The Perfect Hamburger

After 1960 my mom began trying her hand at making hamburgers. Her patties were rather large and became even thicker as they were pan-fried. Sandwiched with toasted Dietz Bakery bread, the burgers once assembled nearly rivaled a Dagwood Sandwich. With lettuce, pickles, onions, and a slice of home-grown tomato they soon simply fell apart and we generally finished eating them with a fork. It never occurred to us to make hamburgers on a grill or to buy buns.   

The worst hamburgers I have ever eaten were those offered in school cafeterias. Rumor had it among faculties—the meat was made of soybeans. The USDA was eventually forced to scale back the allowable processed beef fillers because of the outcry from parents in some states. What was in these school burgers, I simply have not been able to determine, but they did irreparable damage to a hamburger’s image. 

The hamburger was supposedly invented at White Castle in Hamburg, Germany, by Otto Kuase. Others claim that Hannah Glasse included a recipe for “Hamburgh Sausage” in his book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy printed in 1747. These were supposedly the same eaten by immigrants to America on the Hamburg America Line’s ships beginning around 1847. It’s not likely that Meusebach enjoyed one. Nevertheless, the fame of hamburgers was not sealed until the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when the New York Tribune took notice of a Fletcher Davis from Athens, Texas, offering a sandwich stand selling his creation of a burger.   

After WWI burgers were also known as Salisbury steak and sliders. Nevertheless, a chain was opened in 1923 known as Kewpee Hamburgers. They peaked at 400 locations before World War II. White Tower opened in 1926 and by the 1950s had 230 locations. One is still open in Toledo, Ohio. Little Tavern began in 1927 and at its height had 50 stands and Krystal opened in 1931 with the first drive-through window. Krystal was bought by Wendy’s but can still be found in some states. Big Boy offered a double decker hamburger in 1937. At about this time, Walter and Mary Hollmig opened the Sunnyside Hut here in Fredericksburg. Then in 1940 McDonald’s came upon the scene and the rest, as one might say, is history.  

Americans grill more hamburgers than any other food. Making an exceptional burger isn’t that hard. Forming that perfect patty is easy if one has the right kind of ground beef. Finding that might be a problem. Ground chuck works best. This cut of beef starts where the ribs end and travels up to the shoulder and neck, ending at the foreshank. This is a clear winner according to The New Best Recipe published by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated

Local meat stores are required to test each batch of ground meat to be within 10% of its advertised fat content. Ground chuck would be made only from the chuck trimmings, as would sirloin and round. Only ground beef could be made from mixed beef trimmings. Moreover, only meat ground at federally inspected plants is guaranteed to match its label. One way to make certain is to buy chuck roast and have the butcher grind it for you. Hamburger meat with 20% fat content is best at sealing the beef’s juicy, moist content. Know that, on the other hand, packages labeled “ground round” are lean, tough cuts, lacking beefy flavor and can come from any part of the cow. 

When forming a patty tossing it from one hand to the other helps bring the meat together without overworking it. Too much handling causes the meat to become tougher. Flatten the patties into ¾ inch thick burgers that measure about 4 ½ inches across. Press each center down with your fingertips until it is ½ inch thick, creating a well. These will prevent the patty from puffing up into a tennis ball which will then come off the grill with a domed shape and cause all the condiments to slide off. 

Burgers require a blast of heat if they are to form a crunchy flavorful crust before the interior overcooks. Use a medium-hot fire to form a perfect patty. Cook 2 ½ to 3 ½ minutes per side, and never press down on the burger. Rather than speeding the cooking, this serves only to squeeze out the juice and make them dry. Using an indoor stove’s broiler places the patties too close to the heating element, best results are achieved by cooking burgers in a very hot, cast-iron skillet. 

If you prefer your burger well done, combine 1 slice of hearty white sandwich bread, torn into pieces, with 2 tbls whole milk for every 1 ½ lb. ground beef. This paste of starch and liquid sandwiches itself between the meat proteins so that they do not bind together tightly. Let mixture rest 5 minutes before mashing into a paste with a fork and mixing with the beef. Then form your patties tossing as suggested above. 

Charcoal-Grilled Hamburgers 


1 ½ lb. 80% lean ground chuck 
1 tsp salt 
½ tsp ground black pepper 


When the charcoal is covered with a layer of fine gray ash spread coals out evenly. 
Cover grill and allow rack to heat up. 
Sprinkle salt and pepper over the meat. 
Toss lightly to distribute seasoning. 
Divide meat into 4 equal portions. 
Pat lightly to flatten into a ¾ inch thick burger. 
Press center to ½ inch thickness. 
Grill burgers, divot-side up, uncovered until well seared – about 2 ½ minutes. 
Flip with wide metal spatula. * 
Grill flipped side for 2 minutes for rare, 2 ½ minutes for medium-rare, 3 minutes for medium, and
minutes for well-done. 
Serve immediately in buns with all your desired toppings. 

*Add a slice of cheese at this point if desired. 

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