Test Tube Kitchen

Grilling for geeks

The science of the perfect burger

July 2, 2011
Hungry yet? [Image Credit: Gabriel Amadeus, Flickr]

Want to show off on the Fourth this year? Look to food wizard Nathan Myhrvold, author of this year’s foodie obsession Modernist Cuisine. He’s created a recipe for what is surely the world’s most extensively tested — and ridiculously complicated — burger that will ever drip Heinz down your shirt. Humble, it’s not. Here’s what he suggests:

First, vacuum-seal the patty in a plastic bag and sous-vide it to an internal temperature of 130 degrees. Then, dip it in liquid nitrogen just until the outer millimeter is frozen, and finally, deep-fry it at 450 degrees for 60 seconds. According to Myhrvold, this is the process that best maximizes your meat’s potential.

Sounds great, you say — except I don’t know if I can fit my vacuum sealer, thermal immersion circulator, vat of liquid nitrogen, and deep-fryer in between the potato salad and the beer cooler. Plus, by the time I’m done cooking, the fireworks will be over.

But have no fear. Though you may not have the time or gadgetry needed for the Myhrvold Method, you can still use science to make a mean burger. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Start with the right mix

Lean beef may be heart-healthy, but it’s the fat that makes a burger juicy. Many chefs recommend no less than an 80/20 mix: That’s 80 percent beef to 20 percent fat. Don’t tell your cardiologist.

Forget the sear

As any grill master knows, meat shrinks as it cooks. This is because the collagens in the meat contract as they heat up, squeezing out the water and — if you aren’t careful — toughening your burger. Unfortunately, the age-old technique of searing your meat over a high temperature to seal in the juices won’t save you.

The sear is a big myth, says food science god Hervé This in Molecular Gastronomy. Not only does meat lack pores through which juices could escape, he says, “but measurement shows that the loss of juices actually increases with cooking,” meaning that even after the outside is “sealed,” your burger continues to lose delicious juices. One less step to worry about!

Make friends with Maillard

The temperature of a perfect burger is tricky. For this, we blame chemistry: While Jeff Potter’s excellent Cooking for Geeks tells me that the ideal temperature for cooked meat is between 130 and 150 degrees, he also says that that most holy of meaty reactions, the Maillard reaction, takes place at a much-higher 310 degrees.

The Maillard reaction is what causes meats to brown and gives perfectly cooked meat that distinctively mouthwatering smell. Think Thanksgiving turkey and you’ve got it. Potter says it takes place “when an amino acid and certain types of sugars break down and then recombine into hundreds of different types of compounds.”

To achieve the Maillard reaction without overcooking your meat, you have to brown the burger’s outside quickly, before this inside overcooks. So make sure your fire’s really hot (if you’re grilling, replenish your coals often), and keep watch to make sure your patties don’t stay on the heat any longer than they have to.

Skip the grill

Though it’s near-blasphemous to say it, grilling just might not be the best way to make the most of your burger. That fat that we said was so important to keep things juicy? On a grill, it drips away, rather than basting the burgers into tasty tenderness.

The other problem with a grill has to do with its surface. Since it’s slatted, only some of the meat is in contact with the hot metal necessary to make the Maillard reaction happen — and get that perfect brown crust. To achieve those toasty flavors, you want to maximize the amount of meat that’s touching the heat. Fortunately, this problem can be solved: Plop a standard griddle on your grill, and fire away.

Who cares if the neighbors talk? Once they’ve got a mouthful of your perfect burgers, all they’ll be saying is “Mmmmm.”


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