How to Win at Burgers

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.)

  1. I recently attempted to duplicate the DGB (Darn Good Burger) from Red Robin. It’s a well-seasoned burger with roasted tomatoes, garlic aioli and fresh arugula tossed in citrus olive oil dressing on a toasted ciabatta bun. All I can say is “yum”!

  2. I really want a burger now….

  3. Em says...

    I was wondering since I saw Caroline’s instagram post-where is that mural of the burger located?! This post is amazing.

  4. Julie says...

    Best burger add-on: fried egg with runny center.

  5. Colleen Kemp says...

    This is fabulous! My favorite restaurant burger recently was “the potsticker” at Five Star burgers in St. Louis. It was seriously like an amazing, huge, delicious potsticker.

  6. bisbee says...

    I am a burger girl! I make 3 to a pound – we buy fresh ground chuck and I make it into burgers and freeze them – always a good meal waiting to be made! My husband has gotten the grilling of my burger down to a science – medium rare, charred on the outside. Yum! Sautéed onions, melted cheddar and ketchup. We season just on the outside using our own mixture – 2 parts Kosher salt, 3 parts garlic pepper, 2 parts coarse onion powder and 1 part paprika. I’ve also been extremely happy with Martha Stewart’s recipe for Turkey Burgers – great every time!

  7. Cindy says...

    I like to season my burger meat with salt, pepper and garlic. Then I take a variety of hot peppers fresh from my garden, roast them in the oven, then blend them with a little olive oil in the food processor. Then I gently fold the pepper mixture into the burger meat. It makes for the perfect, juiciest and spicy burgers!

  8. Carol Wayne says...

    We were recently in Buena Vista, Colorado and there is a food truck next to the DeerHammer Distillery that makes great burgers….my husband had the Jalapeño/Cream Cheese Burger which he just loved…..I always get there veggie burger…its the best I have ever eaten…..of course we usually go there after a day of hiking in the mountains so I am not sure how objective we are!!

  9. I am a lucky girl to be dating a guy who loves making burgers and experimenting. My favorite so far is an Indian-flavor inspired burger with goat cheese and arugula. SO YUM. These are great tips I will pass along!

    – Kaitlyn |

  10. I always use an english muffin for the bun when making a burger at home. So good. My sauce is mayo, ketchup, sweet relish and a sprinkle of sugar.

  11. Yum! Burgers are always a favorite of mine. You gotta add a little seasoning and extra toppings! My brother swears by this bacon mac n’ cheese burger he got at Guy Fieri’s restaurant, but I almost feel like that’s overdoing it!

    Meet Me in Midtown

  12. You had me at sandwich. I was saying to my husband the other day if I had to eat only one food for the rest of my life it would be sandwiches. All day every day.
    I’ve just discovered the best topping pickled zucchini and or yellow squash. It’s pickle-y but not. Heaven.
    By next fall we will be grilling burgers from our own cattle. I suspect this will be a burger game-changer and I may just eat them 3 times daily.
    I look forward to the next sandwich installment.

  13. Oh man, It’s been a while since I’ve had the juiciest burger ever. FIve guys and in an out are my to go burger joints. But, there is a burger joint called Burger Priest in Toronto. My goodness, it is a bit pricy I say, but it’s totally worth it. Just make sure you have a bed next to you once your done, cause that is what you want to do once you eat all of that meat.

    I don’t like only adding ketchup on mine when I make my own burger. A little hint of vinegar, chipotle pepper and oregano mix does a lot.

    Thanks for the post, and for getting me hungry!

  14. Caroline and gang — If you haven’t already, you must go to Lot 2 Restaurant in South Slope, Brooklyn for their absolutely delicious gourmet burger. I consider myself a bit of a gourmet burger fanatic and have had them all over the country, and this one is easily in the top 3. I have friends who lived nearby and I had it both times I visited them, and they went at least twice a week. The burger is so salty and juicy and incredible. Cannot recommend it enough. Great date night spot, and their cocktails are wonderful, too!

  15. Caz says...

    Oh man, I LOVE burgers!
    Back home in Australia there’s a chain called Grill’d that do this one made from lamb instead of beef, with avocado, cheddar, tomato relish and herb mayo. They have these thick cut herbed chips (fries) as well. I haven’t been home in so long and my mouth is watering just thinking about it!

    • Marta says...

      Great post!! and great recommendation, Caz!

  16. emily says...

    Homemade burgers for president! My go-to burger seasonings are Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, a few cranks from my rainbow peppercorn grinder, and a little teriyaki marinade! Lovely depth of flavor and still a good neutral base for adding in your favorite cheese, roasted veggies, bacon, or condiments.
    Some of our favorites:
    gorgonzola and BBQ sauce (TJ’s Sriracha and Roasted Garlic BBQ sauce if you can get it)
    pimento cheese and thick-cut bacon
    a ring of grilled pineapple and a toasted bun

  17. Lisa says...

    Great post! Our favorite at home burger is from a Real Simple recipe. It’s a pork burger with Sirachi inside topped with grilled onions and a Sirachi/ketchup mix. It’s so good.

  18. Oh man, I love burgers and this post. If you ever want to splurge (and you do, trust me) go to your local butcher and ask her to grind a ribeye cut of beef into ground beef for your burger. Get really good grass fed beef, and you’ll not want to look back. :)

  19. ashley says...

    ahh what timing! i’m going to a mets game tonight with some friends, and all we can talk about is how excited we are to eat shake shack! talk about priorities!

  20. Mmmmm this has made me hungry. I personally think it’s all in the bun, gotta have the right ones with the protective layer of mayo and ketchup!!

