Everyone loves burgers.
But how do you make a truly delicious burger at home?
We asked Zan Kaufman, founder of Bleecker St Burgers and all-round burger expert, for her tips:
1. First of all, a burger patty only needs 100% beef.
“You only need egg or breadcrumbs if you’re making meatballs.
“Everyone thinks for some reason that mince beef needs something to stick together. Do an experiment yourself: If you get mince beef from the grocery store, make it into a ball, and press it down into a pan, it will stay as a patty. It never needs anything besides salt and pepper.
“That’s the secret. You put nothing in your burger and it will be better than most restaurants’. And don’t be afraid to season – you really have to season a lot; it’s not a light sprinkling, it’s a heavy dusting. Salt brings out the flavour of the beef.”
2. To make a good burger at home, all you need is a frying pan and a spatula.
Don’t put any oil in your frying pan: “The key thing is to keep your frying pan dry, and make sure it’s piping hot before you put the burger into it.
“Then you just need a spatula to flip it. A toaster would be nice for the bun, but that’s really all you need. You don’t even need salt and pepper shakers, you can just dust it with your hands.”
3. The best way to cook your burger is medium rare.
“Obviously the bigger-sized burger you get, the longer you have to cook it on each side. With the burger size we use (113g), we just sear it on one side and sear it on the other. But if you’re doing a bigger burger, say 226g, you should regularly flip it as it’s going to take eight minutes to get to medium rare. By flipping it more regularly you don’t get a buildup of well-done-ness on either side.
“You can tell if it’s medium rare with a temperature probe or with your finger. There’s an at-home test where you can press on a certain part of your hand: The edge of your palm is more well done, then as you go into the middle of your palm it gets squishier – if it’s pretty squishy you’re talking rare, and if it’s semi-firm it’s probably medium, medium rare.”
4. The major difference between a good burger and a bad burger is the bun.
“I think most horrible burgers are due to the bun. You can’t even start to talk about a good burger unless it has a bun that doesn’t get in the way.
“A bun is at its best when you don’t notice it until after you’re done. When you’re eating a burger and you’re conscious of the bun the entire time, something’s wrong.”
Apart from the bun, Zan’s biggest tip would be to try not to do too much to your burger: “People try to load burgers with a lot of things, but you can make a good burger at home by just searing the meat well on both sides, seasoning it well, getting it on a relatively soft bun, and not overcooking it.”
5. Skip brioche buns and go for something lighter.
“I think brioche is a great bread and the French are genius for inventing it, but I think it belongs in another space away from the burger.
“People eat burgers and feel like there’s a rock in their stomach afterwards, and a lot of the time that’s because the bun is so dense. If it’s light and airy, it eats light and it will pick up more of the meat flavours.
“Our bun, for instance, is airy enough that when the burger starts to shed some of its flavour into the bun, it mixes with the sauce and creates this amazing bite. The bun isn’t just a vehicle to hold the burger – it’s also a vehicle to soak up more flavour.”
6. Stop your juicy burger from disintegrating by toasting the bun.
“No one wants to eat a burger that starts to erode. When the bun splits into several different pieces and by the end you’re just picking up the meat and eating it? That to me is a failure of a burger.
“Toasting the bun is the number one thing you can do to stop this. It gives the bun more durability and helps it stand up to the juice a little more.”
And don’t try to use lettuce to stop the juice getting to the bun, says Zan. “Some people use lettuce to stop the juices, but that means the juices aren’t balanced throughout the dish. They’re just sitting in a pool and will probably spill over you.”
7. The best veggie burgers are bean or tofu based – avoid mushrooms!
“There are some pretty amazing veggie burger recipes on the internet. The better ones are mostly bean-based recipes but they tend to take a lot of time, that’s the only problem with them. There’s a lot of chopping and a lot of binding, but they’re worth it in the end, if you’re vegetarian.”
Avoid mushroom burgers though: “The mushroom burger is just a waste of time. It seems like a lack of originality. You can be really original with veggie burgers. We use tofu, which gives us a clean slate – tofu is pretty much a vehicle for flavour – and it has a really nice texture when you fry it. It picks up a lot of the flavour of our burger sauce, which mimics our cheeseburger.”
For vegans, Zan recommends checking the buns rather than just focusing on the patty: “A vegan patty isn’t difficult. A lot of those bean-based patties I mentioned earlier are vegan. It’s the bun you have to be careful about. Our buns contain milk, so they’re not vegan.”
