For many beef buffs, the idea of a hamburger cooked anything beyond medium rare is blasphemous. Unfortunately, not cooking your ground beef to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit puts you at risk of ingesting bacteria like E. coli or enterococcus, including some strains that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. But does cooking beef to a safe temperature mean you’re doomed to a dry, tasteless hockey puck sandwich?
To find out if you could cook a burger to a safe temperature without rendering it leathery and bland, we first asked readers for their suggestions and received a flood of e-mailed recommendations.
We also spoke to some culinary professionals to see if they had some sort of expert insight on the matter. Once we whittled down the possibilities to four testable methods, we brought in the folks from the Consumer Reports sensory lab to help us get some unbiased feedback.
Picking The Methods
Consumerist readers made a variety of recommendations involving everything from adding non-beef meat — like veal or pork — to the mix, to fiddling with temperature settings on the stove, to tricks for flipping patties.
In the end, we went with two ideas submitted by multiple readers. The first, which we dubbed the “meat loaf method,” combines bread, milk, and steak sauce. The second method involves the use of a sous vide bath. This entails placing individual patties into sealed bags and then placing them into a water bath to slowly and evenly bring up the internal temperature before a final quick sear in the pan.
The third method came from a reader, Bernie, who also happens to be a colleague of ours at Consumer Reports. This “Bernie’s Method” involves making a very thin “beef pancake” that is quickly seared in a super-hot pan.
For the fourth method, we spoke to Chef Howie Velie, Associate Dean of Specializations at the Culinary Institute of America. We asked him how he would teach a student to cook the perfect burger to a safe temperature.
His preferred method? Simple and straightforward: Salt and pepper seasoning; beef with an 80/20 lean meat/fat content ratio; cook in a cast iron pan on high heat in a cast iron pan for a few minutes on each side until the meat gets up to temperature. We labeled Chef Velie’s burger the “Plain” method.
In a nutshell, says Velie, it all comes down to controlling heat and controlling moisture.
“Those are the two big philosophical statements that if you do those two things, you will cook well,” he says, adding that if you want something to be moist, like a burger, you have to maintain the moisture within the product. To do that, he says it’s important to use a ground beef with high fat content, because fat equals moisture.
Trying to hurry the cooking process by pressing the patty with a spatula is just going to result in a dry burger, says Velie, who calls it “the most tragic thing you could do because you’re basically just pressing out all the flavor.”
In addition, he stressed the importance of using a meat thermometer, to make sure you don’t cook the meat over 165 degrees and into tasteless hockey puck land.
“Don’t guess,” Velie says when it comes to a burger’s temperature. “You can guess all day, but unless you’ve done it 10,000 times, you’re not gonna be good at it.”
Time For Testing
To minimize variables, we used the same ground beef for all four methods, going with patties of 80/20 grass-fed beef. And as much as we’d have loved to cook all these patties outside on a grill, we opted to cook on a stove top in cast iron pans.
The chefs: Consumer Reports lab staff cooked three of the methods, while Bernie led the charge on his own method, shaping his burgers and cooking them.
The tasters: Four trained Consumer Reports sensory panelists evaluated each method blindly, unaware of the different ways in which they were prepared, or that we were seeking to compare different cooking methods. Each panelist tasted a sample of half a burger, and completed an individual ballot, commenting on texture and flavor, before a consensus was reached.
Consumerist staffers also sampled each of the methods, mostly because we like eating food. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t work at Consumerist. Since we were in on all the details of the test, we sampled the food (see our opinions in sidebar below) away from the panelists so we could not influence their feedback.
All samples were a half a burger, tasted without any condiments, buns, tomatoes, lettuce, etc. We did dress some up for glamour shots (and then we let interns eat them).
Method 1: Chef Velie’s “Plain” Method
• Seasoned beef patty cooked in searing hot cast iron pan. First side cooked for three minutes, flipped and cooked for four on the second side. Patty was flipped one more time and cooked (approx. 1 min.) until internal temp. reached 160.
Sensory panelists said: Straightforward burgers, with crisp browned exteriors and moderately moist interiors. They were quite flavorful. One sensory panelist summed it up well, “It was a damn good burger.”
Method 2: The “Meat Loaf” Burger
• Mixed 1.5 lb 80/20 ground beef with 1 slice white bread (crusts removed, cut into cubes), 2 tbsp whole milk, 2 tsp steak sauce, 1 clove minced garlic:
•Seasoned with salt and pepper, cooked using same pan heat level and flipping pattern as Method 1.
Sensory panelists said: These had seared, browned exteriors and were slightly moister and tenderer inside than the Plain burger. They were flavorful and had other flavors such as garlic, Worcestershire sauce impression (though it was really the steak sauce), and big peppery notes. However, the beef flavor was not as prominent (clouded by the added flavors) and they also had a bigger beef fat flavor than the Plain method.
Method 3: “Bernie’s” Burger
• Bernie used his own homemade burger press to flatten the patty between sheets of aluminum foil. The press guarantees that the resulting beef pancake will have an even thickness.
• Sprinkled with 1/8 tsp salt and pepper. Burgers were cooked covered on high heat in cast iron pans for about 1 minute each side, with Bernie cooking, until internal temp reached 160.
Sensory panelists said: This method yielded a thin, very slightly seared burger on the outside and a slightly chewy interior. It was flavorful, but it was missing the browned notes that complement the flavor so well.
Method 4: Sous Vide
• Patties placed in vacuum-sealed plastic bags, then warmed in a sous vide water bath for 90 minutes at 135 degrees.
•Burgers were removed from plastic bags, drained on paper towels for 10 minutes and seasoned with salt and pepper.
• After resting and seasoning, the patties were cooked for around 100 seconds per side until reaching an internal temp. of 160.
Sensory panelists said: The burgers cooked this way had browned exteriors and the interior was flavorful but they had distinct beef fat flavor. There was also the impression that these burgers were made from a finer grind of beef than the burgers cooked by the other methods, though the meat all came from the same batch of ground beef. Some tasters thought these burgers were also slightly chewy.
And The Winner Is…
In the end, the panel chose the simplest burger as the winner, agreeing that the browned exterior and clean simple beef flavor with a bit of salt and pepper made Method 1 the tastiest.
It’s possible to cook a burger to a safe temperature and still get a really delicious burger — even if you’re the kind of person who normally eschews anything that isn’t pink inside or medium rare. We at Consumerist also had expectations that any burger cooked to 160 degrees couldn’t be anything but dry and overcooked, but the consensus was that this experiment proved otherwise.
Even better, there’s something for everyone. If you want a stackable burger, go with Bernie’s. If you like using your sous vide machine, do that.Whatever you like, you can eat a burger and not only delight your taste buds with a delicious, flavorful patty, but you can rest at ease knowing it was cooked safely.