The Grill Master’s Guide to Grilling Burgers
As we watched Weber Grill Master Kelsey Heidkamp put a new twist on brunch with her ultimate breakfast burger recipe, we got to thinking of all the different ways you can beautify ground beef. And we’re not just talking about toppings (though bacon and a fried egg go a long way) — every part of the burger-making process, from sourcing to lean-to-fat ratios to the type of beef, has a huge influence on the sublime experience of sinking your teeth into a juicy patty. Indeed, the humble burger is a staple at cookouts across the country, but it’s probably something most of us take for granted. That ends today!
We’re dedicating this Master Grillabilities® lesson to all things burger: a deep dive on ground beef, popular patties, grilling these sacred meat discs, and more. Consider it a master class in Burgerology, a totally real word that definitely wasn’t invented strictly for the purposes of this article. (We also tossed around “the Burgernomicon,” but we know better than to play with dark magic.) No matter what you call this in-depth explainer — Burgerpedia, anyone? — it’ll deepen your understanding of a beloved BBQ classic and help you take your burger game from great to glorious! So heed the sage advice of Kelsey and our in-house grill masters, and get ready to beef up your burger knowledge.
What is Ground Beef?
Regardless of your proprietary spice blend, secret sauce, or preferred assortment of toppings, your burger can be a bummer depending on its most basic building block: the ground beef. But how much do you know about what (literally and figuratively) goes into ground beef? Not every pack is the same; the cuts used to make the blend differ, as does the lean-to-fat ratio that has a significant impact on flavor and cooking times. Let’s take a look at how ground beef gets made so you can be better equipped to prepare perfect patties.
How Is Ground Beef Made?
Excuse us if this sounds reductive, but ground beef is made by, well, grinding beef. Whether in an industrial plant, at a butcher shop, or in your own home, you can’t get that loose beef blend without passing the meat through a grinder (often more than once). The majority of ground beef is produced using trimmings from whole muscles as they’re cut into steaks and roasts. Because trimmings have different fat content based on their original cuts, they’re blended together to achieve desired lean-to-fat ratios confirmed with strict inspections. This trimming-blending technique is equally crucial for ground beef made from whole-muscle cuts, such as chuck roast, or undesirable beef sections that aren’t suitable for sale on their own. From a production standpoint, creating ground beef is an efficient way to use every last ounce of meat on the carcass.
While we all think of “hamburgers” as the cooked beef patty and toppings on a bun, the beef industry has a specific definition of what “hamburger” meat must be. The key difference between hamburger meat and ground beef is that the trimmings used to make hamburger blends can contain pure fat with no lean meat attached. That being said, the USDA mandates that neither type of meat can exceed 30% fat, nor are they allowed to have added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders. Both ground beef and hamburger meat are labeled as such, along with the lean-to-fat ratio printed on the packaging (more on that in a minute).
Which Cattle Cuts Are Used for Ground Beef?
Though ground meat can come from any of the 9 primal cuts of beef, it’s typically harvested from the chuck, short plate, brisket, or flank. The chuck primal is by far the most popular source for ground beef because it includes the neck, shoulder blades, and upper forelegs, which are some of the hardest-working areas on the animal. Why does this matter? Like all work-intensive cuts, chuck meat tends to be tough — making whole-muscle cuts somewhat less desirable — while still containing enough fatty tissue for the ideal 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio that’s delicious yet relatively forgiving on the grill. It’s no wonder Chef Tony uses ground chuck in his perfect hamburger recipe, or that Kelsey’s first move when dreaming up a burger is securing ground meat from the preferred primal.
“I go to the butcher and I say, ‘Hey, can you grind me the chuck roast?’” says Kelsey. “This way, you know exactly what cut of meat you're getting. With ground beef, it could come from anywhere on the cow. And I like the chuck because then I could cook it to whatever internal doneness I'd like. So if I like medium-rare, medium, it's a little bit safer to do that — and it's fresh. So if you have the time, ask your butcher to grind it for you; he or she will gladly do it.”
Ground chuck can be paired with trimmings from other primal cuts to achieve different flavor profiles and lean-to-fat ratios. Perhaps the most popular combination is the steakhouse blend burger, which mixes chuck with brisket and short-rib meat for a stunning snapshot of beefiness and richness. (Grill Master Randy’s ultimate double bacon cheeseburger recipe takes full advantage of the astounding flavor combo.) Pure brisket burgers also tend to be a hit thanks to the cut’s moderate fattiness making for a rich patty. Store-bought ground or hamburger meat may include the source cut on the packaging; if you rely on a butcher for your meat (a strategy we fully endorse), you can ask for the blend of your choosing.
What's the Best Lean-to-Fat Ratio for Burgers?
You’ve already seen us reference this ratio a few times, and with good reason: the amount of lean meat compared to fat in the blend heavily influences flavor, nutrition, and ease of grilling. First things first, the lean-to-fat ratio is listed as it’s worded, so the standard “80/20” blend equates to 80% lean meat and 20% fat. Store-bought packages of ground meat will always display the ratio in some way, and though it varies from producer to producer, just keep in mind that the lean percentage always comes first.