8. Avoid shop-bought burgers at all costs.
“Shop-bought burgers are a gimmick. It takes four minutes to make a burger: the same time it takes to heat a shop-bought burger up in the microwave that’s going to be disgusting.”
There’s one exception to this though: veggie burgers. “There’s a lot of really decent frozen veggie patties you can defrost. They make nice burgers if you use decent sauces.”
9. Get your meat from the butcher’s.
When it comes to burger meat, it’s worth taking the extra time to go to your butcher. You should ask for “chuck, and get a little extra fat mixed into it.”
“Then when you go home weigh the patties out. If you’re going to do burgers our size, weigh out 113g balls of the meat, then before you fry them, squish them with your hands to make a disc.”
10. American cheese is the best cheese for burgers.
“You take a piece of American cheese on its own, and it’s a piece of shit cheese. It’s not even cheese. But in a burger it acts as this flavourless glue that brings everything together.
“People think of it as cheese and they see it as cheese, but really it’s doing so much more than that. There’s other good cheeses – we use blue cheese, for instance – but American cheese is the best by a mile. It makes the burger one whole thing.”
11. To get your cheese all melty either “cloche” it or swipe it across the pan on to the burger.
“To melt the cheese, a lot of people cloche it, i.e. put a big pot over it. But I’ve never liked doing that as I think that steams the burger – we use a griddle because we want to sear the burger, we don’t want to steam it. So we take the American cheese and we swipe it on the grill, across the heat, then slide it on to the burger so it already has a melting start before it even gets there.”
12. There IS such a thing as too much cheese.
“We use amazing beef. It’s beef that you would have at the best steakhouses in the world and if you put a load of cheese on it you’re going to cover up all that greatness.
“Cheese is amazing, but if you want a lot of cheese, then have mac ‘n’ cheese. Don’t use a burger as a vehicle for cheese unless it’s a really shit burger that needs covering up.”
13. If you’re cutting costs, cut back on the toppings, not the meat.
“Never scrimp on the meat! Scrimp on the toppings. You can make a really great burger at home that doesn’t cost a lot. My butcher, for instance (Nathan Mills in Bermondsey), sells one of his patties for £2.50. So that’s £2.50, then you just buy a bun on the first day of its shelf life so it’s not too hard, and that’s it – you’re good to go.”
14. Don’t be scared of adventurous toppings…as long as you’ve mastered the basic burger first.
“Toppings can enhance a burger but they can’t make a burger. The foundation needs to be right.”
A big supporter of classic burgers, Zan didn’t come up with the Bleecker Black (now Bleecker St’s signature burger) until “Liam, who’s part of Team Bleecker, pushed and pushed until I would try the black pudding on our beef. After first bite, I was in love.”
15. Good burger sauce is five parts mayo to one part ketchup and one part mustard.
“A burger sauce is like a burger: It is greater than the sum of its parts. For a good burger sauce you want a little sweetness and a little sourness. Bleecker St’s has ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles, and some spices.”
If you’re making a burger sauce at home, mix together five parts mayo to one part ketchup and one part mustard for what Zan calls a “very decent burger sauce”.
16. If you’re BBQ-ing burgers at home, you should do small batches rather than everything at once.
“The biggest culprit with BBQs is that people cook them for 20 minutes and ruin the burger. If you want to eat a hockey puck, buy a hockey puck – don’t cook a burger.
“You sacrifice a little ease of cooking doing your burgers directly on the BBQ, but you can get some great, different flavour from flame-grilling that you can’t get on a griddle. If you’re really worried about burning your burgers though, put a griddle pan on the BBQ and do it that way.
“My biggest tip for a BBQ would be to just do a few at a time. They don’t take long. You can do a couple 113g burgers in five minutes. Just do smaller rounds instead of overloading the grill and overcooking everything.”
17. Give up on “lean” or “healthier” burgers.
Even the veggie burgers at Bleecker St aren’t that healthy – they’re deep-fried. And that’s for a reason: “Lean burgers are a waste of time, because they’re always going to be dry.”
If you’re desperate for something more lean, then you should “make a meatball and use some sort of filler to compensate for the lack of moisture. But a lean burger just doesn’t make sense. If you want a healthy burger you should probably just have tuna salad.”
18. And finally, if you’re treating yourself to restaurant burgers, don’t be scared to ask questions!
“You should never be afraid to ask a restaurant anything. If they don’t want to tell you about their food you should just get up and leave. If they’re embarrassed to tell you something, it’s probably not somewhere you want to eat at.”
So feel free to question restaurants on whether they make their veggie patties themselves or buy them from the supermarket