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How to make a great hamburger

Delicious hamburger!

When I’ve written about making hamburger buns (and hot dog buns)in the past, I generally left out any sort of instructions for making the filling. Basic hamburgers are made with ground beef, which is seasoned and grilled over a relatively high heat, leaving a juicy inside and a patty with very slightly crisp edges.

The timing for grilling hamburgers varies so widely that I won’t even offer suggestions as to how long you should cook you meat, but I will share a few tips on how to ensure that your burger is flavorful and juicy.

How to make a great hamburger

I have heard people say that they add everything from oatmeal and breadcrumbs to shredded vegetables to their hamburgers. While the vegetables are actually a pretty good idea, especially if you’re trying to sneak a few more into a child’s diet, oatmeal and breadcrumbs are for meatloaf – not hamburgers.

I saw this technique on Paula Deen’s show well over a year ago and it works beautifully. Simply add a bit of water to your (lean) ground beef, just a tablespoon or two per pound, and some salt and pepper before mixing it up. Once it is well blended, shape the meat into balls, making twice as many balls as the patties you want (4 patties = 8 balls).

Place all the balls on a plate and season them with a bit more salt and pepper. Place one ball on top of another and squish them into a flat patty. Because the meat will shrink and get a bit thicker as it cooks, it is wise to make them larger and thinner than you want them to be. I estimate the size using one of my buns to make sure that they’ll fit.

Once all the patties are shaped, you can put them on the grill, or even freeze them for later use. It really does seem to keep the burgers moist, and the extra seasoning (feel free to use spices other than salt and pepper) in the center improves the flavor of the burger.

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  • Nabeela
    August 29, 2006

    I loved your hotdog bun recipe…I’m bookmarking to use the same recipe for hamburger buns…all the other hamburgern bun recipes ask for potatoes…and yours doesn’t.

  • Abby
    August 29, 2006

    Sometimes all you need to make your day better is a good burger. Yours look fantastic.

  • Jenni
    August 29, 2006

    love all your recipes. just wanted to add that i read in one of Pam Anderson’s cookbooks that ground chuck is the best for burgers. we tried it and haven’t looked back!

  • Nic
    August 29, 2006

    Nabeela – I use the hot dog bun recipe for hamburger buns, too. It’s one of my favorites.

    Jenni – Thanks for the tip. Pam Anderson has some really fantastic ideas.

  • risingsunofnihon
    August 30, 2006

    Thanks for the bit of water tip, it was exactly what I needed to make my patties that little bit more moist. I’ve always thrown a tad bit of onion or garlic salt into my mix as well, or sometimes some crushed garlic. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a little flavour, but sometimes I just want a plain patty to smother in swiss and mushrooms!

  • Anonymous
    August 30, 2006

    The butcher at our local store recently recommended ground round for hamburgers. The best burgers we’ve had! Moist without adding water, and excellent flavor.

  • hannah
    August 30, 2006

    the Diet Coke in the background detracts much from the appeal of anything! 😉

  • Nic
    August 30, 2006

    I take it you’re not a Diet Coke fan, then, Hannah?

  • The Cookbook Junkie
    August 30, 2006

    Water in burgers? I never thought of that. I’ve added water to meatballs with good results so I can see how that would work.

  • Zarah Maria
    August 30, 2006

    Love that first picture Nic!

  • Randi
    August 30, 2006

    Since we dont eat red meat, I wonder if this would work for turkey burgers?

  • Scott
    August 30, 2006

    Simple food is great. There’s too much pretense nowadays about posh food, and this leads to closed-mindedness by chefs and suchlike, who would shun a recipe such as this.
    The truth is that if something is simple, made from good ingredients, and cooked well, it is as good as any white truffle topped chateauxbreand.

    How do you spell chateauxbreand?

  • Stephanie
    August 31, 2006

    I love burgers! And my son does too. Thanks for the tips and the recipe. 😀

  • mymuzingz
    August 31, 2006

    ah! i love the hamburgers, and your first pic!

    by the way, may i ask – is there anything to the technique of placing a ball over another before you flatten them?

    can we just make 4 balls and flatten them ? instead of 8 (1 over another).

    thanks !

  • Nic
    August 31, 2006

    mymuzings – Yes, the point of making double the number of meatballs is that they are all seasoned and when sandwiched together, the inside of the burger is then seasoned.

  • Ray
    August 31, 2006

    Diet Coke rules. HOLLA!

  • drbiggles
    September 1, 2006

    Hey Nic!

    By LEAN, you mean 20% fat, right? And extra lean is about 9 or so, me thinks.
    I keep my burger meat pretty plain as well. Mostly because my two little monsters (boys) can’t deal with anything but plain. Tiny E even freaks over added salt.

    Something I’ve been enjoying lately are breakfast sausage patty burger action. Man, that has an entire mouth full of flavors there. I believe Fatted Calf’s B Sausage is probably 30% fat, yum. Now that’s a flavor delivery system at full steam.


  • Nic
    September 2, 2006

    Randi – I’d try it with turkey, but since turkey is typically so lean, it’ll probably be a little drier than a beef burger anyway.

    Biggles – Lean or extra lean. I guess it depends whether you’re feeling like you should be “good” or not that day!

  • Holly
    June 2, 2008

    Not sure if you’ll get this, it’s a pretty old post, but you should try adding some tomato sauce to your ground beef – it makes the burgers EXTRA juicy and all the spices, etc. in the sauce make them taste just awesome! And I totally agree with abandoning the oatmeal and/or breadcrumbs idea. I just add a little sauce to my beef and i’m set!

  • Mortimer
    August 14, 2008

    Here’s some burger tips which should serve you well…

    80 – 81% lean chuck, better if ground fresh at the butcher an hour or less before grilling;

    If you insist on using lean (anything over 85% is lean in my book) meat, mix your meat with some crushed ice, form quickly, cook over very high grill (flame) for desired time. Same trick as water, but works better.

  • Christine
    May 31, 2010

    I tried the water trick and used 20/80, but I spread a little vegatable oil on one side of the burgers. I also added a pinch of chili powder which didnt give it a kick, but complimented the black pepper. I was unconventional and used my Calphlon plate grill instead of standing by the grill in the heat (hawaii). I didnt let the top surface touch the beef and I had it on 400 degrees. After cooking, I didnt pierce, I removed them from the grill to a plate and tented. I served them with tomatoes and sliced cucumber. My 12 year old daughter, who is a picky eater at two and a half burgers (no buns)…and no dressing. All I heard was “wow mom this is so great, can we have them again?”

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