With summer already well underway, it’s time for grills nationwide to get plenty of punishment.
Despite hamburgers being a seasonal classic, so many people ruin a simple beef burger when grilling. You can expect dry and tasteless results if you throw an unseasoned premade patty onto the grill plate and hope for the best.
And that’s in the best scenario. If you fail to cook your burgers to an adequate internal temperature – more on the below – you risk food poisoning.
Luckily, if you arm yourself with a little knowledge and put in some effort, you’ll soon be grilling burgers to rival those from your favorite hamburger joint.
I. Some Grilling Temperature Basics
Grilling burgers isn’t rocket science, but you need some basic information to help you grill like a pitmaster.
If you’re using store-bought ground beef for your burgers, this must be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160F.
Why is it, then, you can safely eat a rare steak cooked at just 130F? Well, this can be explained by the grinding process. Bacteria on meat remain on the surface. They do not attempt to travel or tunnel. This means that simply searing your steak quickly at a high temperature is enough to kill all the bacteria living on the surface of the steak.
This changes when you use the meat from a steak and have it ground up into a burger. All of the bacteria will then be evenly distributed throughout the ground meat.
Any piece of meat is only cooked to the extent of its least cooked part.
Your burgers will continue cooking when you remove them from the grill – this is known as carryover cooking – so you should pull your burgers when they hit an internal temperature of 155F for optimum results.
You should buy an instant read thermometer for the most precise temperature control when you’re grilling. Even if your BBQ or grill comes with a thermometer baked in, this is unlikely to be especially reliable. With your safety in the balance, why take any chances?
Grinding Your Own Meat for Burgers
With that framework in place, you can now see the safety guidelines you need to operate within if you’re using pre-ground beef for your burgers.
You can enjoy rather more scope if you grind your own beef, though. When you’re buying prepackaged ground beef, you have no idea which cuts were used or when it was mixed together. In effect, you know very little about the meat.
Grinding your own beef just minutes before grilling, on the other hand, allows you to use a piece of fresh and well-marbled chuck, mitigating the risk of undercooked burgers substantially.
By taking this approach, you can not only stay safer when grilling, but you can also enjoy your homemade burgers at a juicy medium-rare (130F to 135F), something that’s not possible to achieve safely with pre-bought ground beef. As an added incentive, you’ll be able to play with the flavor profile by using different cuts of beef.
II. How to Minimize the Risks of Ground Beef
There are many reasons why pre-ground beef is more prone to contamination than whole cuts.
Firstly, pre-ground beef is often processed from multiple cows. Unless explicitly stated otherwise on the packaging, you should assume this will be the case. When meat is not single-sourced, even a tiny fraction of tainted meat can spoil the entire batch.
When meat is ground and processed, this will distribute all the bacteria throughout the meat. As mentioned above, until this point, the bacteria is only on the outer surface of the meat. As the bacteria is then distributed fully throughout the meat, restaurants and grocery stores place themselves at risk of serving contaminated meat to consumers.
Here are some simple but effective safety tips to help you minimize the contamination risk when you’re prepping burgers for grilling:
- Wash your hands before and after you handle raw meat
- Use separate utensils and surfaces for dealing with raw meat
- Always keep your ground beef cold, at or below 40F
- Sanitize your kitchen surfaces both before and after food prep
- Keep raw foods and their juices away from ready-to-eat foods
III. How to Grill a Great Burger
Firstly, you should set up your grill of choice.
Brush the grill plate lightly with olive oil and then you’ll be dividing your grill space into two different sections:
- Low-heat section
- High-heat section
Creating two zones like this will allow you to whip up your burgers using a two-step approach. Not only will this streamline cooking larger batches of burgers, but you’ll also avoid the dry and tasteless hunks of meat that result from poor grilling practice.
You’ll be using the hotter of these two zones to sear your burgers, and the cooler side to control the speed of cooking. If you follow the two-stage method when you’re grilling burgers, you’ll have a better chance of getting the doneness and the temperature nailed. You’ll get much less carry-over heat then when you’re direct grilling.
For the first phase of cooking, you’ll be popping your burgers on the unheated side of the grill. When you do this, the ambient temperature drifting over from the hotter side to slowly cook the burgers at a controlled pace.
Before this, brush both sides of the patty with some olive oil and then season with salt and black pepper, again on both sides. Feel free to add other seasonings to taste.
The first stage of slowly bringing your burgers up to temperature should take no more than 2 to 3 minutes.
As soon as your burgers get to within 20F of your final preferred temperature, you should shift them to the hotter side of the grill. Here, sear the burgers until done.