Now, why 80/20? It’s all in the fat percentage, which carries much of the moisture in addition to the rich flavor we all know and love so well. A fattier ratio (70/30) typically results in an overly greasy burger that may shrink and cause flare-ups as the fat renders over the flames, while a leaner percentage (90/10) is more prone to drying out and tends to fall apart with so little fat to bind the meat. Look no further than our BBQ bison burger recipe on that last point; video producer Sean saw each 90/10 bison patty crumble before Chef Tony stepped in with a few recommendations: adding an egg as a binder, mixing in 80/20 ground chuck to fatten the mix, and cooking in a cast iron skillet.
Blends with an 80/20 ratio, meanwhile, perfectly split the difference between too lean and too fatty. This gives you a burger that’s quite forgivable when cooked to varying donenesses on the grill and is widely appealing in terms of juiciness and flavor. Additionally, the 20% fat content is acceptable from a health perspective. For all these reasons, 80/20 ground beef is preferred among most Americans, including grill masters like Kelsey and Chef Tony.
Of course, 80/20 ground beef might not fit your preferences. Perhaps you favor a slightly leaner blend, in which case 85/15 should do the trick. Or maybe a richer, fattier patty is more your speed — 75/25, come on down! Just remember that, by law, you can’t purchase a blend any lower than 70/30 (though you can make it at home), and you’ll have a hard time finding anything with a higher lean percentage than 93/7. We encourage you to try different lean-to-fat burger ratios until you’ve found your favorite blend, remembering to adjust cook times and techniques as necessary to accommodate the fat percentage and its effect on your patties. More specifically, those who like well-done burgers should aim for a high-fat ratio so the patties can remain juicy despite spending a longer period of time over the flames.
Popular Types of Burgers — and How to Grill Them
Our burger breakdown has finally made it to the good stuff: the patties themselves! We couldn’t give you a holistic view of this cookout favorite without acknowledging the many ways it’s made, so we’re taking a more detailed look at some of the most common burger styles. From the standard ground chuck burger to different types of meat and veggie burgers, let’s run down what makes each patty unique and explore some important considerations that arise when the buns are out and the grill is on.
Ground Chuck Burgers
As covered in prior sections, the chuck primal is the overwhelming preference for sourcing ground beef because it naturally has the ideal 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio we covet in burgers. This composition not only threads the needle between desirable flavor and relatively healthy eating, but also has a moderate fat content that usually doesn’t cause the patty to fall apart, shrink, or dry out when grilled. It’s why our grill masters favor ground chuck in their burger recipes, and why it constitutes most ground beef sold in stores. If you’re just getting started or want an easy grilling experience, go with ground chuck.
Ground Chuck Burger Recipes:
Ultimate Breakfast Burger on the Weber Traveler Gas Grill
Weber Grill Master shares her favorite brunch burger recipe with BBQGuys. A quarter pound burger, an egg, bacon, on a toasted bagel. Hungry yet?
The Perfect Hamburger Recipe on a Kettle Grill
Make the perfect hamburger on a charcoal grill. From meat selection to toasting the bun and dressing the burger, watch Chef Tony make burger magic!
“Steakhouse” and “burger” aren’t exactly synonymous ideas, but this beef blend packs the flavor profile to challenge conventional wisdom. This mix of chuck, brisket, and short-rib meat spurs a taste explosion along with tenderness and richness that you just can’t get from a standard chuck burger. The lean-to-fat ratio depends on how the beef trio is blended; some steakhouse burgers sit at 80/20, while we’ve seen Grill Master Randy grind his own mixture that comes out closer to 70/30. A fattier ratio will require greater care over the flames, so always check the numbers before firing up the grill.
Steakhouse Burger Recipes:
How to Make the Perfect Bacon Cheeseburger
Grillmaster Randy cooks up the Ultimate Double Bacon Cheeseburger made from fresh ground brisket, short rib, chuck, & dry-aged steak trimmings.
Bison is a popular alternative to beef, albeit with a much leaner blend that makes grilling a little tricker as the meat tends to dry and fall apart in the absence of binding fat. The common lean-to-fat ratio for this type of burger is 90/10, resulting in a healthier patty that’s more vitamin-rich with lower cholesterol. Bison meat is also slightly sweeter than beef, so it’s a great base for savory burger toppings like mushrooms and bacon. Despite being a little more difficult to cook because of its low fat content, everyone should try a bison burger at least once.
Bison Burger Recipes:
BBQ Bison Burger
Whether you call it buffalo or bison, you can get a great, tasty burger from its very lean and healthy meat! Topped with homemade BBQ sauce for added flavor.
