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Build a Better Burger: Is It Done Yet?

By • May 27th, 2011 • Category: How To Cook Burgers

In Burger World, it’s the million-dollar question. More so than the debates over the ideal fat blend, preferred cooking method, favorite toppings, cheese variety, or bun type, the one that gets passionate burger-lovers most fired up is this:

How do you want that burger cooked?

The issue of doneness is a veritable minefield in the burger biz. Most assembly-line places don’t ask you how you want your burger cooked. Many will honor requests just to a certain point. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told, “We can’t do medium-rare…”) Those that do give you a choice often have a hard time hitting the mark. So if trained chefs and professional line cooks can’t consistently nail a burger’s doneness, what hope is there for backyard grillers??? It’s a sticky subject, but we’ll try to get you a few degrees closer to patty perfection.

A big part of the confusion comes from the terminology used. There is no one single uniform code when it comes to what separates your “medium-rare” burger from my “medium.” I might take one look at a restaurant’s “medium-well” and call it a hockey puck. What is pretty universally accepted is this: you can’t look at a burger as it cooks and definitively say anything about the internal meat temperature. Check out these three burgs on my own grill: one is rare, one is medium, and one is well-done… but I’ll bet you can’t tell which is which.

Although the exact numbers and wordings may vary according to the source, here’s a reasonable breakdown of burger donenesses, describing what you’ll see and what a meat thermometer will read in the center of the burger.

Rare: Cool and red center, 120-125 degrees Fahrenheit.

Medium-rare: Warm and red center, 130-135 degrees.

Medium: Warm and pink center, 140-145 degrees.

Medium-well: Warm with little to no pink, 150-155 degrees.

Well-done: Uniformly grey-brown, 160-165 degrees.

Five- and ten-degree increments don’t leave much margin for error. The USDA’s website proclaims that, “A hamburger is done when it reaches 160 degrees.” So, according to the federal organization in charge of food safety, the only kind of burger you should ever eat is a well-done burger. Thus, the legal disclaimer printed on almost every menu in the country warning us about the mortal dangers of a medium-rare cheebie.

But if you’re grilling burgers in your own backyard and have a hankering for a burger cooked to a juicy rare, what do you do? Most of us just guess… and guess wrong. And no wonder. There are countless variables at play: your unique grill and its inherent hotspots and cool zones, the ambient temperature, the temp of the beef when it hits the grill, the size of the burgers, if you’re grilling other foods simultaneously, and more. But to really fine-tune your burgers’ doneness, you need two tools: a stopwatch and a meat thermometer.

The grill should be rolling along at a medium-hot temp, enough so there’s an audible hiss when the burgers are first dropped. Start your stopwatch the second the meat hits the grill. And stay close, this won’t take long. Perhaps surprisingly, for a rare burger, you should flip it after just three minutes. Add thirty seconds for each extra level of doneness: 3:30 for medium-rare, 4:00 for medium, and so on. Even a well-done burger needs just five minutes until it’s time to flip. That means that throwing a mess of burgs on the grill and then joining in that croquet game across the lawn or heading in to work on side dishes will almost inevitably result in dry, overcooked disaster. It takes just one TV commercial break for “cool, red” to rocket all the way to the “uniformly grey-brown.”

After the flip, let the burger cook for the same amount of time, from 3:00 for rare to 5:00 for well-done. As you reach the end of that timespan, stick the meat thermometer in the middle and double-check your work, using the target temps above. And remember that the internal temperature will continue to climb by a few degrees even after you take the burger off the grill, so pull ‘em a moment earlier than you’re aiming for.

Every fire is different, so it’s truly difficult to get it down to a real science. After all, some of the best restaurants on earth can’t deliver a textbook “medium-rare” every single time. But if you have everything at the ready and maintain sharp focus from the moment your meat hits the grill, you’ll find that, with practice, you can become adept at rustling up “the perfect burger,” no matter who’s biting in.

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