18 Ways You're Grilling Burgers Wrong
Ease up on the salt.
To grill or not to grill, that is the question. When talking about burgers, the answer is usually yes, but even the most astute bards of beef sometimes make mistakes.
To help you avoid suffering a chorus of slings and arrows from your friends, we asked a true poet of patties, Adam Perry Lang, the chef behind APL Steakhouse and APL BBQ, author of Serious Barbecue, and general master of meat to share 18 things you’re probably doing wrong over the charcoal.
Grills can be temperamental, but don’t encourage them. To avoid flare-ups, balance the heat of your grill with the fat content of the burger. “You're going to be in trouble if you have a high-fat burger on a very hot grill,” says Lang. “You're going to get too much crust before the burger even cooks. If you want really high heat, you can go with a leaner burger.”
Removing a burger from the grill should not be a battle, but it’s easy to wind up in a situation where half your patty sticks to the grates. The reason is because those delicious juices inside the meat aren’t just water, there’s protein too, and protein loves to stick around. “To avoid that, here's a tip: after you form your patty, you dab it with a paper towel and make sure it's as dry as possible. Season it, then put a very thin coat of canola oil,” Lang says.
Relying too much on salt
Resist the temptation of loading your burger with a day’s worth of your recommended dose of sodium. Only season it on the outside, just before you put it on the grill. “Ground beef is very susceptible to the salt drawing up moisture," says Lang. "The texture will completely change. It won't be as juicy and has the potential to get quite rubbery.”
Letting raw patties get warm
Like your burgers with a bit of pink in the middle? Then keep that beef in the fridge until just before cooking. “If you like a burger that's more on the rare side, but you want that crust development, have the burger very cold before going on the grill," recommends Lang. "It'll give you a head start, because that inside will take some time to cool down.”
Going thin and lean
Even Lang’s chef friends sometimes make the mistake of not making their patties thick enough.
“It'll dry out. Go with a thicker burger so the juicy texture comes from the slightly undercooked, medium-rare meat," he says. "It holds on to more of that juiciness because it's thicker.”
Letting the burgers rest after cooking
The grilling gods decree to always rest your meat after cooking, but Lang takes a heretic approach. “I'm not a big fan of resting burgers. I want it juicy, straight off the grill," he says. "Burgers have so much cooked surface area that a lot of the juice just leaks out onto the platter. It's not contained like in a piece of beef that's a whole muscle. By the time you put it on the bun and hand it to somebody, the concept of resting just kind of happens."
Overlooking the bun
The first thing that hits your tongue when you bite into a burger is the bun, so not just any piece of bread will do, but cheap isn’t necessarily bad. Texture is key, but too firm overwhelms the burger. “I like milk buns or potato buns," Lang notes. "Hawaiian rolls can be good, but some people feel that they're too sweet. It's the texture that is really important. You want something like a sourdough, something with a texture that has a lot of body.”
Letting the bun get soggy
“One thing that essentially eliminates a soggy bun is if you just put the cold cheese on the bottom of the bread and place the burger on top," Lang reveals. "It acts as a liquid barrier for that bread."
Forgetting the butter
Cows give us so much. Not only the delicious protein between our bun, but also a glorious churned dairy product known as “butter”. Use it! “If you want that golden brown, really beautiful crust, just slap your grill or cast-iron pan with a little bit of melted butter," Lang says. "It'll drip off, but the milk solids will remain.”
Getting too complicated
In terms of toppings, Lang is an American cheese, pickles, and fresh onions type of guy. And he isn’t a fan of mixing other ingredients into the beef, but if you’re going to add onion, do it right. “There are no absolutes here, but if you're going to put onions in raw, you'd microplane them so that it's more of a flavor essence than texture," he says. "If you're going to cook them in a pan, it's very important to let them cool down before putting them in the mix. That warmed temperature can be unhealthy because of the bacteria.”
Going crazy with the dimples
“Sometimes it's necessary to dimple the burger, sometimes it's not. It's necessary when using cuts high in collagen like brisket or short rib, but not with sirloin or chuck," Lang advises, in order to avoid the burger puffing up in the middle. "If you cook a brisket too fast it'll buckle because that collagen is contracting. The same with a burger. Depending on the amount of brisket, if you don't put that dimple in it, it will inflate and almost balloon.”
Cutting patties to check wellness
What did that patty do to you to deserve stabbing it with a knife? Nothing! “You should definitely not pierce or cut into burgers while cooking," Lang warns. "One thing I would say is that for a thicker burger, an instant-read thermometer is gold. For the thinner ones, the temperature is somewhat insignificant unless you're cooking it so hot and fast that it'll be raw inside.”
Forgetting the cast iron
“I'm a huge fan of crust development. The best way to get it is to use a cast iron. But there's also a great benefit from a burger that gets that charcoal flavoring as it charbroils directly over coals," says Lang. "One of my favorite methods is the griddle-grill method. I start the actual burger directly on the griddle. It gets started, the heat is very intense off the bat. A lot of the initial fat is on the griddle, so you avoid that flare-up. Then as it renders out, I transfer it to the grill.”
Keeping your whole grill at one temperature
An effective grill must make like Walt Whitman and contain multitudes. If you have a smaller grill area it’s trickier, but best practice is to effectively create two different temperature surfaces to allow for versatility in cooking. “I like to use the on-off method," says Lang. "Hot area and cooler area, cool for even cooking and hot for more char.”
Don’t move them too quickly
Patience you must have, young Padawan. Don’t use the force until you’re ready! Give them time to develop a char, lest you end up with a floppy broken burger. “The most common mistake people make when cooking burgers on a grill is moving them too quickly,” the chef says.
Ignoring the quality of beef
It can be tempting to bargain shop while browsing for beef. "It’s only a burger," you might think. "No one will be able to tell the difference if you skimp with a few pounds of standard ol’ store-brand ground chuck." You are wrong.
Although prime may be overkill for an everyday backyard hang, at least choose your cut wisely. “Pay attention to the meat you use, use high-quality beef and don’t go too lean," says Lang. "I recommend the chuck sirloin brisket, it provides depth of flavor and mouthfeel.”
Starting too quickly
We get it, you slacked on firing up the grill and the guests are getting restless. Everyone wants to start cooking as soon as possible, but don’t jump the gun. “Allow the coals to completely burn until they are white," Lang advises. "Otherwise, they give off a negative flavor.”
Sticking to just beef
Even if you’re making burgers, beef doesn’t always have to be what’s for dinner! Make your cookout seem far more elaborate than it actually is by picking up an alternative protein. Turkey’s a great option, but to keep it from drying out, Lang suggests grinding with cold cubed butter for maximum juiciness.