Use 153F to 155F as a rule of thumb and pull your burgers when they hit this temperature. The meat will still continue cooking even after it’s removed from the grill. Allow the burgers to rest on a platter for a few minutes before serving.
The residual heat momentum is lessened when you adopt a two-stage cooking approach. This means you’ll have more leeway when it comes to pulling your burgers without overshooting your target level of doneness.
You should frequently monitor the internal temperature of your hamburgers as you’re grilling using an accurate instant-read thermometer. First measure the temperature at the sides of the burger and then work your way gradually into the center. This will allow you to get a precise overall temperature reading. If you are grilling super-thin burgers, try placing the thermometer horizontally. You’ll need to start from the side to achieve this.
IV. Different Levels of Doneness in Hamburgers
When you’re cooking burgers, using a temperature and doneness chart is a great way to make sure what you’re serving up and to dial in what you want for next time.
Here are your three main options:
- How to grill a rare burger
- How to grill a medium-rare burger
- How to grill a well-done burger
How to grill a rare burger
You should only attempt rare hamburgers when you’re using premium beef you grind yourself just before grilling.
Grill the patty on each side for between 2 and 3 minutes for a perfect rare finish. The outer part should be cooked with the inside still slightly raw. Rare burgers have a warm red color and feel soft and spongy. You should also feel some resistance.
How to grill a medium-rare burger
If you like the inside of your beef burger juicy and tender, but you don’t like the idea of raw meat, opt for medium-rare doneness.
You’ll need to grill each side of the patty for 3 to 4 minutes to impart that pinkish-red center. The outside of a medium-rare burger should be golden brown and very slightly charred.
For medium-rare burgers, you’ll need an internal temperature of between 125F and 130F. The texture of this burgers will sit somewhere between soft and spongy.
How to grill a well-done burger
If you want to appreciate the fullness of a well-done burger, cook the patty for 12 minutes on each side. Pack plenty of patience!
You should cook the meat until it’s brown, with no trace of red or pink remaining.
The internal temperature of a well-done burger should be 160F and above.
OK, before we round out for the day, we’ve assembled some of our most useful pointers so you have everything you need to rustle up some beef burgers like a pro.
V. Grilling Tips for The Best Burgers
- Make your own burger patties: Make your own burger patties in advance and chill them. By grinding your own beef, you can take more control over the temperature. Also, by refrigerating the patties, this helps them to stay more intact when you’re grilling instead of crumbling apart on the grill plate. Resist overhandling the meat as this can lead to compression and the melting of fat
- Leave the fat in place: Fat is hugely beneficial for adding extra flavor to your burgers. You should not trim away any fat before grilling. For the best quality, consider using 85% lean ground beef that’s made from grass-fed cattle. This leads to the fat being more uniformly distributed throughout the meat
- Always brush your burgers with olive oil pre-grilling: By coating your hamburgers with a light film of olive oil before grilling, this will help prevent them sticking to the grill. Beyond this, it will help the burgers to develop an attractive sear while locking the juices inside
- Push your thumb into the burger but never push down on the burger: If you push your thumb right into the middle of your prepared patty, this will create a divot, preventing the burger from bulging as it grills. Do not, however, push down on your burgers with a spatula. This will squeeze out the juices while delivering no benefit
- Only flip your burgers once: Flip your burgers as little as possible when you’re grilling. You can easily get away with flipping your burgers just once if you follow the two-step cooking approach we outline today
- Check the internal temperature: By far the safest and the most accurate method of monitoring the internal temperature of your hamburgers is to use an instant-read thermometer. Make sure the internal temperature hits 160F in order to be certain that all the bacteria are killed. If you use beef you grind yourself, you can deviate from this benchmark slightly, but you should always check the temperature frequently when you’re grilling burgers
- Always allow your burgers to rest before serving: You should always let your cooked burgers sit resting on a plate for at least 5 minutes before serving. The residual heat means they continue to cook for a minute or two. Allowing the meat to rest helps all the juices stay inside
If you arrived here at Madiba today unsure of how to safely cook a burger to your liking, that should have changed.
The crucial thing when you’re using burgers made from pre-ground beef is to cook those burgers to an internal temperature of at least 160F. This is vital to ensure all the bacteria are killed. As long as you stick to this, you’re in safe hands.
If, however, you put in the time and trouble to grind your own beef for homemade burgers, you’ll have a little more latitude to cook those patties medium or medium-rare. Truly rare beef burgers are best avoided on the grounds of safety.
Don’t forget to invest in an instant-read thermometer to remove the guesswork from cooking and to protect yourself against the menace of bacteria. Bookmark our blog before you head off today, and pop back soon for more great grilling content.