There’s an alchemy to grilling burgers—standing out by the grill on a warm evening, frosty drink in hand, fragrant smoke swirling on the breeze. All that and dinner’s done in 20 minutes, and it just tastes better than it would have if you made it inside! Even with the smoke smell clinging to you, you couldn’t be happier.
Or maybe you’ve got a small crowd milling around, waiting for whatever treat you’re about to hand them straight from the grill grates. If this makes you a little anxious, you’re not alone. Burgers aren’t hard to make; they just require a bit of attention in order to perfect them, especially when grilling for a group. Here are our very best burger-making tips, covering everything from the meat to the bun to the gooey cheese. (Tip: Sargento® Creamery Sliced Natural Cheddar Cheese is wonderfully melty.)
#1: Start with great, fatty meat.
A dry burger is a cookout sin. The juiciest (and most flavorful) burgers have a higher fat content (80% lean, 20% fat) than the beef you may buy for most recipes (usually 90/10). You can buy a preground 80/20 blend at your grocery store’s meat counter (or even in the case), or ask your butcher to make a custom one for you with 80 percent leaner beef (like sirloin or top round) and 20 percent fattier beef (like brisket or short rib). Or just seek out ground chuck, which naturally has about an 80/20 fat ratio. Not into beef burgers? Ground pork and lamb are typically about 80/20 or 85/15, so nothing to worry about there. For leaner meats like chicken or turkey, using ground dark meat (from the thighs) will help ensure juiciness.
#2: Get your burgers in shape.
The way you shape your burgers is more important than you might think. First, don’t overwork them. Divvy the meat into equal portions (about ½ pound for really big burgers, ⅓ pound for average-sized burgers, and ¼ pound for smaller ones) without compressing it. Slap the beef between your hands, like you’re tossing a baseball from one to the other, a few times, until it comes together into a cohesive ball. Next, lightly press into a disc that’s a little wider than the buns you’re using. The burgers will shrink a little while they cook—this is totally normal and happens because the fibers of the meat contract as water evaporates—so you can get closer to a perfect burger-bun ratio by starting with a wider patty.
Another thing that can happen is your burger swelling up like a football, but it's avoidable: Once you’ve formed your beautiful patty, make an indent right in the middle with your thumb. This will help preserve the shape.
#3: Season with salt on the outside only.
As with all meat, you should season your burgers evenly and generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper—but only once you’ve formed the burgers. Salting the burger mixture can change the texture of the beef from juicy and luscious to a little springy, while salting just the outside keeps the burger’s texture just right and gives you a caramelized crust.
#4: Don’t press! Unless...
It just feels good to press down on a burger with a spatula—maybe because we need something to do with our hands while everyone else stands around waiting for dinner. But resist the urge! Pressing sends all of the juiciness of a burger through the grill grates, and that can mean 1. flare-ups (yikes), and 2. dry burgers. There’s one exception: when you’re making smash burgers. The goal of smash burgers is to make as much contact with a super-hot griddle or skillet as possible in a short amount of time to get a maximally caramelized crust—and “smashing” down with a spatula is how you get there. And you can definitely make smash burgers on the grill! Just heat a cast iron skillet on your grill grates.
#5: Know how to tell your burger is done.
The way to know your burger is definitely done is to bring an instant-read meat thermometer out to the grill. You’re looking for about 145°F for medium-rare, or 160°F for well-done. But you can also learn what your perfect burger feels like: Medium-rare burgers should barely spring back when you gently press them in the middle; well-done burgers will be springier, and rarer burgers will be quite soft in the middle. Or you can watch the juices: The more red, the more rare; once they turn pink, you’ve got the elusive medium, and once clear or gray, you’ve reached well-done.
#6: Add cheese!
We all know the best burgers are the cheesiest ones. Biting into a juicy burger with a gooey layer of cheese on top is pure delight. Pick a sliced cheese that melts beautifully, like cheddar or Swiss—we like Sargento® Creamery Sliced Natural Cheddar Cheese or Sargento® Creamery Sliced Baby Swiss Natural Cheese, because of the smooth melt and added real cream. Wait until your burgers are just done to your liking, then move to a cooler part of the grill, add a slice or two on top of each burger, and cover the grill for a moment to help the cheese melt quickly without overcooking the burger.
#7: Toast the buns.
A warm, lightly toasted bun makes a great burger ethereal. Luckily, it’s the easiest tip in the book. Split the buns, then place cut-side down over the grill grates for just a few moments, until golden at the edges—this can go really fast, so keep an eye on them. Remove the buns to a plate and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep them warm until it’s time to assemble and serve the burgers.