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Why can't I cook a proper hamburger on my grill?

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The number of my failed or only moderately edible hamburger attempts is now in the double digits. Recently -- apparently through dumb luck -- I managed to nail it. Today, however, my hamburgers were once again undercooked. I've read countless web sites, magazine articles, and cook book articles about how to grill the proper hamburger, and am probably overthinking it. But still... isn't this like the most basic American dish?

At this point, I'm using 90/10 ground beef to make sure there is enough fat. (I would prefer to use the maximum lean stuff, but want to master a basic burger first.) I purchase the freshly ground patties from the store. Each patty is approximately .4 pounds.

Preheated gas grill on high. Uncovered. Approximately five or six minutes on the first side until the sweat appears. Then I flip and cook the other side for a few minutes on the grill before moving the burgers to the bun rack near the top of the grill. I cook them until they reach 160 on two cooking thermometers, and then remove them from the grill for at least five minutes.

Usually, when I pull them off the grill, the cooking thermometers are shooting past 170, which makes me paranoid that I've overcooked them. I use two different thermometers just to make sure the reading is accurate, and STILL they're not coming out the right way.

Tonight, I was sure that I had overcooked the patties. They were on a high heat grill for much longer than most recommended recipes, and the thermometer suggested that they were *well* over 165. But, sure enough, when we bit into the hamburgers they were still pink inside.

I guess I should have just designated one patty as a testing patty to make sure the pinkness was gone, but this is driving me crazy. I'm great with steak, I can bake a mean loaf of ciabatta, and my omelettes are almost always right on the money. But I can't, for the life of me, master the simple hamburger.

What am I doing wrong?

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  1. Oh boy. Be prepared for lots of conflicting advice on this. Everything that someone tells you around here, someone else says is rubbish. It's all about individual taste.

    That being said, here goes.

    90/10 is way too lean, especially if you are going for a well-done burger. 80/20 is the leanest I would go. Your taste is the ultimate referee, of course, but 90/10 well-done will be like a hockey puck.

    Most grill makers tell you to preheat your grill for 10-15 minutes with the lid closed. Otherwise you are preheating the sky. But your paragraph where you describe your exact method generally sounds like it's spot on.

    Unless your patty is quite thick you can't really use a thermometer. You need to insert in the side. A thin patty won't really let you do this. If you insert into the top you may be overshooting. You don't specify exactly how you do this.

    If you are shooting for no traces of pink you probably want to go to 180F or more. Personally, I wouldn't eat a burger like this. Anything past 160F is probably safe.

    But then I prefer burgers off a griddle, as much as I love my grill for other things.

    6 Replies
    1. re: acgold7

      See, this is where I get confused about hamburgers, How many times have we heard of food poisoning because of underdone burgers? I never eat a burger if it even has a tinge of pink in it, because I don't ant to wind up in the hospital. When I see all these "medium-rare" burgers on the Food Network, I shudder. Then I wonder if they can eat it like that because they are grinding their own meat from steaks. Then that would be okay, but if they are buying pre-ground beef, then that is where we get sick from underdone beef. So this thread is kind of confusing me, because it sounds like you are buying pre-ground beef (for the most part). ?

      1. re: Godslamb

        "How many times have we heard of food poisoning because of underdone burgers?"
        I've never heard of it.., No disrespect...

        I've been shooting for medium rare my whole life and I've never asked a question...
        If it smells good, it's been good..
        I've never heard of anyone getting sick from ground beef except occasionally on the news----- and in a country with 300 million people you hear a little of everything...

        My wife eats raw egg yolks whipped up with sugar and a lil' Marsala wine and has never experienced the slightest disturbance... (An old Italian / Latin American treat)

        1. re: Mild Bill

          The serious kinds of E coli aren't very common. But they cause pretty severe illness if you do get a tainted burger. It can and does kill otherwise healthy people.

          Estimates for the likelihood of getting a tainted egg are about 1 in 20,000 (some figures vary). The culprit there, as you probably know, is salmonella, which can be pretty miserable but less life-threatening than the forms of E coli in question.

          You're welcome, of course, to do with that information what you will.

          1. re: cowboyardee

            Absolutely, the need to cook burger meat from feedlots that's been ground up for who knows how long is why I bought a Waring grinder and started making my own burgers, so I could have them pink. I just got sick of ordering and making burgers 160 and I'm not about to risk the lethal e. coli that feedlot meat harbors. Tweech his own. I use raw or undercooked egg, but I also don't buy those from producers with undesireable practices.

