The hamburger is a delicious vestige of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where vendors grilled up ground beef patties, slapped them onto buns, and fed them to hordes of hungry Americans. The tradition been going strong for 110 years and counting, and it shows absolutely no signs of slowing down.
“The hamburger is an American invention,” writes patty obsessive Josh Ozersky. “It doesn’t matter that it is named after a German city.”
Though the ground meat patties themselves may have first gained popularity in 19th-century, working-class Hamburg, we Americans concluded that the chopped meat belonged on a bun. It was only a matter of time before McDonald’s outposts started popping up around the globe to spread the gospel.
These days, the proliferation of fast-food, fast-casual, and fancy burgers has caused a lot of us to forget that the basics of burger-making—grab a hunk of chopped meat, sear quickly, and slap the result onto a bun—make the classic sandwich really easy to cook at home (just as those 19th-century home cooks in Hamburg knew).
What’s more, it’s easy to make great burgers on the cheap, seasoned perfectly and topped with your favorite condiments. There’s also the possibility of nixing the beef altogether and swapping in lamb, chicken, or even tuna.
Once you’ve got the fundamentals down, the burger formula is infinitely customizable. Here, we break down the key elements of delicious home-made burgers.
1. The beef
“The trick to a really good burger is to have freshly ground beef,” says Billy Thanopoulos, owner of Two 8 Two Bar & Burger in Brooklyn. Anyone can go to the local butcher or grocery store, pick out some meats, and ask that they be freshly ground. That’s exactly what Thanopoulos used to do for friends, who told him his burgers were delicious and that he should open a restaurant—which he did.
The three go-to beef options are chuck roll, brisket, and short rib. Chuck roll is a good place to start, but you should play with the others to compare the way their flavor and fat content affect your patty.
2. Beyond beef
As any chicken burger lover will tell you, the buck doesn’t stop with beef. Most meat—and yes, veggies—can be turned into a patty, grilled, topped with burger toppings, and enjoyed.
For other proteins, look to get some fat in there—that will make for a juicier burger, no matter your base. That means opting for ground chicken and turkey thighs over white meat for poultry, and choosing fat-laced cuts lamb shoulder and pork butt. For fish, you’ll have the best results with a naturally fatty fish, like salmon.
The goal changes a bit for the veggie burger, since it’ll never be exactly juicy, but you can make a point of adding fat for taste reasons, in the form of olive oil, grated cheese, or beaten eggs.
If you have meat that’s not ground and your food processor’s blade is sharp, you can attempt to grind your own. For best results, cut your meat into one- or two-inch chunks, then place them on a baking sheet in the freezer before pulsing in the food processor until they’re ground. (The cold keeps the fat from getting too soft and smearing instead of grinding, explains Serious Eats‘ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in his guide to grinding meat.)
All a beef patty needs is salt and pepper. We’ll say that again: All a beef patty needs for seasoning is salt and pepper—no herbs, no egg, no mustard, no butter. (If you wind up with very lean meat, which can be the case if you buy grass-fed, you might break this rule by drizzling in a few tablespoons of oil or melted butter, but that’s it.) The reason is that chuck roll, short rib, and brisket are all incredibly flavorful, and since you’ve taken the trouble to buy them freshly ground, you’ve got no incentive to mask the flavors. Nope, all those add-ins are the province of chefs using lesser, leaner, older ground meat. When seasoning, simply sprinkle salt and pepper (generously!) on the outside of the meat—trying to mix it in will result in a clumpy grind, which is a problem for shaping.
On the other hand, almost any other base—whether meat, fish, or bean—needs some serious seasoning. Start by thinking about what you’d pair that meat with outside a burger; for example, lamb with Middle Eastern spicing like cumin, or turkey with mustard powder. Then add that to the ground meat mix. For inspiration, look to meatballs (but go a little easier on amounts, and skip the breadcrumbs).
The most important trick is not to press down on the patty. “It comes out more juicy when it’s loosely packed,” says Thanopoulos. Use a light touch.
