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ingredients and techniques

Hamburgers: Grinding, Seasoning, and Forming

john's picture



Included in the 1936 edition of the Joy of Cooking, and basically unaltered since, hamburgers are perhaps the easiest and most-loved grilling fare in America. With the rise of boutique burger chains from coast to coast, it seems like a good time to remember that the simplest, most basic things make the biggest difference when it comes to grilling the humble hamburger. The quality and doneness of the meat, the size of the grind, the chew and toastiness-factor of the bun, all of these contribute more to the burger experience than what you serve on top of it (though I’m a sucker for blue cheese, or any other cheese, pickle, or condiment you can think of).

So, to accompany the last month of good grilling weather, we at the Joy Kitchen will be reviewing the factors that make for a good hamburger, starting with, you guessed it, the meat.

I don’t want to proselytize something most cooks will consider inconvenient and nit-picky, but I can’t help it: do not buy your meat pre-ground or pre-formed into patties. Unless you happen to be grilling the exact number of burgers a package can make, you will have to discard or store the rest. Freezing ground meat is a fairly common practice, and I have done it many times. I stopped doing it years ago for a very simple reason: when the meat thaws, it exudes a bunch of moisture and has an off texture.

Another, more important reason: cross-contamination at the supermarket. Almost every outbreak of meat contamination I can remember has been traced to ground beef. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take those odds.

My answer? Buy a large roast of chuck, sirloin, or round (in order of preference, flavor, and fat content), remove any gristle and tendons, slice it into portion sizes appropriate for one night of burgers in your house (figure on 1/3 pound per person), freeze the chunks (wrapped in wax paper) in a large plastic bag, partially thaw what you need in the refrigerator, and grind it fresh. As you can see from the image of chuck roast, finding the connective tissue is not hard, nor is separating the muscle.

Beef can be ground at home in a food processor or in a meat grinder. Obviously, the grinder is the best option, as it guarantees a uniform texture. If you don’t have a grinder, cut the partially-thawed meat into cubes and place in food processor bowl. Pulse the processor on and off to prevent the beef cubes from becoming overprocessed. Stir the meat after several pulses. Use caution, as the food processor will grind the beef quickly, making it easy to overprocess the meat, resulting in ground beef that has a pasty texture. The best results occur when the meat is ground just until the larger chunks are broken down into pieces that are no smaller than 1⁄4 inch.

For those lucky enough to own a meat grinder, the process is much easier: cut the meat into strips small enough for the grinder shoot to handle and hit the switch (or start cranking). Again, be sure the meat is only partially thawed (this helps the grinder make clean cuts, yielding a better texture). I prefer using a 3/16-inch grinding plate for a nice, chunky texture.

Once the meat is ground, handle it with care: do not knead it or try to smash it into the right shape. Put it in a bowl, season with about 1 teaspoon of salt and black pepper per patty (for a nice beefy flavor, I sometimes add dried shiitakes at this point, ground to a powder in my spice grinder). Mix the seasoning in by pulling your fingers through the mixture. To form patties, lightly form a ball with 1/3 pound of meat and, on a baking sheet, let the ball fall from about one foot above the surface. Gather up the meat, flip it over, and let it fall again. Using your thumb and index finger, shape a ridge around the edge. This will add to the integrity of the patty and make the finished burger relatively flat (the center has a tendency to bulge during cooking).

At this point you can dust the patties with even more seasoning (chili powder, for instance), but I often let the chuck speak for itself. Assuming your patty is no more than ¾ of an inch thick, cook over a medium-hot grill for five minutes per side. Since the meat isn’t as pasty as store-bough ground hamburger, you don’t want to move or flip the patties any more than necessary. After getting seared during the first five minutes, they should release easily from the grate.

Though grinding the meat yourself is much safer, please remember that the USDA recommends cooking any ground meat product to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Just keep in mind that this guideline is designed to take into account the contamination-prone nature of store-bough ground beef.

Over the next month, expect more on burgers, homemade condiments, and grilling ideas from the Joy Kitchen. Happy grilling!



Sam's picture

Thanks for this post. :)

I don't have a grill so I made burgers in a pan. I think they came out good, but lacked the smoky taste. Is there a way to get smoky flavor when using the pan technique?

john's picture

Hello Sam!

Glad you liked the post.

You might try adding some finely chopped chipotles en adobo to the meat (a little dried chipotle powder works well too). If you can find some smoked salt, you can add that instead (as much as you would regular salt). For thin burgers, I like to briefly "smash" them down with the spatula... more surface area to get crispy!

For the exact opposite approach, here's a knife-and-fork burger my father has been serving since I can remember. When I do burgers in a skillet, this is my go-to recipe. Ground round is leaner than chuck roast, which allows you to make a good pan sauce without draining off any grease. Since they turn out medium rare, you won't miss the fat.