            BTW, I've made great burgers from grass fed flank and top sirloin, very tasty and juicey despite the relative leanness of those cuts. Surprised me a lot, since I never used less than 85/15 in the past.

        2. re: Godslamb

          i have had food poisoning once frm a burger. and it was a preformed frozen patty that came in a box of steaks i was gifted. i eat my burgers medium rare to rare, and except for that one instance, never had a problem.

          1. re: Godslamb

            "How many times have we heard of food poisoning because of underdone burgers?"

            I know a total of 0 people who've gotten food poisoning from underdone burgers. And I throw a lot of backyard BBQs with med-rare burgers. Not saying it's impossible, but it seems to be improbable/unlikely.

        3. What temperature are you trying for-medium rare?

          1. Your method isn't bad. The main piece of advice I'm going to give you - take em off the heat just a bit earlier. As you've seen carryover heat will raise the internal temp 10 degrees or more. So taking them off at 155 will still get you an internal temp of 165 after resting - safe by normal standards. Of course, plenty of burger joints cook burgers even less than that, trading some degree of safety for a juicier interior (incidentally, I've also messed around with sous vide preparations where you can cook a burger to a perfect, juicy medium rare 131 and it's still perfectly safe, but that's a more involved process). If your rule is that you can't abide the tiniest hint of pink, you're always going to wind up with overdone burgers. 165 internally is safe, and IMO there's no reason to cook it past that. Just make sure you have a decent thermometer until you're able to tell by feel when they're done.

            High heat is very important, as you seem to know. So is preheating ~15 minutes for a gas grill. Many rely on heating up ceramic or steel elements enough to generate some radiant heat as well as the convection from the gas flame.

            Another thing: you will get more even cooking if you flip the burgers repeatedly than if you only flip em once. I know all the old advice is to only flip a burger or meat once on the grill - it's a myth that won't die. Flipping repeatedly gets just as good of a crust, while cooking both faster and more evenly. Just make sure not to squeeze the burger while you're flipping. The only situation I can think of where you should only flip once is if the burger is really loose/crumbly and you want it to firm up a bit so it doesn't fall apart when handled.

            1 Reply
            1. re: cowboyardee

              I'll add one more thing to this. The burgers will probably need to be moved around. Grills always have hot spots and not so hot spots. Moving them around as they cook will also even out the doneness.

              90-10 is absolutely too lean. A tinge of pink will be fine. Even for me and my sensitive system.

              DT

            2. Some of it mirrors what has already been said but I've found Kenji to be very helpful. BTW that Thermopen used in the one tip absolutely kicks ass. Might I also suggest - since your using a gas grill which is not the most intense in heat but very consistent in its output - putting on 4-6 burgers and when the first one looks like it done take the temp and pull it of the grill. Continue doing this every minute and figure out which one is to your liking.
              http://aht.seriouseats.com/archives/2...

              1. I have to agree with several points, 90/10 is too lean, preheat the grill longer, I too wouldn't eat a grey burger. the only point I DO disagree with is our esteemed cowboy's flipping comment, even with a tightly packed patty, unless you have that hand technique down right you're asking for a crumbled bits rescue mission (although I've found a regular turning does create a more uniform interior color and reduces the exterior seared and interior pink situation, but pls refer to my grey comment) if you follow the multi-flip method, you may want to first wire brush the grill carefully and then soft brush some oil on the metal or even consider using a fish grilling basket.

                5 Replies
                1. re: hill food

                  Thousands of flips, years since I lost a burger. It's all in the wrist. That first flip is usually the only tricky one anyway. OTOH, if i see any fissures forming early on a patty, I hold off on that flip.

                  "if you follow the multi-flip method, you may want to first wire brush the grill carefully and then soft brush some oil on the metal"

                  _____

                  I had assumed people were doing this anyway. If not though, it's a good piece of advice.

                  ETA: It just occurred to me that I always hand-form patties into a hockey puck-like shapes and never use store-formed thin, wide patties. Now that I think of it, this is surely one reason I can flip a burger early without worrying too much about it falling apart. If you use wider, thinner burgers, it would be harder to keep the patties from falling apart.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    Good point about thin patties falling apart, but it presents a dilemma for me. I tend to like thinner, wider patties because I always think the finished patty should be a little bigger than the bun, and as all patties get thicker and narrower as they cook, a patty that goes on as a puck comes off as a baseball, leading to a large ring of meatless bread, bun wise. I then weep softly.

