Trouble is, as much as we love a great burger, we're not always all that great at making them. That's because there is more to making burgers than serving time at the grill. But if you master a few easy tips and techniques, you can produce burgers that will blow you away. And the good news is that almost everything can be done in advance.
Let's start with the meat. If you want a rich, juicy burger, you have to use ground meat that has some natural fat. Ground chuck is the most common choice. The chuck is ground from the beef shoulder and has enough natural fat to give your burger a rich, moist flavour. You can use 100 per cent chuck, or you can do what I do and use a combination of ground sirloin and ground chuck. Sirloin provides a lean texture and chuck adds big beefy flavour. When I am hankering for something extra meaty, I substitute ground brisket for the chuck. Whatever your blend, plan on 1/3 of a pound of meat per burger, so figure a total of 1 pound of meat per three burgers.
If you buy quality, freshly ground meat, a little salt and pepper is all you need to season a burger. But to enhance the beefiness, I also like to add a dash of dry mustard powder and a bit of Worcestershire sauce.
Now let's talk about mixing and forming the meat. It's important that you not overwork the meat. The more your work the mix, the tougher and drier the burgers will be. I like to use a fork to mix the meats. The heat from your hands can heat up the beef, and you want it to stay chilled until it hits the grill.
To form the patties, it's best to loosely scoop up a 1/3-pound mound of the meat mixture, then gently pat it into a patty. When you are happy with the shape, make a depression in the centre with your finger. This depression is the key to a perfect patty. It will prevent your burger from swelling up like a ball on the grill. As the burger cooks, the meat will expand to fill the hole.
Now, the cooking. Burgers should be cooked directly over medium to medium-high heat. They should take 8 to 10 minutes total, 4 to 5 minutes per side. And please resist the urge to mash the burgers down with the spatula. This just causes all the yummy juices to leak out. Also, only turn the burger once halfway through the cooking time, after about 4 minutes. This reduces the chances it will stick to the grate and fall apart.
If flare-ups are a problem during grilling, close the lid of the grill. This should extinguish the flames. If not, you may need to both close the grill and turn off the burners.
Once you have mastered the burger basics, you can up the ante by creating all kinds of competition-worthy burgers simply by switching up the toppings. I've listed my four favourite topping combinations below. You may notice that they all have a crunchy element. This is the one topping that I never eliminate, as it is the secret that takes a burger from good to great!
— AMERICAN CLASSIC BURGER: American cheese, special sauce (equal parts ketchup and mayo with a dab of yellow mustard), lettuce and pickles
— SOUTHERN COMFORT BURGER: Barbecue sauce, pulled pork, coleslaw and potato chips
— FRENCH ONION SOUP BURGER: Caramelized onions, Gruyere cheese, French's Fried Onions
— CALIFORNIA DREAMING BURGER: Monterey Jack cheese, sliced avocado or guacamole, sliced tomato, sliced red onion, tortilla chips
BEST BASIC BURGER
You can make this burger with all ground chuck or a combination of chuck and sirloin. My "house burger" is a mixture of chuck and sirloin enhanced by Worcestershire sauce and dry mustard, which make the burgers taste meatier. You also can prep the burgers up to a day ahead and keep them refrigerated until ready to grill.
Start to finish: 20 minutes
1 pound ground chuck
1 pound ground sirloin
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Coleman's Mustard powder
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Buns, to serve
Condiments and toppings, as desired
Heat the grill to medium.
In a large bowl, combine the chuck, sirloin, Worcestershire, mustard powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Use a fork to carefully and gently mix just until well combined. Do not overmix.
Gently divide the meat into 6 mounds, then shape each into a patty. Use your thumb to create an indentation in the centre of each patty. Lightly brush each patty all over with olive oil.
Make sure your grill's cooking grate is clean of all debris. Add the burgers and grill until the meat is no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes, turning once halfway through grilling time. If making cheeseburgers, top each burger with cheese after you turn it. Let the burgers rest about 5 minutes then serve on buns with condiments and toppings as desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 410 calories; 190 calories from fat (46 per cent of total calories); 21 g fat (7 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 500 mg sodium; 22 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 34 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including "Taming the Flame."