How To Grill Burgers on a Charcoal Grill
Burgers have long been a staple of many backyard cookouts whether as a quick midweek dinner or large weekend gathering. In fact nothing says “summertime cookout” more than a grilled hamburger. But, have you ever eaten an overcooked, miserably dry, or even burnt burger? There’s no need for that. Do them right and keep them juicy!
Like most meats, we measure the perfect doneness with a thermometer, not a clock or a certain number of flips. And “flame-broiled” the entire cook (another way to say ‘I couldn’t control the flare-ups’)? Forget about it, unless you like them burnt and dry. Hint: they do not have to be pink to stay juicy, they just need to be taken to the correct temperature.
First of all, like anything, the choice of meat makes the difference. Don’t be tempted to get the pricier ground sirloin, or even ground round. That might be great for tacos or chili, but ground chuck is your best bet for a good burger. Even what stores commonly label as “ground beef” or “hamburger” can work great for a nice juicy burger, but it’s debatable if this is a good choice of meat. Regardless, what you want is approximately an 80/20 mix to a 70/30 mix. This is the lean-to-fat ratio (80/20 = 80% lean, 20% fat). Fat, while many go to great lengths to avoid or strictly limit it in their diets, is what makes the difference between a lousy or forgettable burger and a burger that you’ll remember. More fat creates more flavor and overall a better burger experience. A burger that is 80/20 will stay formed better than a lean burger too, whereas leaner ground beef can be more crumbly and harder to work with as a burger.
Loosely form the patties Often people will weigh the meat and then form patties. Some people just grab some from the package and form patties. Whichever way fits your style will work nicely- as long as you don’t handle the patties too much. Burger patties need to be loosely formed for the best results. Juices need pockets to settle in, otherwise most of it will simply find its way out as the muscle fibers constrict during cooking. It’s safe to say no one appreciates a dry burger. A patty that’s loosely-formed will retain more of these pockets and has the better odds of remaining delicious.
Sometimes when hand-pattying burgers they’ll end up more ball shaped than disc shaped due to the natural curves of our hands. Some folks insist on putting a divot, or indent, in the center of the patty on each side. Whether you choose to do this or choose to simply flatten it uniformly, or neither, the most important thing is do not handle the patty too much. Leave it loosely packed.
How to season it Do you add salt & pepper? A steak rub? Mix a sauce into the meat while pattying? The choice is up to you. You can’t go wrong with a good old fashioned “Dalmatian rub” (salt & pepper). It’s a great idea to add the seasoning ahead of time to your patties. In the same vein as dry brining, adding your salt and other seasonings ahead of time is great to do. But equally fine is adding it right as you cook, or as some prefer to do, after cooking right before serving. One thing we highly recommend though, do not mix in your salt when pattying. Add it to the surface of the patties before cooking, whether right before cooking or hours before, just don’t mix it in ahead of time.
To cook hot & fast at 325 F Burgers do great cooked indirectly at a higher temp. Place the burgers on the indirect side once the grill has come to temp. We recommend monitoring the burgers’ temp with either leave-in BBQ thermometer probes or by regularly spot-checking with an instant read thermometer.
Final Grill Temp For Burgers
Like any meat you cook, there’s a recommended safe temp. In the United States the USDA recommends ground beef be taken to 160 F.
You may notice this is the temp of well done. Often, well done equates to “dry”. Whatever you do, don’t take the meat above 160, or you’re likely to have one of those dry burgers we all vividly remember from the last family reunion. The fattier the meat (80/20 or 70/30), the better chance at a juicy burger at 160 or slightly above.
It’s entirely possible to use leave-in thermometer probes in your burgers like you would steaks. If you choose not to, you can easily spot-check them with a good instant read thermometer.
If you’d like to sear your burgers after cooking (reverse sear), take them to about 10 degrees under your target temp. If you’re shooting for a finished temp of 155 F, when they hit about 145, move them over to the sear zone of your Slow ‘N Sear. Rotate often, and flip every minute or so until they reach your target temp. Watch for flare-ups!
Many folks will take their burgers to about 150-155 and pull them off. At 155 your burger will still be in the medium-well to well done range, but still on the juicier side of it. Carryover cooking will continue to raise the internal temp slightly after removing from the grill. If a little pink doesn’t bother you, 150 may please you even more.
Can you reverse sear burgers? Absolutely! To cook them lower at 225, we must remember we’re not smoking the burgers, so we’re not going to use the same “low & slow” setup we’d use for a low & slow smoke, such as with ribs. Begin by lighting about 1/4 chimney of charcoal (20-25 briquets) however you choose. Wait until they are all well-lit or ashed over, then add them to the charcoal basket of your Slow ‘N Sear. Allow your grill to heat up to ~225 F, as measured by a good digital thermometer probe placed at grate level on the indirect side, NOT you grill’s lid thermometer!
If you choose to sear them, follow the “reverse sear” technique. Cook the burgers, indirectly, until they reach about 15-20 degrees under your target finished temp and when it’s time to sear place the burgers on the grill grate directly over the charcoal in the Slow ‘N Sear, rotating every few seconds and flipping every minute or so until your target temperature is reached. Remember, we go by temperature not feel, not a clock, and not a certain number of flips. Temperature on meat is foolproof.
Many people, including us, recommend no wood smoke for burgers. Charcoal imparts a fair amount of flavor, and wood smoke can tend to overpower a burger. If you’d like to use wood during the cook, you may find it best to keep it minimal. Ultimately though, personal preference rules.
Then what? Top that burger! Whether your perfect burger has cheese, mustard & ketchup and lettuce & tomato, or sautéed onions, mushrooms & BBQ sauce, or some other concoction with a secret sauce- the most important thing is to cook it properly. After that the rest is up to you. Lightly toasted buns will add to the pleasure of your perfect burger!
- Fat = flavor, use 80/20 ground chuck
- Loosely make patties
- Season/marinade to taste
- Cook hot and fast at 325 F, or reverse sear
- Top Off that Burger