                    Frozen patties do not present this problem, but I know this will elicit howls of protest from burger aficionados.

                    1. re: cowboyardee

                      cowboy - in all my years I have never mastered the grill flip (I KNOW it can be done but then another source of secret shame is I could never get the right spin on a football either) and yeah those pre-made frozen patties/clay pigeons are really only made for the skillet or shooting skeet.

                      re the brush and grease, it's sorta amazing how many don't remember it.

                      ac - I saw a tip a while back about that baseball phenom, instead of pressing while cooking (drying out the beef) while it's raw take your thumb or a spoon back and make a dimple in the center so it's more like a hole-less donut. the center still swells, but sorta matches the thickness of the edges. "I then weep softly" are those the bitter tears of anger and self-recrimination? yelling "nothing ever WORKS in this stinkin' world" as the whole batch is flung into the wading pool of stunned children?

                      1. re: hill food

                        The weeping is due to the whole meat/bread balance being off for the whole night. Even if I peel the meatless bun-ring off and discard it, we've then got the meatloaf puck in the middle and, oh, it's just too horrible to contemplate. I think I'll go lie down now.

                        I've done the dimpling thing and it does work but I'm too distraught at the moment to discuss it. Don't even get me started on people who boil their ribs.

                        Flinging meat pucks at kids in the wading pool... that's hysterical. I may have to try that as a form of grill therapy.

                        1. re: acgold7

                          heh I like the mental image (I'd never do it IRL) of slack-jawed kids wondering "what'd I do?"

                          had enough of that myself then, gotta break the cycle. let it live only in writing.

                  2. In terms of the cooking, I don't see a problem. I see just the opposite - You're doing super. Pink is good. It's juicy. It's awesome. It's the way that it's supposed to be. And at the lean mixture you're using, it's the only way to get a good burger.

                    Just look past the color and focus on the flavor and texture. The beefiness should be strong, have a good bite and juices should ooze out when you bite into one. As long as it isn't mushy (undercooked), you're golden.

                    1. Thanks everyone for all of your advice. I really appreciate it!

                      1. Skip the thermometer. Instead, test the doneness by the 'finger' test. Rarer meat will feel softer when you poke it, and well done meat hard. As a gauge, use the firmness of the area between your thumb and first finger. Hand in a relaxed position = rare, while a totally clenched meat is well done.

                        There are a few variations on this but here is the illustrated test.
                        http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/...

                        Using leaner meat is fine, just make sure it is well seasoned (salt & pepper mixed into the ground meat mixture), and coat the burgers with some olive oil before throwing them on an extra hot grill. Also, don't overcook leaner burgers.

                        If your burgers fall apart, make sure they are well chilled before grilling (1 hr + in fridge, 15 min in freezer).

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: addym

                          This is the key point IMO -- feel. I truly believe that using gadgets and trying to adhere to scientific rules is secondary to getting to know your food. Burgers are all about touch, look, and the real key to knowing when they're perfectly done is when you start drooling.

                          Forming the burgers by hand, you get to know how tight/loose you like to pack the meat. Touching it as it is cooking, you learn how raw it is when it feels like jello, and how overdone it is when it's like a concrete stepping stone. You can see when the color is too light, and your eyes will dance when you see that deep brown sear and crystalizing juices that pack so much flavor.

                          It's practice that makes a great burger. People overthink these things. You need to get your Neanderthal on and hone your instincts. Maybe even grunt a little as you flip your burgers.

                        2. Agree with the comments here. I use 20% fat, which makes for a juicy burger, and they are less likely to overcook. Also, chilled meat is important as well as a high heat and a well oiled grill. The first side is crucial to get a nice sear for appearance sake, the second side is less crucial IMO. There was a tip from CI years ago that I use: Make the center of the patty a little thinner than the perimeter so the burgers are level when cooking is completed. After grilling, I place the cooked burgers right atop grilled buns, wait a couple minutes then serve.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Funwithfood

                            Look, this is really simple. I use 85/15. Put only kosher salt and pepper in the meat. Nothing else. Use a lot. Go get you one of those hamburger formers you find at Williams Sonoma or such. It costs $20 and will form a 7 oz burger the same shape every time. Preheat the grill to 400 degrees. No more and no less. Cook the burger for 5 minutes on each side. No more and no less. Put cheese on in the last minute if you want cheese. Take the burger up and put it in tin foil for five minutes more. That's it.

