbage slaw offers crunch. Roasted eggplant can substitute for a tomato or green peppers and onions can hint of a Philly cheesesteak. Nothing is out of play when it comes to topping a burger.

There are so many wonderful flavored cheeses out there from sun-dried tomato to horseradish to sage, (Cabot makes a full line of unique cheeses), that you could spend all summer just playing with cheese alone. The next time the hankering for a burger hits, skip the drive through and fire up the backyard grill instead. Try a new combination. You be much more satisfied.

Do you have a recipe you want me to try or some food you would like me to investigate? Please send all suggestions and comments to


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