There are a few scents that really evoke feelings surrounding warm, spring or summer-like weather. Cut grass. Blooming lilacs. Sunscreen. Or the first time you smell burgers cooking on the grill, wafting through the neighborhood, making everyone wonder whether it’s dinnertime yet.
It might be among the most basic of grilling options, but there’s an art to cooking a really good burger. You can just slap a pre-made, previously frozen patty on the grill — sure. But with just a little bit more effort, you can make a home-cooked burger that’s better in every way.
Since grilling season has begun, we asked several eateries in Maine that are renowned for their burgers for their best tips on making the perfect burger at home. If you want to up your burger game, follow their advice, broken down by each burger element: bun, cheese, condiments, toppings and, of course, the meat. Hungry yet?
Choosing the right bun
Terrence Freeman, chef at Blaze Restaurant in Bangor, believes that when it comes to the bun — the vehicle through which the important parts of the burger are delivered — it’s all about texture. Too tough and it overwhelms the good stuff. The burgers at Blaze are served on a brioche-style bun — a little sweet and fluffy.
“I want something that’s soft. I don’t want something that’s too bready or stiff or that falls apart. I want the bread to soak up the juice from the burger,” Freeman said. “No burger should be eaten with a knife and fork. That’s just wrong.”
As far as the question of whether to toast or not, Spenser Ouellette, who co-owns Burger Boy, the Caribou burger restaurant that has served up burgers to Aroostook County diners for nearly 50 years, said a buttered and toasted bun is key to maximum burger enjoyment.
“We just use a regular buttered sesame seed bun, but I think the trick is to make sure it’s evenly buttered and toasted,” Ouellette said. “We use a flat top at Burger Boy, but at home a skillet works just as well. You really want that all-around golden brown. Don’t put it on the grill. Put it on the stove.”
At Fat Boy Drive In, a Brunswick eatery where you can still get 1950s-style car hop service, Brian Burton, 46, has been cooking burgers since he was 11 years old. For the bun, he goes an extra mile beyond grilling it — he steams the bun first.
“I think steaming and then grilling is crucial, because it just makes it a little bit softer before you put butter on it and grill it,” Burton said.
Which cheese is right?
It might not be the most glamorous of cheeses, but all our experts agreed: American cheese is the ideal burger cheese. It melts easily, it doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the meat, and it’s usually cut into neat little slices, so it’s easy to manage.
“There’s really no comparison,” Burton said. “It’s just the best burger cheese.”
Other cheeses, such as blue cheese, cheddar or Swiss, also are popular, but some may melt better than others.
“I do like a nice sharp cheddar, but you’ve got to be careful, because some cheddars, when they melt, can get really oily and greasy,” Freeman said.
As far as putting the cheese on the burger, do it a few minutes before they’re ready to take off the grill, not afterward — and not too early, either.
“Make sure you put the cheese on before you’ve finished cooking. Not too early but not right before you take it off the grill. You want a nice, even melt,” Ouellette said.
Top it off well
Ketchup, mustard, relish — those are the traditional burger toppings. For others, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, ranch dressing or even guacamole are popular additions.
“I go all the way with condiments. I make burger sauce at home, which is just mixing up mayo, ketchup, mustard and relish. It’s like McDonalds secret sauce on steroids,” Freeman said.
As far as toppings, here’s where things get tricky. It has become trendy to top burgers with just about anything under the sun — french fries, macaroni and cheese, foie gras, doughnuts, pineapple, mango — all of which often result in a messy, structurally unsound concoction that’s more akin to a Frankenstein’s monster of burgers.
The best advice for doing it at home? Once again, keep it simple.
“Bacon is easy. A fried egg is easy. Lettuce, tomato and onion is easy. Mushrooms are easy. There’s a reason why they’re popular. It’s because they’re good,” Freeman said.
Of course, if you do want to get fancy at home, you can experiment. Try a Greek-style burger, with tzatziki sauce and feta cheese. Try pickles, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce and onions, to emulate a Big Mac. Buffalo sauce and blue cheese also could be a winner.
“I think you just need to match your toppings to your condiments. Bacon goes good with barbecue sauce. Guacamole and salsa. Find the flavor you’re going for, and find things that go with that,” Freeman said.
Sometimes, though, it’s better to just keep it simple.
“Sometimes I just want lettuce, tomato and onion. That’ll make me perfectly happy,” Burton said. “Sometimes I even just want it plain.”
Choosing the right meat mix
Finally, the thing that makes a beef burger a burger: ground beef. What kind of meat should you go with? For our burger experts, it’s all about freshness and fat.
“We grind our own hamburger, so fresh beef is really the way to go,” Ouellette said. “Don’t ever go with frozen beef.”
It may seem healthier to go with a leaner fat-to-meat ratio, but a good burger needs a more generous meat to fat ratio to get that ideal juiciness. Don’t forget: You’re eating a burger. You’re not eating a salad. Go big or go home.
“You have to go with 80/20 beef, which is the meat-to-fat ratio. It doesn’t get crumbly or dry out,” Freeman said. “You want it to be juicy. Fat is what makes it juicy.”
Burton, however, prefers an 85/15 mix so it’s just a little bit less juicy — though he does caution that the less fat there is in the beef the higher the risk there is of overcooking.
“If you go to more of a 90/10, there’s this split second amount of time where it goes from perfectly cooked to well done. The less fat, the higher the chance there is of that happening,” Burton said. “People always ask me, ‘How do you know when to flip it?’ And I say ‘I don’t know. I just know.’ When it starts to bleed through on top, then it’s time to flip. But really, I just know it.”
Freeman suggests making sure your patties are not more than a half-inch tall, to make sure they’re all roughly the same size and weight, between 4 and 6 ounces, and to make a small thumbprint in the center of each patty to avoid the dreaded football effect — when the burger puffs up into a rounded, football-like shape.
“If you see it start to swell up and turn into a ball, that’s because it’s essentially boiling itself in the middle,” he said. “If you make a little indentation in the middle, when it starts to puff up it’ll retain its shape.”
Or you could do what Burger Boy does, which is weigh each burger out and then use an improvised kitchen tool to flatten it into a patty.
“The perfect weight for us is 4 ounces. We make it into a nice round ball, and put a piece of wax paper on top, and use a 28 ounce vegetable can to pound it into the perfect thickness,” Ouellette said. “We can bust out 75 burgers that way, and they all cook uniformly.”
Most of our burger experts agree that the ideal doneness for patties is somewhere between medium and medium-well. While there are those who like their beef still mooing and those who like it charred to a crisp, a burger that is cooked on the outside and a little pink on the inside seems to marry safe, char-grilled doneness with a little rare flair.
“Don’t beat the crap out of it. People flip it over and over again, and twice is enough,” Freeman said. “Get a good crust on one side, flip it, and then add your cheese when you’re ready. And don’t push it down with your spatula — you’re just drying it out when you do that.”