Want to make the perfect burger? Chefs share their 10 best secrets

What to consider before you fire up the grill

By Kae Lani Kennedy,

Merry Graham's Salsa Verde Burgers on a grill — Photo courtesy of Merry Graham

Fall is lurking around the corner, but before we go all pumpkin spice and cable knit sweaters, let’s try to savor these last moments of summer. Take a last-minute road trip, visit an amusement park and, of course, indulge in one last burger before the grilling season comes to a close. 

The burger deserves to be deemed the official meal of summer.  It’s the centerpiece of the season – the Thanksgiving turkey of every summer cookout.

If the scent of summer were immortalized as a candle, it would smell like a burger sizzling on a grill. So, to make anything less than a perfectly seasoned, juicy burger to bookend your summer is a disservice to this all-American dish. 

But what makes a good burger? Is it beef sourced from a local farm? Is it a secret blend of spices? Does the cheese matter? 

Here’s some advice from bonafide burger experts at Sandwich America on how to make a burger so perfect, the flavor will carry you through the chilly months ahead. 

1. Consider the burger design

Approach your burger like a painter approaches a canvas. Every element of the burger – the type of bun, the seasoning, the toppings – will impact the flavor and the texture and must be used to enhance the eating experience. 

Jennifer Daskevich, World Sandwich Champion and Sandwich America founder, does this with her Coastal Crab Burger where every ingredient impacts the entire experience. The flavor of the crab is amplified by the lemon vinaigrette and also enhanced by the lightly salted tortilla strips, piled high on a brioche bun.

2. Choose your meat wisely

Angus, Buffalo, just plain old beef, or maybe some black beans for our vegetarian and vegan friends? Regardless of what the core of your burger is, never use a frozen patty, according to Rob Dutton of Lucky 13.

3. Do not fear fat!

While choosing the meat for your burger, be sure to take into account the marbling. The marbling refers to the distribution of fat throughout the meat.  Dutton recommends using an 80/20 ratio, but Billy Kramer of Billy’s Burgers says anywhere between 20%-30% fat distribution is ideal.

Another Burger Champion, Wade Fortin, says “no matter what you're using, make sure the fat ratio is enough to keep the burger moist.” Too low of a fat content, Fortin warns, may lead to a dry burger. 

4. What size should you make the patty?

Every burger, especially if you have a burger with a higher fat ratio, shrinks when you cook it. Christie Vanover, of Girls Can Grill, recommends “making the patties larger than the bun so when the fat renders and the burgers shrink, you will have a perfectly sized burger.”

5. The seasoning 

Picking the seasoning is one of the steps where you can really let your burger artistry shine through. The seasoning should be based on the theme of the burger and should complement the toppings that you’ll use in the finishing stages.

Most of the burger experts at Sandwich America use kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, but that is only the beginning. Regardless of what blend of spices you prefer, Chef Aaron Brooks says to apply a generous amount of dry rub to burgers at least five minutes before cooking. 

6. The bun

The bun is more than just a vehicle for your burger. It’s another element that adds context, but not just any bread will do. It has to be a bun that can withstand the juices and condiments without becoming soggy or falling apart. On top of that, Merry Graham of a Merry Recipe says that the bun shouldn’t “outweigh the burger.”

The experts at Sandwich America recommend breads like brioche, challah, or even potato rolls.

7. The toppings

Toppings not only add flavor and texture but they can tie the theme of a burger together. Beware of overdoing it, though. Some toppings, if not used in moderation, can become overbearing and take away from the burger experience.

Burger expert, Merry Graham, believes that toppings are where you can add contrasting flavors, textures and colors. She recommends you “think sweet, crunchy, creamy and pickled.”

8. Think beyond ketchup when it comes to condiments

Think of condiments as a spread or liquefied topping that can add yet another layer of flavor to your burger masterpiece. Go big and bold! Burger expert, Rob Dutton, has even used peanut butter in his Nut Butter Burger, and it works! 

But on which side of the bun do you spread the condiments? Top bun or bottom bun? This all depends on the flavor profiles and at what moment in the burger experience you want the tang of a vinegar BBQ or the nutty flavors of peanut butter to hit your palate. 

9. Cheese, please!

Adding cheese to your burger isn’t as easy as just placing a slice onto a finished burger. The type of cheese and how melty you want your cheese are just a couple of factors that will dictate at what point in the burger building process you’ll introduce the cheese. 

Burger expert, Jason Stucki, places his cheese on the patty after the last flip along with his other hot toppings. The heat from the burger and the hot toppings helps to melt the cheese. This step is purely based on your own personal preferences. 

10. Cooking methods

One of the most popular ways to cook a burger is on the grill. But depending on if you’re using gas, propane or coal, the heat distribution on the grill may be uneven. We’ve all had burgers that were charred on the outside but still too pink and cold on the inside. That can happen if the flames of the grill get too hot, too fast. 

Sandwich America burger experts actually recommend using a hot cast iron pan for a consistent hot surface which will help sear your burgers perfectly and ensure they're cooked thoroughly.