While bison burgers present a challenge in terms of their leanness, Wagyu burgers swing the other way with a fattier composition that can create a wave of flare-ups if not closely monitored. The flavor, though? It’s more than worth the slight shakeup in cooking style. Thanks to more balanced lean-to-fat ratios these meat treats are rich, juicy, and borderline decadent. Before you dive into burger bliss, however, make sure you’re comfortable grilling Wagyu beef; as we noted above, the high fat content can make things harder if you’re unprepared.
This is less about what kind of ground meat you’re using and more about what you put inside of it. Of course, the stuffing can be virtually anything: bacon, cheese, more beef or bison (is that even legal?), even basil and tomatoes. It’s all about the flavors you want to include, along with the sensory experience of that first revelatory bite. Bear in mind that the patties will be a little heavier than usual when flipping, and that you should crimp the edges of your burger to completely seal in the stuffing. After that, grill as usual for perhaps a minute or two longer to account for the extra ingredients.
Stuffed Burger Recipes:
Mozzarella Basil Stuffed Hamburgers on the Grill
Chef Tony's recipe and grilling video for Mozzarella basil stuffed hamburgers. This is a great recipe for holiday BBQ cookouts, give it a try!
Our vegan and vegetarian friends are nothing if not inventive! Veggie burgers are made using a variety of plant-based foods, from chickpeas and quinoa to black beans and tofu. Best of all, you can observe dietary restrictions while still enjoying the wonderful flavors that only a grill can impart. Grilling a veggie burger is just like grilling any meat patty, but if you’re making your own blend, it’s a good idea to roast the veggies beforehand to force out their moisture. Otherwise, the water will cause the burger to fall apart as it grills, which is something we want to avoid no matter what’s in the patty.
Veggie Burger Recipes:
Homemade Grilled Veggie Burger
There’s nothing impossible about this burger! Homemade from scratch and grilled to perfection, this black bean burger is a great alternative.
At this point, you’ve become familiar with how ground beef burgers are made, what goes into them, and a few of their most popular iterations. Now let’s get to the grilling! We’re going to walk you through the whole process, from seasoning to patty-making to grilling the most beautiful burgers you’ve ever had the joy of eating. We’ll even talk cheese, because we wouldn’t brie gouda instructors if we left you to your provol-own devices on that topic!
Your personal tastes play a role here, but the simplest household spices are usually all you need to season burgers. Salt and pepper play their usual role, and from there you can spice things up as desired. Kelsey likes to toss in Worcestershire sauce for its savory notes; Chef Tony adds white and red pepper to the mix for heightened heat and flavor. The key point here is to break your ground beef into loose clumps, preferably over parchment paper, before adding seasonings so you can disperse spices throughout the patty. If you’re seasoning pre-made patties, apply your spice blend to both sides and gently pat them into the surface of the meat.
Making Burger Patties
Admittedly, forming the perfect burger patty is fairly easy. The first step is portioning out the meat — use 1 lb of beef equaling 4 quarter-pounders as a starting point — then rolling them into evenly sized balls. You then use your hands, the lid of a jar or Tupperware container, or a trusty burger press to flatten the ground beef balls into discs sized according to your needs. The true mark of a patty pro, though, is creating a small dimple with your thumb in the center of each flattened patty. Why? “As the meat hits the grates, it contracts, it tightens,” Kelsey says. “Have you ever been to a barbecue where you see, instead of a burger, kind of like a meatball? This dimple will help (stop) that contracting into a meatball and kind of keep it shaped.”
Tips for Grilling Burgers
Always start by setting up your grill for dual-zone cooking, which allows you to move your patties to a low-heat area if flare-ups become an issue (especially for fattier ratios below 80/20). Place burgers on the grill from back to front and left to right, also flipping them in this order to avoid reaching over leaping flames. Never press your burger into the grates with your spatula; despite this practice appearing in popular depictions of grilling, all this does is expel fat and juices that heavily contribute to flavor. To learn more about the burger-grilling process, specifically cook times and internal doneness, check out our article explaining how to grill burgers.
What’s the Best Cheese for Burgers?
You could poll 100 different people and receive as many answers to this question, but a few cheeses stand out as classic burger pairings. Kelsey points to sharp cheddar as a favorite because of how well it complements the beefiness of ground chuck, while nodding to creamy brie and goat cheese as other popular options. Pepper jack boldly steps in when you’re looking for an extra kick, gooey gouda is ideal for patty melts, and American cheese has never faltered when called upon to top BBQ burgers. But at the end of the day, you should follow your personal preferences when searching for the best burger cheese.
Show Us Your Burger Bona Fides
You’ve made it to the end of the Burgernomicon — um, we mean the Burger Bible — so now it’s time to take everything you’ve learned today and put it to use! Visit your butcher with newfound knowledge of beef cuts and lean-to-fat ratios, try a new kind of burger with one of our helpful recipes, and grill it to perfection using our expert tips. Be a burger boss like never before, with masterfully mouthwatering flavors that’ll leave your cookout guests wondering if you really did discover dark magic.
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