- Mix in a cup 2 tablespoons each: port, Worcestershire or soy, and tabasco sauce. Add black pepper and one clove of minced garlic.
- Saute 2-4 thick burgers (ground top round) in a bit of oil on one side until browned (5 min. on medium high).
- Flip and cook for a few minutes more, then dump the mixture onto them.
- Immediately cover with a lid and take the skillet off the heat. Wait five minutes. Serve open face, drizzled with the pan juices.

Try it next time. Delicious!

Ange DeSouza's picture

I started grinding my own beef a couple of years ago. I heard about "pink slime" and thought it was gross. I remember I had sitting in a drawer unused, the grinder attachment for my mixer. I started grinding my own beef. What a difference in both taste and texture. I would like to grind my own pork and turkey, but I'm not sure what cuts to use. Any thoughts?

john's picture

If you plan to use the meat for burgers or bulk sausage I would definitely recommend staying around the magic fat ratio of chuck: 30% fat (for fillings, less fat would be best). For pork, my favorite is the butt or shoulder cut since it has the most flavor, but try to avoid adding too much of the white fat (the meat is marbled and the white stuff collects at the grinding plate). Alternatively, you can use loin and add minced bacon or fatback to it, put the texture and flavor will not be quite as good. For chicken or turkey, I recommend thighs. They're flavorful, fattier, and juicier than breast meat. Plus, if you get thighs with the skin on, you can finely dice the skin and use it to boost the fat content... if that sounds gross, you can always add bacon. Just remember: when cooking pork or poultry burgers, the meat has to reach 160 F.

john's picture

One of my favorite pork burgers: add Chinese five-spice powder, green onion, black pepper, and a dash of soy to the ground shoulder. Form one-inch patties and fry until browned and cooked through. Toast some challah bread or brioche buns, add the patties and top with roughly chopped kim chee and shredded napa cabbage. Smear the other bun with mayo mixed with a little hoisin sauce and serve with sriracha on the side. Delicious!

Greg's picture

Hi there!I recently made the sauce but it's too thin - I added too much of a wine - how do you think - will it make it better If i gradually boil it to remove unnecessary water out of it?

john's picture

The fermented hot sauce right? You can do that, but it will affect the potency and taste of the sauce. The better option is to add xanthan gum (fairly easy to locate... try if your local grocery stores do not carry it). Just remember: 1) add VERY small amounts, mix, and test by coating the back of a spoon until the sauce is thickened to your liking 2) thoroughly mix each addition of xanthan gum with a little water prior to adding to the sauce. Number 1 is important because over-using xanthan gum makes for a "gloopy" or "ropey" consistency. Number 2: like cornstarch, xanthan is a very fine powder and hard to dissolve in liquid. Whisking in water to make a "slurry" makes the process much easier. With these cautions in mind, xanthan is pretty awesome and you should really try using it instead of reducing the sauce. Hope that helps!

jt's picture

I live in a condo with no balcony, and have found the burger method that works best indoors. Season patties liberally with salt/pepper. I take avocado oil (500 smoke point) and heat in a skillet (prefer all-clad, cast iron kind of works too) until just smoking. Sear burgers 1-2 mins per side, then put on cooling rack in rimmed baking sheet (catch drippings) put in 300 degree oven until done. Time depends on thickness. I make 95% or leaner burgers with this method, and they don't come out dense or dry. If fat doesn't worry you, add melted butter to the beef and mix!

meg's picture

Thanks, jt! Actually, since writing this post, we've moved into a city apartment and don't have a grill at the moment either. Needless to say, we think you can cook exceptional burgers indoors. And we agree that a good, sturdy all-clad or cast iron pan works best for this sort of thing.

sheena's picture

Really nice post! I love the photograph

Beverly's picture

Do you have a recipe for fresh pork breakfast sausage? I searched your site but did not find one.

Beverly's picture

Thank you for this helpful post! I started grinding my own meat last year to avoid food additives. My results have been good, but I am looking forward to trying your suggestions from this post.

It seems to me that in my old Joy of Cooking (1973), which is in storage at the moment, the authors suggested double-grinding meat for some dishes. Can you expound on that?

For example, I want to make pork sausage. I'm wondering if I can run the meat once with a coarse grind and then run it again with the spices added to mix them in thoroughly.

john's picture

Sorry for the delayed response Beverly! We're hard at work on hte new edition and keeping up with comments has fallen by the way side. To answer your question: yes! we have a recipe for pork sausage (we call it "Country Sausage") in the newest edition of the book, published 2006 (we do not post all of the recipes from the book here for a variety of reasons). As for grinding twice, it really just depends on what you're after and what grinding plate you used to begin with. If you grind it twice, the sausage will have a finer texture and it will hold its shape much better; grinding once will yield a chunkier, looser texture (which we like). The extra grinding also develops more myosin (the gluey protein that makes sausage "sticky"). A compromise that will yield sausage that holds its shape and has a chunky texture: grind all of the meat, then grind half of it or less again. This way, you get the benefit of myosin and some of the chunky texture.

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