As you may have noticed in your burger-eating expeditions outside your home kitchen, fast food-style burgers tend to be flat, while pricier burgers are rounder. This, in the end, is a matter of taste. But to err on the side of flatness, which is clearly better for holding whatever toppings you plan to slap on, shape your burger into a slightly concave shape, so that the center has room to rise without becoming round. Make the burger a little bigger than the bun you plan to serve it on—burgers shrink during cooking. Six ounces is a good place to start.
Burgers should be cooked over medium-high heat, either on a grill or in a cast-iron pan. While the grill has all the appeal of summertime and good times with friends, you will lose some of the burger’s fat as it drips down into the flames. If you use a cast-iron pan, you’ll retain all that good stuff. Either way, preheat your grill or pan until it’s good and hot, then lightly brush the surface with oil and add the meat.
Can you bake a burger if you’re feeling lazy or need to make a large batch? “Not if you want it to be good,” says Thanopoulos.
Doneness is purely a matter of preference “I like it medium-rare,” says Thanopoulos. If a customer orders at his restaurant and “they don’t say anything, we make it medium.”
When eating out, you might make a habit of changing your preference depending on the assumed quality of the meat in your burger. I’ll order medium-rare in a quality establishment and opt for medium-well in a more questionable joint. At home, since you’ve bought the best meat, go with what you love. Cook burgers for two minutes on one side, then flip and cook two minutes more for medium-rare, three to four for medium, and five to six for well done.
Burger purists will argue to the death about the supeiority of American cheese, but there are few cheeses that wouldn’t be comfortable on your patty—cheddar, blue, boursin, and so on. Chef’s choice.
One thing to let go of is the idea that the cheese should be perfectly melted on top of your burger. This is not a grilled cheese. If you put too much emphasis on the melting of the cheese, you’re likely to shift focus off of cooking the actual burger and may wind up with a well-done inside when you meant to go medium-rare. Don’t risk it. Instead, embrace the partial melt. Use thin slices or grated cheese to get the most meltiness, and place the cheese on top of your burger after flipping, during the last two minutes of cooking.
In a Minneapolis-style Juicy Lucy, you embed cheese inside a burger patty to create a gooey center after cooking. Ironically, you risk winding up with a more tightly packed, and therefore less juicy, patty when you go for this method.
8. The Bun
Do you want your burger on a piece of sourdough bread with a perfect chewy crumb? Nope, neither do I. Even the best burgers ought to be served on white buns, preferably cheap. Martin’s Potato Rolls are a supermarket mainstay, challah rolls work great, and if you want to go fancier, choose brioche buns.
A burger’s bun should be lightly toasted, for best absorption of the meaty juice that will pour out with every bite. If you’re grilling, place the bun cut-side down on a not-too-hot section of the grill for about one minute. If you’re indoors, toast briefly underneath the broiler.
A slick of mayonnaise on one side of the bun will play up the richness of your burger. Do you definitely need it? Probably not, but it’s nice. And this mayo is a place to get all chef-like and impress your friends with themed flavors: stir in minced smoked paprika, mashed avocado, or chipotle in adobo and season with salt and pepper before spreading.
The famous Shake Shack sauce is based on mayo and contains minced dill pickles, yellow mustard, ketchup, and garlic powder, according to Serious Eats. It’s an excellent choice.
Remember that great-quality meat that you got freshly ground at your local butcher? That’s your main argument for going minimalist with the toppings: You like the taste of beef, and that’s why you’re eating a burger.
Aside from cheese, stick to a few toppings at most—maybe lettuce, tomato, and pickled jalapeño, or grilled poblanos, crispy bacon, and sliced avocado. “My opinion is meat, cheese, raw onion, and I’m good to go,” says Thanopoulos.
On the other hand, if minimalism simply doesn’t appeal, you can have a blast with a slew of themed toppings, turning your patties into pizza burgers (mozzarella, tomato sauce, pepperoni and parm); Mexi-burgers (pepper jack, guacamole, grilled onions, and jalapeños); or breakfast burgers (bacon, cheddar, and a fried egg).