                            1. re: Clem943

                              "one of those hamburger formers you find at Williams Sonoma"

                              but that's cheating and I dunno maybe it's me but 7 oz sounds honking big. but I'm with you on the kosher salt, iodized is just too sharp (although I'm cool with some garlic powder)

                          2. I like to grind my own. That way it seems less of an issue to cook them medium rare. I form the patties and make a two knuckle indentation in the middle. I hear people talk of using chilled meat, but I start with room temp meat so they cook more quickly. IMHO the secret to consistently great burgers is learning to like them more rare.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: tim irvine

                              heck if I went to the extent of grinding carefully selected beef my self I'd go one step further and make tartare or kitfo and let the guests go hungry if they don't like it. (sorry, feeling cranky about the well done issue)

                              1. re: hill food

                                Don't feel cranky. You're not alone. I tell my guests, "It's done, dude. If you want to incinerate it you're going to have to do it yourself and deal with the bad karma later."

                                1. re: ladybugthepug

                                  I like you.

                                  1. re: hill food

                                    me too!

                                  2. re: ladybugthepug

                                    I'll have to remember that! I hate burning up a good piece of meat, even if it's for an honored guest (like my grandma, who had to have her piece of standing rib roast put back under a broiler every Christmas).

                                    1. re: ladybugthepug

                                      Even though I always *want* to say that, I try to remember that these people are my guests and it's my duty to make them the food they like, so I cheerfully ruin their steaks and bacon per their request and do it graciously and with a smile. I even bring them the ketchup if they want it and wait to scream until I'm in the other room.

                                      1. re: acgold7

                                        well then ac you are a lovely host, just maybe not the kind of status I may ever achieve.

                                        1. re: hill food

                                          No, I'm mostly an a**hole, just not about that. You should hear me when my wife cuts her spaghetti with her fork.

                                2. i agree with others about the lack of fat - 15-20% fat is a minimum.

                                  160F is well done. if you are pulling it at 160 you are pulling already well done burgers.

                                  medium is about 140-145

                                  medium rare is about 130-135

                                  but its hard for me to say, because if you are looking for all the pinkness to be gone you want what i would consider overcooked burgers

                                  1. Don't agree with the "chilled" comment. I made perfect burgers last night on the charcoal grill. I left the meat on the counter for fifteen minutes before forming the patties and putting them on the grill. I agree with the higher fat content. I used 85/15 angus beef and formed them larger than the bun and about half an inch thick. I closed the grill cover and let them go for about five minutes and checked them . When they start to look juicy on top I flip them and close the cover again. The finger press method for checking doneness is better than a thermometer. They're too thin for an instant check thermometer.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: noodlepoodle

                                      I haven't used one on a burger in years, but an instant read thermometer works just fine if you cook a thicker, hand-formed burger. Though ideally you should use a thermocouple-type thermometer where the sensor is right at the tip. Doesn't work so well if you like really thin burgers. Going by feel is fine but it takes practice and experience.

                                      The chilled thing - it helps you build more char and crust on the surface of the burger in the time it takes the center of the burger to get to your target. It's a trade-off though, because it also makes the burger cook less evenly. It's helpful if you're cooking on an underpowered grill or if you're cooking a really thin burger. I wouldn't really recommend it to the OP since he/she was going for a burger fully cooked to 165 in the center, and if you chill the burger and then cook the center to 165, much of the meat will be way overdone and dry.

                                      1. re: noodlepoodle

                                        Cold ground beef simply holds together better than room temperature ground beef...

                                      2. Just two things to add. First, if you're going for a more well-done burger, I would avoid high heat. Try 75% and see where that gets you.

                                        Second, practice your burgers on the stove for a while until you're really confident judging the doneness. I use a cast iron pan over medium high (75%) heat.

                                        Just a couple things that have worked for me.

                                        1. Just so you know, you're fine with extra lean meat. I like to use the leanest cuts as well(usually can only find 93/7), and they work just fine. You don't need extra fat in the meat for it to cook correctly; others just like a higher fat content for the taste.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: tzanghi

                                            And taste matters! Store bought 90% lean or higher has none, IME. But I'm always amazed at how tasty flank and top sirloin I grind myself are, and juicy. I also make large, plump burgers, with a depression in the center, so I get a nice char outside, juicy medium inside.

                                            1. re: tzanghi

                                              If by "work just fine" you mean "tastes like crap" then I'm totally on board with you! ;)