How to Win at Burgers

This month, we’re talking about sandwiches, and we can’t think of a more quintessential American sandwich than a burger. But, what makes a great one? Is it thick? Thin? Slathered in cheese? Is it about secret sauce, crazy toppings, the perfect bun?

Growing up, backyard grilling was a summer highlight — hanging out with family, chasing fireflies and, of course, eating burgers. But, as a grownup with infrequent access to a grill and an appetite for burgers that surpasses the simple flavors of New Jersey barbecues circa 1997, I’m always trying to perfect my burger-making game.

So, having asked experts and scoured the web, here are 10 essential tips for how to make the best burgers, whatever your preferences.

How to Win at Burgers

1. Don’t skimp on the meat.
You’ll need about 6 oz. of ground beef for thin burgers and 8 oz. for thicker ones, depending on your preference. So, buy between one-and-a-half and two pounds of meat for every four burgers you plan to make.

2. Choose a tasty blend.
You don’t need to buy the fanciest meat, but pay attention to its fat content. Burgers are not the time to go lean. For traditional beef burgers, look for ground chuck with a fat content between 20% (for leaner burgers) and 25-30% (for more tender ones). Generally, the higher the fat content, the juicier the burger. The Shake Shack burger accomplishes its juiciness with a deliciously fatty mix of brisket, short rib and sirloin.

How to Win at Burgers

3. Size matters.
Burgers shrink as they cook, so make each patty slightly wider than the bun you plan on using. Gently shape the meat into burger form, being careful not to handle it too much or pack it too tightly. (This is a good rule of thumb, whether you’re using beef, lamb, turkey or chicken.) For uniformly shaped burgers, try using a patty press, or a big, round cookie cutter, to get that perfect shape. Also, make a thumbprint in the center of the patty, which will help the top stay even when cooking heat puffs it up.

4. Season like you mean it.
For a classic burger, a generous amount of kosher salt and some freshly-ground pepper are all you need. But if you want to get crazy, you can experiment with all kinds of seasonings, from anchovies to sriracha to onion soup mix. The important thing is to season each side of the burger before you cook it, as opposed to mixing it into the meat, because the more you handle the meat, the less tender and delicious it will be.

How to Win at Cheeseburgers

5. Go beyond ketchup.
There’s a reason these guys are such a classic couple. But if you’re feeling inspired, consider adding condiments like herbed mayonnaise, fig spread or “secret sauce,” which is typically a mixture of ketchup, mustard, mayo and spices. Don’t be afraid to get creative with your toppings. Baked beans? Sure. Potato chips? Why not!

6. Get your grill on.
If you’re grilling, make sure to start with a clean grill, otherwise your burgers will stick to the remnants of burgers past (ew) and make a mess. Pre-heat the grill until it’s super hot, then place burgers directly onto the rack. Contrary to popular belief, do not press the daylights out of your burgers using a spatula, or anything else. You may think you’re speeding up the cooking process, but you’re actually squeezing out all the juices, which will make for burgers that look (and taste) like hockey pucks.

7. Or, stay inside.
If you (like me) have no yard and thus no grill, you can still partake in the deliciousness by broiling burgers in the oven or pan-frying them in a skillet. To broil, place your patties on a broiler pan and cook on high for about three minutes per side, until both sides have a nice char. If you’re using your stovetop, cook them for three minutes per side over medium heat in a pre-heated skillet, following these instructions.

Jenny Rosenstrach of Dinner: A Love Story says the best — and easiest — burger she ever made was in a pan. “The whole thing came together in about 12 minutes.” Just remember to open your windows or door if you’re making burgers inside, so as not to rouse your smoke alarm (and neighbors).

8. Consider the bun.
Personally, I’m a fan of squishy yellow potato rolls or rich and buttery brioche. The melty sensation of eating a cheeseburger is heightened when it’s encased in the softest, pillowiest bread you can find. Whatever your bun of choice, Alton Brown has a trick to prevent it from becoming too soggy. Before placing your burger onto the bun, spread a little mayo on the inside. This prevents the burger juices from permeating the bread.

How to Win at Burgers

9. Don’t be afraid to seek help.
If you’re looking for a streamlined step-by-step, this classic cheeseburger recipe calls for just five ingredients, including the potato roll. Since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Deb from Smitten Kitchen cracked the code of the incomparable Shake Shack Burger, for your at-home enjoyment. And The New York Times reveals some good tricks in this video.

10. Give yourself permission to go out.
If we’re being honest, there are plenty of times when I don’t feel like making my own burger, and that’s OK. If you’re in New York, my personal favorites are the Bash Burger at Burger & Barrel, or the grass-fed burger at Williamsburg’s Diner. After all, eating an amazing restaurant burger is essentially like doing research, right?

Are you a grill master? Do you have any tricks for making a tasty at-home burger? What’s the best restaurant burger you’ve ever had?

(Top image via Caroline’s Instagram. Thick vs. thin burgers via The New York Times. Hamburger patty and cheeseburger images via Food 52. At-home Shake Shack photo via Smitten Kitchen.)