Sam’s Grilling 101 – The Perfect Hamburger

Get ready for the 4th of July BBQ. Here are a few simple tips and tactics that take your burgers, and whatever else you throw on the grill, to the next level!  No more bland, burned or over-cooked foods when you follow these basic rules.

Have the right tools.

You don’t need very many tools to grill properly, but a large metal spatula, long, sturdy metal tongs (10”-12”) and a wire grill brush are essential. I avoid meat forks because they puncture the meat, spilling those much-desired juices into the fire which causes flared ups (burned food) and loss of flavor (bland, dried-out food). If you are using a marinade with acid (lemon, vinegar, wine, etc.) you should ideally be using a glass or stainless steel dish since aluminum reacts with acid, creating a metallic, off flavor in your food.

Make sure your grill is clean. 

This seems like a given, but a crusty, rusty grill with cause food to stick and leave behind a charred, carbon flavor on everything that touches it. Cleaning the grill is easiest when it’s hot, so fire it up! In a professional kitchen we often “burn off” all the crusty carbon by turning the grill on high and laying a heavy, durable baking sheet right on top of the grate. Doing this traps heat very efficiently and eventually turns that stubborn residue into easily removed white ash that can be swept away with your wire grill brush.

Another technique that we us with great success is dipping a rag in an extremely strong saltwater solution and using it to swab the dirty grill (even during the grilling process before a new batch of meat, veggies, whatever are laid down). The salt dries out the crusty bits on the grill and turns them to easily removed white ash as well. (Hold the rag with long tongs so you don’t burn yourself!)

Note: If you are using a charcoal grill, make sure that your rag isn’t too wet or you will extinguish your coals.

Oil the grill

One technique that is very useful and effective is lightly oiling the grill right before you put on your meat or veggies. This will keep the food from sticking, as well as helps you make professional-grade grill marks. You can oil the grill using a lightly oiled rag, or you could simply use an onion! Just cut the onion in half (removing the outer skin), dip the flat, exposed part in a little bit of oil, and use your tongs to rub the onion (or the rag) across the grill grates.

Note: Too much oil on your rag/onion with cause a flare up which will give the food a charred appearance and flavor. Therefore, after marinating meat, fish, or vegetables, you should also blot off all of the excess oil, as this will inevitably fall into the fire, causing flare up as well.

Make sure your grill is hot.

There is nothing that guarantees food sticking to a grill more than adding the food before the grill has had a chance to get hot. The best way to control heat on your grill is to create “zones” of different temperatures. If you are using charcoal, light it using a “charcoal chimney” and get it nice and hot. Once the charcoal pieces are lit, place more of them on one side of the grill than the other to create a “hot” zone and a “cooler” zone. This can be done on a gas grill be simply turning the left side of the grill on “high” and the right side on “medium”.

When grilling vegetables, the “hot zone” is good for quick-cooking products like zucchini, squash, and peppers, while the cooler part of the grill is best for denser vegetables like onions, eggplants, and mushrooms.

Use the hot side to get your nice grill marks and the cooler side to finish cooking the meat to your desired internal temperature without burning it to a crisp. Also, don’t crowd the food on your grill. Putting food too close together inhibits proper cooking and doesn’t let heat flow around the product, steaming rather than searing it.

The perfect hamburger

You don’t need to buy already-formed hamburgers to have a simple meal. Forming 4, 10, or even 20 patties by hand is quick and easy.

First, don’t go too lean on the beef since you will end up with a dry finished product. I think that 70%-80% lean is the best choice (70% being cheaper than the rest and containing the most fat, i.e flavor). You can use plain ground beef for your patties, or jazz them up a little bit with caramelized onions, chopped jalapeños, spinach, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, raw eggs, or cheese. There are numerous possibilities, just don’t put too much garnish in the ground meat or the patties won’t stay together when cooked.

A good size for a burger patty is around 6 oz. For 4 burgers, divide 1 1/2  lbs of meat into equal-sized pieces, form each piece into a ball, then slap it back and forth between your hands, rotating and gradually flattening the meat into a disk that is 3/4” thick. Push together any tears in the patty, as these with cause the burger to split while cooking. Season both side of the burger with coarse salt and fresh-cracked black pepper before putting it on the grill.  A “medium-rare” to “medium” burger should feel slightly firm when properly cooked but still have a little give (to know what this should feel like, lightly touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your middle finger and poke the flesh at the base of your thumb with your other hand to feel what a properly cooked hamburger should feel like when you take it off the grill).

My favorite cheese is sharp cheddar. If you are adding cheese, place a thin slice or two on the burger once it is nearly cooked (after it has been flipped). If you want the cheese melted more, put the burgers briefly on the upper rack of a gas grill or just cover the cooked burgers with a lid/plate to trap the heat and melt the cheese).

Pro TIP 1: How to make professional-looking grill marks: 

Making nice grill marks is actually quite easy. Using a salmon fillet as an example, place the salmon on your hot, clean grill with the rectangular fillet pointing at 1 o’clock and 7 o’clock with the “nicer” side of the fillet down (this will be the side you will ultimately see when the fish is served).

Once the fish or meat is down, don’t mess with it. Don’t move it, poke it, or prod it. When it is ready to be move, it will release itself from the grill on its own. By that time you should have very nice, defined grill marks going in one direction. Now, to create the cross-hatch effect, pick up the fillet with your spatula and lay it down, this time at 11 o’clock and 5 o’clock, just to the right of where it was originally (this spot is hotter than where the meat was just sitting). Once you have given the fillet a few minutes in its new position it should be close to done (around 140F internal temperature). Flip the fish onto its uncooked side on the cooler part of the grill and let is finish cooking. Take the fish off and let it rest for a few minutes before serving.

Pro TIP 2. Try to buy natural “lump” wood charcoal instead of the pressed briquettes. While the briquettes are more readily available, they contain wood by-products, chemicals, and additives whose healthfulness I personally find questionable


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Author My First Apartment

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Sam is originally from Boston, MA. He studied ecology and Spanish language during his undergraduate degree at Hampshire College (Amherst, MA). He then went on to train as a chef at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY) and earn an introductory certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in San Francisco in 2013. He currently lives in Barcelona, Spain and works as a culinary tour operator, wine educator, and food/travel writer for several outlets including My First Apartment. You can check out his blog at Zucker and Spice Travel.

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