The ‘Science’ Behind Grilling Perfect Burgers

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The last time you had a BBQ’d hamburger, do you recall its texture and flavor? Was the meat dry enough to quickly warrant a generous swig of the nearest bottled refreshment just to move the meat past the back of your throat?   Or, was the meat so juicy and delicious that you couldn’t wait for the following bite to slather your taste buds (never mind any drink to wash it down)?  If you’ve experienced both scenarios, chances are good you, also, experienced two different grillers—one who knew the ‘science’ behind grilling perfect burgers and one who didn’t have a clue.

So, is there truly a ‘science’ behind creating that ‘perfect’ burger? The answer to that question is a resounding “YES!” Grilling a hamburger that rates as a ‘10’ is no mystery, and there are a few insightful tidbits of information that anyone can use to create burgers that will get raves—from EVERYone!

1: H20—What You Need To Know:

Not many people are aware that when meat is ground—as in ground beef—that pulverizing process compromises the ability of the muscle tissue to retain moisture. As a result, you will commonly find the absorbing pad in packaged hamburger filled to the brim with moisture and juices that were lost from meat due to being ground up. The key, then, is to replace that lost moisture. The process is easy: simply add 2 to 3 tablespoons of cold water to a full pound of ground beef. It’s that easy!

2: Minimize Handling:

When burgers are on the grill and they are cut into, prodded and squeezed, valuable juices leave the meat, never to be savored. Retaining as much of the meat’s natural moisture is particularly important since even if you don’t prod, cut or use your spatula to press down on the patties while they grill, the protein in the grilled meat does its own thing: the protein—once it is heated—will contract which eliminates moisture all on its own. This is why it’s important to leave the meat alone–aside from necessary turning–to minimize the loss of precious juices.

3: Know the Fat-Content:

Here’s an interesting fact: the presence of fat in meats triggers our saliva-flow once those fats hit our palate. Leaner, healthier hamburger that has a fat-content of less than 10% is going to feel drier because less fat will trigger less saliva-flow. Hamburger patties with a fat-content of 20% will trigger increased saliva-flow making a less-healthy, higher-fat-content burger which will give the impression of being more juicy. Now, it should be mentioned that more fat WILL produce more flowing grease, but fat content in hamburger actually does contribute to the perception of moisture.

4: Prepare the Grill:

Before the patties ever hit the grill, the grate should be preheated at least 15 minutes prior to being used. The grate should always be as clean as possible since old, burnt food that is allowed to languish actually inhibits optimal heat transfer to the hamburger patties.  Uneven cooking compromises flavor.

4: Shape Matters:

After the meat has has been formed into patties, there’s one more little bit of sculpturing you should do: create a shallow indentation in the center of the patty with your fingertips. A 1 ½ inch depression will keep the center from bulging at it cooks and will allow the patty to remain flat and cook more evenly.

5: When the Meat Hits the Heat:

Set up your grill with two heat zones—high-heat and low-heat. Begin grilling your burgers with the high-heat to create surface-browning which begins at 250 degrees. Surface-browning is truly a science, in and of itself, since this procedure causes the meat’s sugar and protein to co-react. The structure of the meat actually breaks down into hundreds of savory, delectable compounds. These compounds directly contribute to the flavor of the meat.

Once both sides of the patties are browned, move the patties to the low-heat zone to complete the cooking.

6: Use a Thermometer:

It may seem a bit dramatic to use a thermometer to check the doneness of a burger, but if you are serious about wanting to join the ranks of becoming a professional ‘grill-master’; and if you take pride in your burgers (and why wouldn’t you?) then using a thermometer is nothing to be scoffed at. Hamburgers should receive the same amount of attention and respect as the most expensive steak.

An instant-read thermometer is the most accurate gauge of a burger’s doneness and you’ll want to insert the thermometer into the patties’ sides.   Using the sides is best since the thermometer will need maximum contact with the burgers’ interiors to get the most-accurate reading. Readings for varying doneness are as follows:

*** Rare: 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit—it will be very juicy with a bright-red center. This temperature is not advised due to the likely presence of harmful bacteria.

*** Medium: 140 to 145 degrees Fahrenheit—harmful bacteria is destroyed at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Here, juices are still flowing and plentiful!

*** Medium: 150 degrees Fahrenheit—the center will still be slightly pink without compromising most of the moisture.

*** Well-Done: 160 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter—patty will have shrunk and will be drier. It is at this temperature that moisture is zapped as well as the flavor.

And by the way: ‘chuck’ happens to be the tastiest choice for hamburgers. It’s a less desirable cut for roasts and steaks and usually costs less than ground round or sirloin.

So there you have it– ‘scientific’ insight into making absolutely perfect hamburger patties—patties that will ooze with juiciness and unforgettable flavor. And when it comes juicy, savory hamburgers, swishing each bite down with the nearest bottled refreshment will be an option, not a necessity!