Why are restaurant burgers better than the ones you grill at home?

It all comes down to a few simple swaps and two cooking tools

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published May 14, 2022 6:01PM (EDT)

Woman holding a burger (Getty Images / pangshukman / 500px)
Woman holding a burger (Getty Images / pangshukman / 500px)

Over the weekend, the weather in Chicago finally took a turn away from freezing. As temperatures continue to climb up into the mid-80s, all the grills at the park across my street have been in constant use. Every time I go out, I see a new set of groups clustered around the grills, futzing with charcoal and clacking sets of tongs. Most are making burgers, and I can't wait to get out there with them. 

Related: Can we learn to love old (and more sustainable) beef?

That said, as commonplace as burgers may be, it's sometimes hard to make an at-home version that stacks up to the restaurant variety. That's why Salon Food made this list of 5 tips for making better burgers at home. 

Get ready to impress your family and friends when it's your turn behind the grill this summer. No commercial kitchen needed. 

Make sure you're buying the good meat (and that you treat it correctly) 

Sometimes, when you make burgers at home, you open your mouth up in anticipation of a juicy, umami-packed bite but wind up feeling disappointed as you chew. The patty is tasteless and perhaps a little gristly. What gives? It's likely the quality of the meat being used. 

It's no secret that for our personal health and the health of our planet, eating less meat is a better choice. Part of that means buying better meat from more reputable suppliers when you do choose to put it on your grocery list. Do a little research to find out if any farmer's markets or local butcher shops in your area carry beef from organic producers in your region. It may be a little pricier than the supermarket variety, but it'll be worth it.

Note that grass-fed beef tends to have a more "mineral-y" taste, which people tend to associate with the savoriness of beef, while grain-fed beef is sweeter and has a little more marbling. Go with your personal preference. Be sure to purchase a blend that has at least 25% fat, especially if you're cooking burgers to rare or medium rare. After all, fat is flavor

One of the most common mistakes made when cooking burgers (and I'm definitely guilty of this!) is overworking the patty. Think of it like bread dough, in a way. While it may be satisfying to really get your hands dirty and punch into the ground meat mixture, this can dry out the burger.

To that end, try to avoid those pre-formed patties at the supermarket. Instead, form your own patties at home — making sure to adequately season with salt, pepper and a little garlic powder if you're feeling spicy. Then place them on a parchment-covered baking sheet in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook. 

Putting chilled meat directly on a flaming grill or hot skillet and then quickly pressing down with a spatula allows the patties to get a good sear while also locking in moisture. 

Invest in a few simple tools 

Instead of grilling the burgers directly on grates, most restaurants use a flat-top griddle because they're great for batch-cooking and maintaining a consistent temperature. You can mimic this at home by using a flat-bottomed, heavy cast-iron skillet and heating it either over the grill or stove.

Additionally, a good, metal spatula really does do wonders. Instead of the flat plastic or silicone varieties that you may use to peel hot cookies off a baking sheet, get something with a sharp metal edge. This aids in flipping the patties without losing the good caramelized bits that you achieved while searing them. 

Melt your cheese the right way 

Another bonus of using a cast-iron skillet to make burgers is that it can actually help you melt your cheese the right way. You may be wondering how many ways there are to melt cheese, but think about what happens when you place a cold slice of cheese on a mostly-grilled burger. It never quite achieves that creamy, melty consistency.

Instead, once your burger is almost fully cooked, put your cheese on top, add a splash of water to the skillet and cover it with a lid. The steam from the water hitting the hot pan gets captured under the lid and quickly melts the cheese. 

Toast those buns 

It's a simple tip, but it makes a big difference. Add a quick spread of butter, non-dairy butter or a little oil to your burger buns, then toast them in the same skillet where you made your burgers. Once they're golden-brown and just a little crispy, they're ready to be pulled off the heat. 

When it comes to toppings, balance is key 

You've got a delicious patty, perfectly melted cheese and a toasty bun. Now, it's time to add some toppings. When I make burgers at home, I like to keep it pretty simple: sliced tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce, a couple of slices of pickle, white onion and homemade burger sauce. Whatever you do, keep the idea of balance in mind. 

You may want something cooling and acidic to stand up to the fattiness of the cheese and burger, such as sliced avocado or a little giardiniera. Or you may want to play up the caramelized notes of the beef by augmenting your burger with smoky barbecue sauce or brown-sugar bacon. Take note of the topping combinations from your favorite restaurant burgers and use them as a template for experimenting at home. 

More of our other favorite summer dishes: 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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