While The Takeout has espoused the wonders of the smashed burger, the classic thick, grilled, pink-in-the-middle patty remains the preferred tack among burgermeisters. With this approach, there is one goal above all others: Keep that burger juicy. It’s a binary proposition separating success from failure.
One way of achieving this is to use a cut of beef with a higher fat composition, such as chuck or ribeye, or even augmenting your beef with ground fat. Some may “hack” their patties by stuffing cheese or butter in the center. Others rely on technique, such as loosely packing the ground beef or touching it only sparingly once it’s on the grill. (Never press down on the patties!) But what about maintaining juiciness on a molecular level?
In the July/August 2017 issue of Milk Street Magazine (from former America’s Test Kitchen figurehead Christopher Kimball), staff writer Jenn Ladd mentions an intriguing technique for making supermarket-bought ground beef taste juicier. Ladd contends that most home cooks produce burger patties that are dense and compact, because much of the moisture in pre-ground beef is lost during its grinding. She notes a particular protein in beef called myosin that dissolves in the juices, which binds meat together, producing a tougher burger.
Her way to remedy this? Spread the beef on a baking sheet, season it, chill in a freezer for 20 minutes, then hand-form the patties and immediately grill them. We tested her technique here, and the results were noticeable.
First, we took our beef (we used ground chuck with an 80:20 lean-to-fat ratio) and, using two forks, pried the meat apart so it was evenly spread on a baking sheet. (Ladd suggests lining the baking sheet with parchment paper, though we didn’t.) We then sprinkled seasoning salt and ground black pepper on it and placed the baking sheet into the freezer for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, the edges should begin to show signs of freezing, but the meat will remain pliable. Using a rubber spatula, we folded the beef onto itself and segmented it into 8-ounce balls.
With the lightest touch possible, we formed the beef into one-inch-thick patties. One technique I learned from a barbecue pitmaster was to form a divot in the center of the patty. He said that burgers bulge in the center, and pressing a divot with your thumb before cooking will help keep the surface flat and maintain a pleasing aesthetic. Milk Street suggests letting the beef soften for 10 minutes depending on the intensity of your freezer, though between folding and hand-forming the patties, we found this step unnecessary.
We made two burgers: a control patty (below left—seasoned and formed straight from its supermarket package), the other using the 20-minute freezer technique with the divot pressed in (below right). We threw both burgers onto our gas grill simultaneously, flipping once at the four-and-a-half minute mark. The patties cooked for four more minutes, then taken off the heat and allowed to rest for two minutes. When we cut the burgers in half, we noticed a visual difference.
Sure enough, the control patty (above left) bulged upward, while the 20-minute freezer patty with the divot (above right) remained level. The interior structure of the left patty had a tighter knit than the right patty, which appeared to have larger grains of beef and coarseness, even though both emerged at the same level of medium-rare. (Ladd writes that the 20 minutes of chill reduces the solubility of the myosin, making the resulting burger less “sticky.”) “Juiciness” wasn’t the most accurate term, but “creaminess” might apply: The burger on the right was almost tartare-like in the center, but with the unmistakable flavor and texture of charred beef. The left patty yielded a decent burger, but relative to the other patty, it was denser and not as texturally satisfying when biting into it.
While your grill instincts and temperature control will ultimately decide the burger’s fate, for us, using this technique improved the final product by at least 10 percent; that’s a good enough ratio for us to keep using this method.