- It’s harder to achieve a medium-rare, tender, and juicy burger.
- The width of the meat, the pan you cook it in, and the added ingredients can all make or break the taste.
- Insider’s Lisa Paradise made 16 different hamburgers to see how every single alteration, substitution, and mistake affects your perfect patty.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Lisa Paradise: There’s nothing like a medium-rare, tender and juicy burger, but getting it just right is harder than you might think. So we made 14 hamburgers to find out how every common mistake, substitution, and alteration affects a burger.
The ideal burger begins with a quarter pound of room-temperature 80% lean, 20% fat ground beef that is lightly mixed before being pressed into a round patty. It’s seasoned generously with salt and pepper before being placed on a hot cast-iron skillet for two and a half minutes, then flipped and cooked for an additional two. While cooking, the patty loses 16 grams of weight, or half an ounce, leaving it at 3 1/2 inches in diameter. The exterior forms a crispy, dark brown crust that isn’t very greasy, leaving little residue on the top bun. The burger’s tender and easily cuts with a knife.
Toppings are cool and all, but what about putting all that flavor directly into the patty? Like adding an extra ounce of a go-to condiment, like cheese or salsa, right into the meat. On the grill, the salsa begins to bubble and boil, while the cheese oozes out and fries to crispy perfection. The salsa burger’s weight nets negative, boiling out 32 grams, or over an ounce, in moisture, with the cheese patty not far behind it. With the cheese, the top of the burger’s browned and crispy with burnt cheese painting the surface, but because of all the water in salsa, this burger was barely able to achieve the Maillard reaction, which is what gives you that coveted golden browning and caramelization. However, the additions didn’t prevent the burgers from cooking to medium rare, with both staying juicy and tender, with the salsa giving the burger a smoky, zesty flavor and the cheese making it, well, cheesy.
Not all pans are created equal. Perhaps a nonstick or a stainless steel is all you’ve got to work with. In a nonstick, the burger shrinks over 4 grams more than in both a cast iron and a stainless steel, and both burgers struggled to get even browning. While neither pan prevented the burger from cooking to a solid medium rare, the nonstick did result in a drier burger.
Feeling a bit indulgent? Adding extra fat like an egg or an ounce of sour cream to your burger mix is one way to pack in flavor. On the grill, the sour cream forms a dark crust on the burger, whereas the moisture in the eggs immediately begins to sizzle. With the addition of the egg, the burger loses about the same amount of weight as the original and leaves the patty with an even crust around the edges, whereas the sour cream leaves it looking, but not tasting burnt. When left to cook for two minutes on each side, both burgers overcook slightly and are on the drier side, with the egg adding a meatier texture closer to meatloaf. The extra fat in the sour cream, however, really pulls its weight, leaving the burger rich and decadent with a slight tang.
Smashburger’s more your jam? Take the same recipe, but smoosh it. The thin patty loses about twice the weight as the original. And while it got nice and browned across the surface, it was so thin that in those short four minutes of cook time, it overcooked slightly, resulting in a still delicious, yet slightly less tender bite.
We all know the cardinal rule of a good burger: Don’t touch it until it’s time to flip it. Early on, the patty begins to break apart, losing bits and pieces to the pan. Since it’s never able to properly seal, the top of the burger turns an unappealing splotchy brown with flakes of burger seasoning the top bun. While the inside is rare, it’s filled with spiderwebs of stringy fat and crumbles with just a little bit of pressure.
In the same vein, pressing on a burger while it cooks is usually advised as a hard no. Pressing down forces out the liquid you need for a perfectly juicy patty, leading it to lose more weight than any other burger in the lot. While pressing down did have the added benefit of a darker and more caramelized crust, inside, the burger was overcooked, tough to chew, and super dry.
There are plenty of tricks of the trade to tell if a burger is done, but for those of us who find most or all of them confusing, it’s tempting to just cut the thing open and take a peek. When it’s cut on the pan, all the savory juices pool out and evaporate, leaving the burger almost 20 grams lighter than the original. The burger is left looking less than appealing. But aesthetics aside, inside, the burger is unevenly cooked and slightly over, while also being tender in some parts, chewy in others, and all around dry.
Believe it or not, ground beef is pretty finicky. A light mix is all it needs. Keep going, and raw meat loses any definition and turns an unappealing grayish pink. On the skillet, the patty begins to shrink quickly, resulting in the tallest patty of the lot, complete with a visible dome. Inside, the meat is gray with fatty strings that look like string cheese. It’s dry, leaving the meat so tough and rubbery it’s like munching on a rubber band.
If you’re looking for a healthier burger, you can trade the 80/20 ground beef for something with a lower fat content. With less fat to render out while cooking, there’s far less moisture to help form that coveted golden crust on the surface, and without it, the burger spills the remaining liquid from all sides. After cooking for two minutes on each side, the burger is pink and rare inside. But without the extra fat, it’s dry like overcooked steak, much chewier than its counterpart, and while it is still tasty, there’s just far less flavor overall.
You seasoned your patties, and then you got distracted for a while. No big deal, right? When the salt hits the meat, it begins to draw moisture to the surface, which hits your hot pan, becomes steam, and is reabsorbed back into the patty. When the burger is seasoned too early, a pool of juices form on the surface, evaporating in the hot pan before the burger has time to absorb them, releasing all that flavor into the ether. Because of the added liquid on the pan, a crust never properly forms. Inside, the burger’s juicy, but far less so than the original. And without that extra moisture and browning, the meat is tasteless in comparison.
Ideally, you let your meat hit room temperature before cooking. But you forgot to take it out of the fridge and you’re hungry now. The patty drops over 20 grams more weight than the original, though in diameter remains almost a full centimeter larger. Inside, the meat is a bit tough, with strings of unrendered fat throughout. And while the patty is technically rare, the coloring throughout is much less consistent. It’s super dry and falls apart easily with the slightest pressure. So if you’re trying to experiment your way into the ideal hamburger, there is a lot you could screw up along the way. But with some happy mistakes, alterations, or substitutions, you might just find your perfect patty.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2020.