Summer barbecues this year may not be the larger-than-life parties people enjoyed in years past, but warmer weather is here and plenty of cookout fans are already heading outside to grill.
While a juicy burger topped with loads of cheese on a toasted bun may be a tried-and-true favorite, all too often home cooks do make a few mistakes, and guests are left munching on sad, dry, flavorless burgers.
So what are people doing wrong? According to several chefs, these are the most common burger preparation and cooking mistakes people make at home.
1. The meat was the wrong temperature
The temperature of the meat before it’s cooked is almost as important as the cooking temperature. While throwing a frozen patty on a grill or pan may seem like a timesaver, you'll see better results if you let the meat reach room temperature before it’s cooked.
"People aren't letting their beef come up to room temperature before cooking,” Mike Puma, founder of Gotham Burger Social Club, told TODAY Food. “This will help you get that char and crust while having a hot red or pink middle."
2. The meat was over mixed
Whether you're making a thin patty or a thick one, don't mix the meat too much.
“As soon as you add salt to ground meat and mix it, you begin to release myosin, which is a motor protein bound up in the cells of the meat,” John Adler, vice president of culinary at Blue Apron, told TODAY. “The salt breaks down the cellular structure of the meat and if you mix too much, you activate too much myosin, and you get a very chewy and very dense burger."
You know you've gone too far if the meat begins to look a bit more pale. “Use a deep, wide bowl, spread the meat out and sprinkle your seasonings evenly across, mix gently to combine and form into patties,” said Adler.
3. The pan or grill wasn’t hot enough
Caramelization is crucial, so don't be afraid to use high heat.
“At Mother's Ruin, I always serve double smashed burgers,” Nick Pfannerstill, executive chef of Mother's Ruin in Nashville and New York City, told TODAY. “Two smaller patties mean twice the caramelization. We smash the heavily seasoned patties into a ripping hot griddle with an iron press and don’t touch them until the bottom is golden.” Home cooks can pull off the same technique using a cast-iron pan.
Once the grill is hot and that patty is cooking, don't play around with your meat too much.
“Let the crust form and don't press down on the patty during cooking,” advised Puma. “When you start to see some juices form on the top, that's when you flip."
4. You didn’t choose a flavorful meat blend
If you have access to a butcher that will customize a blend for you, Adler prefers going with a mix of 40% ground chuck (which has a nice meaty flavor and a springy texture), 25% ground brisket (a leaner meat with a softer texture), 20% ground short rib (a fattier cut) and 15% ground sirloin (which is similar to chuck, but a bit less chewy).
Adler acknowledged that personal preference is also important. “If you are buying a pack of ground beef, I always favor chuck over sirloin because I think it has better flavor,” said Adler. The chef also recommended talking to your butcher to find out what mix they would use when making their own burgers at home. That blend might vary, depending on what's currently available.
5. There's not enough fat
While it’s never a bad thing to make a burger a bit healthier, the fat content will impact how tasty the burger will end up being. If you want the best burger, don’t be afraid of fat.
“Buy high fat,” said Pfannerstill. “Burgers need at least 80% (fat) because a lot will render off and baste the meat. If you were that worried about a few calories, you'd be eating a salad."
6. The burger isn’t thick enough
“A thicker patty (3/4-inch and thicker) can withstand a more moderate heat, so it cooks evenly without charring on the outside,” said Adler. “If you want to make a 'smash burger,' the key is to let it cook nearly the entire way on one side and then flip when you see the fat bubbling through."
The size of a good burger patty depends on what you are ultimately trying to create and how high the heat is. Regardless of meat blend, if a burger patty is too thin, it may break on the grill. If it's super thick, it may burn on the outside and still be cold in the middle.
7. It needs more salt
With burgers, simple is often best, but one place not to skimp is on salt. “Experiment with a few different levels, side by side. until you find your groove," Pfannerstill said.
While salt is great, don't overdo it in other areas. Very often, people go overboard with spices and seasonings. Throwing in a variety of vegetables, herbs and spices may sound like a good idea, but when it comes to burgers, it's best to let the meat and toppings do the work. You're not making meatballs or meatloaf!
8. The patties were uneven
Sometimes burgers come out looking more like a meatball. This happens when the juices expand that patty you thought was perfectly shaped.
“When you form your patty, create a dimple with your thumb in the middle,” said Puma. This will prevent a giant ball from forming and ensure a more even cooking experience.
9. Your burger-to-bun ratio was off
Pay attention to the burger-to-bun ratio. “Know how much meat you're using in your patty,” said Puma, who said patties should be between 3 and 6 ounces for the optimal eating experience.
“Anything over 8 ounces is overkill,” he said.
10. You went overboard on the toppings
According to YouGov, 74% of burger lovers top their burgers with cheese. Not surprisingly, ketchup, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and mustard are all among the most popular toppings in the U.S. But don't go crazy when it's time to load up your burger. Less is more and simple is best when it comes to highlighting a great piece of meat.
“Try to limit your cheeseburger to two toppings and a sauce,” said Puma. A burger that is piled really high may be pretty to look at, but it’s not very graceful to enjoy at a cookout. Plus, a burger is only delicious if can fit in your mouth. If you pile on too many condiments and veggies, all of those different flavors might compete with each other, too.
The same thing can be said for overthinking the bun. Backyard cookouts aren't the time to get fancy. “Most of the time, a simple, soft potato or white bun is your best choice,” said Puma. Just don't forget to toast them up before serving them.