Grilling 106: How To Make The Perfect Hamburger

I’ve covered a lot of things so far, but it’s obvious to everybody that I have been missing the point. Hamburgers are why people buy grills. You know it, and I know it. It’s not like it’s any secret. I’ve devoted my life to glorifying the hamburger, to spreading its evangel, to paying it the minute and slavish attention that it deserves. But I haven’t gotten to it in this series, and there’s a reason.

Hamburgers are hard to make well on a grill.

Now, you may be saying, “are you high, Ozersky? I have made hamburgers on the grill a million times!” And that may be so. But that doesn’t mean you made them well. Unlike steaks, say, or chicken, hamburgers overcook very, very fast on a grill; and they are suprisingly hard to brown well. This combination makes great ones a challenge. I’m going to give you a surefire method for magnificent grilled hamburgers, hamburgers so mouthwatering and lush and crusty that you may never want to eat again. But first, we need to get some basics out of the way.

Get good hamburger. This should be obvious, but it isn’t, for the simple reason that pretty much all hamburger looks the same. But here’s what doesn’t look the same: a package of fresh 80/20 ground beef bought that day at a good supermarket, and a box of frozen “hamburger” patties. The former is made from fresh shoulder beef; the latter is composed of ground bungholes, ear wax, and ammonia. There’s a reason it’s called “hamburger” instead of ground beef. Of course, if you want to go that extra step, just have the guy at the meat counter grind up some short ribs and brisket, or short ribs and chuck roll, or if you are some kind of gastrocrat for whom money is no object, have him grind up a dry-aged ribeye steak. But fresh ground chuck will be a great place to start.

Cook over coal or wood. There is no getting around this. I don’t care how much you paid for your gas grill, or how many BTUs it puts out, or how many special secret wood-chip compartments it has. If you are going to use a gas grill you might as well just bake it in the oven. I have never seen a great, or even a good, hamburger come off a gas grill. I’m sorry. I just haven’t.

Get everything ready in advance, plan out what you’re doing, and keep your eye on the ball. This goes without saying. Or I guess maybe it doesn’t. It’s worth repeating every day, like the Rifleman’s Creed.

With that out of the way, here’s my recipe for the perfect grilled burger.

Perfect Wood-Grilled Hamburgers

2 lbs 80/20 or equivalent ground beef

4 thick slices of deli-counter white American cheese

4 white, seedless, enriched squishy buns, the cheapest and puffiest you can find

4 1″ slices of red onion, oiled and salted

Kosher salt

Freshly ground white pepper

1 cup hickory wood chips, dry

1 cup hickory wood chips, wet

1 10 lb bag lump hardwood charcoal or standard “blue bag” Kingsford charcoal

serves 4. Onion is optional. (Not really.)

1A. Read this whole recipe all the way through. You need to know in advance what you need to do. (See above.)

1. Build a two-zone fire. One side should have a lot of very hot coals, spread evenly and burning at maximum intensity (they should appear an even gray, and it should be impossible for you to hold your hand over them for more than one full second.) The other side should be totally clear of coal.

2. While the coals are catching, form your hamburgers. They should be loose, disc-shaped, and approximately the thickness of a Snickers bar. If you like a medium rare burger, it should be about as thick as a Twinkie. They should also be fresh from the coldest part of the refrigerator. Sprinkle both sides liberally and evenly with kosher salt and coarse ground white pepper. Set aside. Arrange your split white buns and cheese slices for easy access. This is all going to happen pretty fast.

3. If you want to have a thick grilled onion on the burger – and you do – now is the time to sear it, about 2-3 minutes on each side. They should look a little shriveled and have clear, dark grill marks on both sides. Remove them. Now lift up the grate and throw a handful of wet and a handful of dry chips on the fire. This will give you both wood smoke and wood fire flavors, in addition to an extra burst of combustive heat. Put the grill back on.

4. Put the hamburgers over the fire with space in between them, and all over equal heat. If you don’t have equal heat you will have to move them around, which is viable, but hard, and you don’t need this to be harder than it is. Make sure you have an even heat source.

5. The hamburgers will sizzle and pop and drip fat, which will cause flare-ups. Don’t be alarmed. The whole idea here is to max out the sear with minimal cooking inside. The hard part is getting them beautiful and brown and mahogany, and not black and carbonized and hideous and inedible. The latter takes longer to happen then you may think. But not much longer. When it doubt, lift up the burger and look. It shouldn’t take any longer than 4-5 minutes if your fire is hot enough.

6. Flip the hamburgers and let them cook on the hot fire for another minute or so. Now remove them to the cold side. Throw another handful of wet chips onto the coals. Cover. You have stopped grilling hamburgers. Now you are smoking them. Set the vents at half open; a steady stream of smoke should be coming out of them. Less air = more smoke, less heat.

7. This is another tricky part. You want the burgers in there to cook, but not overcook. In general, you are looking at 5-7 minutes maximum. Err on the side of rareness, because they are going to cook another minute or so with the cheese on top. Which leads us to the next step.

8. Put these cheese on top. Put the onion on top of the cheese. Add another handful of wet chips on the hot side. (It isn’t necessary to remove the grill; most will fall through and the ones that don’t will still smoulder.) Cover for another minute or so, enough for the cheese to soften but not liquefy. If you want the buns warmed or even slightly toasted, now is the time to add them to the cold side or near the heat, depending on what you’re looking for.

9. Put the hamburgers on the buns and eat them without any condiments whatsoever.

That’s it. The white pepper gives a secret under current of sneaky, creamy heat, and never becomes acrid as it burns, unlike black pepper. Smoke and wood and the meat’s own natural fats do all the rest. I screwed this up the first few times I did it; usually by overcooking the meat, but sometimes by undercooking it. Whatever. All cooking is a learning curve. But if you want further instruction, I’ve demonstated this method many times, including here and here. Go and do likewise! The perfect hamburger awaits you.

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