  21. Ingalill says...

    I’ve been wondering for ages and now seems like a perfect time to ask – what is kosher salt? And also, kosher pickles? I’ve heard the terms in american shows but we’ve got nothing like it in Sweden. How can salt be non kosher..? (I’m sorry if the question is stupid:))

    • Lexi Mainland says...

      That’s so interesting that it doesn’t come up in Swedish cooking! Kosher salt is salt with a bigger grain size than regular table salt. It gives a nice crunch when preparing meat, and I think it gets its name because it’s the kind of salt kosher butchers traditionally use for curing meat. Kosher pickles are a whole different thing, of course, but I think they also get their name from cultural tradition.

    • Caz says...

      Haha I’ve always wondered about this too when I’ve seen it in recipes! We don’t call it that in Australia.
      By Lexi’s explanation though it’s just what we call sea salt… Good to know!

    • Kosher salt is as Lexi described it above, and as far as I know it’s the only “kosher” food that has nothing to do with Jewish dietary law — which is what most “kosher” foods adhere to, specifically: kashrut, as it’s said in Hebrew. Here’s some Wiki links that explains more about that, if you’re curious:

  22. Isabella says...

    I always mix in a little well-sautéed minced onion and garlic, plus salt, pepper, Tabasco, and a wee pinch of the spice blend I use for paté (Julia Child’s recipe). Caramelized onions, aioli, or adobo-spiked mayo are all popular condiments at our house. And there’s a butcher shop/burger joint near where we live that serves all of its burgers with bacon and cheese, but each one is a different meat and the meat/bacon/cheese combo is all sourced from the same type of animal — so the lamb burger has lamb bacon and manchego, and the goat burger has chevre. So good!

  23. May says...

    Thank you for the tips
    I prefer a well done burger over an old charcoal grill. If no grill, then one of those fat reducing electric grills is my favorite over a broiler and pan. Deluxe burger…mix a beaten egg, garlic powder, and small shake of oregeno into the meat; shape even thickness; and grill. Serve with ketchup, sweet relish, 3 or 4 thin sliced onions on a toasted bun. If you don’t end up with grease on your face, and a few greasy napkins, then you didn’t do it right. :) I rarely cook beef. If I do, then I celebrate the fat like I had to hunt the cow, and drag it to the campfire myself.

  24. Lauren says...

    When grilling at home, I swear by my dad’s simple but effective burger seasoning recipe – Worcestershire, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and a small dollop of bbq sauce mixed well on the patty before grilling. Super delish.

    • This is so close to what my dad does!! Cool!

  25. Sara says...

    I was in an interview once where they asked me what part of a Hamburger Sandwich I would be and why. I now ask the same question in every interview I conduct. It lightens things up and you always glean interesting insights on your candidates!

  26. i don’t eat hamburgers but i love turkey burgers. i like to throw in some chopped mushrooms and whole wheat matzo meal. side note: last weekend i threw out my no beef rule and had a hamburger topped with fried oysters. worth the stomach ache that followed!

  27. Jordan says...

    You have to go to Emily in Clinton Hill! It’s a pizza place + 1 burger on the menu and it is by far, hands down, no hesitation the best burger ever.

    • CWL says...

      Yes!! Second this. That burger is bananas. My current favorite in NYC right now. Just the right amount of sweetness in their Korean-style sauce. No need for ketchup on this burger, which I consider a rare feat! They only make 25 patties a night, so don’t go too late.

  28. Yesssss! Burgers are just the best meal and can be so tough. Thanks for all the tips! Lately I’ve been using ciabatta bread as the bun, only I toast it in a grill pan with butter. Ridiculous!!! xo, Haley

  29. Sliced avocado, sharp cheddar cheese, and a fried egg are our go-to toppings for the best at-home burgers! Love these tips! x

  30. I’m a vegetarian so I’m not particularly qualified to weigh in but the best burger joint I’ve ever been to was definitely Pawley’s Front Porch (Columbia, SC). While my friends devoured the (real) burgers I couldn’t get enough of the fried pickles, onion rings and fries. They also had a good veggie burger option for me.

  31. As someone who cooks for only them self (sad single life) the best way imo to make a burger at home is to make a patty melt and use Bubba burgers. This way you don’t end up with a ton of buns or extra ground beef, etc. The woes of being a single cooker.

    I definitely prefer going out for my burgers. There is a restaurant called Juniper in Williamsburg that makes a delicious truffle burger. I highly recommend it. And this reminds me I need to make the trek down there again soon for it.

  32. Lauren E. says...

    I just came back from Akron, OH where I ate at Swenson’s Drive In and had possibly the most delicious take out burger of my entire life. That place is doing something right!

  33. Marie Pocock says...

    If you’re ever in Minneapolis stop by Vincent-A Restaurant for their award winning burger. A French man known for his burger … how ironic! (good tip: go there for HH between 4:30 – 6 and get the burger half off on their HH menu for only $8)

  34. Who doesn’t love a good burger. When I’m making the “secret” sauce I love to add a little vinegar to the mayo, ketchup mix. It takes it to a whole other level.
    I grew up saying lightening bugs. I wonder if that is a mid-west thing and fireflies are a NY and New England thing. I caught some while visiting family in Ohio this weekend. Being in California for the past 18 years I’ve really missed them.
    Loved the post.

    • Steph says...

      We grew up saying lightning bugs, too! I’m born and raised on Long Island.

  35. J.D says...

    I avoid gluten, but when I want a good old burger, my go-to is Shake Shack! Big fan of their juicy yet crispy thin patties and the potato bun! But great tips, maybe I’ll give it a shot at making them at home!

  36. Amy says...

    I have tried a lot, but my fav in NYC is at The Spotted Pig and in Chicago it’s AuCheval. CANNOT go wrong with either.

  37. Mary Jenkins says...

    great tips but i have to admit my fave part is that shot of caroline, ha!