When you walk into a newsstand and find yourself surrounded by the big, juicy burgers gracing the covers of practically every food magazine, you know Memorial Day and Father’s Day are right around the corner. Burgers are so insanely popular these days that they could be topping Mom and apple pie as iconic symbols of America.
But talking beef also brings up some unsavory topics, such as harmful pathogens that may be lurking in the meat. Too many magazines, Web sites, and books gloss over the topic. OK, you may be tired of scare stories concerning the foods you love, but I don’t know anyone who relishes a night spent hugging the toilet bowl, or even worse, a hospital bed. So here are the eight essential tips you need to know before you fire up your grill.
1. USE AN INSTANT–READ THERMOMETER
The only way to tell if your burger has reached a safe temperature is to use an instant–read thermometer. Go for the digital ones: They are best at getting readings in burgers and small pieces of meat, because the sensors are in the bottom half inch of the stems. (Avoid the dial style—their sensors are about two inches up the stem.) When shopping, look for a thermometer that can be recalibrated. By the way, an instant–read thermometer makes a great Father’s Day gift. When Dad’s special day rolls around next month, treat him to the gift that keeps on giving throughout the year.
2. THE MAGIC NUMBER IS 160°F
That’s the internal temperature your burgers need to reach in order to be safe to eat. The days of the medium–rare hamburger have been over since the 1993 discovery of a super–dangerous strain of E. coli, 0157:H7, which sickened many and killed four after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants. E. coli isn’t the only nasty pathogen; there are plenty of others, and likely new ones we don’t yet know about. If you are serving anyone who is or might be pregnant, someone with a compromised immune system, or the elderly, it’s essential you cook your burgers properly—that means until the meat registers 160°F on an instant–read thermometer inserted horizontally so the tip reaches the middle of the patty. No ifs, ands, or buts.
3. CUT AND PEEK WON’T CUT IT WITH BURGERS
The USDA considers a 160°F beef burger to be cooked to “medium.” But what does medium look like in a burger? Logically, medium is the halfway point between raw and well done, and pink is halfway between the red of raw meat and the brown of cooked–through, so why wouldn’t you expect a medium burger to be pink in the middle? At 160°F, however, you might find a few with perfect pink centers, but you’re much more likely to find them brown all the way through.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting: According to USDA research, one in every four burgers turns brown before it reaches 160°F. The upshot is, you can’t judge burger doneness by its color. Again, you need a thermometer.
4. KEEP THAT THERMOMETER CLEAN
Picture this: You’ve just tested your burger and it isn’t at 160°F yet. Don’t stick that same thermometer into your burger a few minutes later without cleaning it first; otherwise, you’re just dragging uncooked juices back into the burger. I use an alcohol swab to wipe clean my thermometer.
5. TONGS: TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE
Cross–contamination is something to watch out for with tongs, as well. When you first place your burgers on the grill, your tongs are in contact with raw meat. Once the outside is pretty well cooked, though, make sure you clean your tongs before getting near those burgers again. Better yet, invest in two pairs and color–code them so that you know which set to use when.
The same is true of platters. Don’t put your cooked burger on the same tray you used to bring the raw ones out to the grill. Make a habit of carrying out two trays: one for the raw meat and another for the finished product. That way, when the pressure is on and the burgers are ready to come off the grill, you’ve got a clean place to land them, right at your fingertips.
6. KNOW WHEN TO MOP AND WHEN TO STOP
If you want to flavor your burger with a barbecue sauce or other topping that’s on the sweet side, wait until the last few minutes of cooking before mopping it on. Why? If you put it on in the beginning, the sugar in the sauce will burn before the meat is cooked through. If you plan on serving extra sauce on the table, keep it separate from the mop sauce, in its own bowl, with its own, clean spoon for serving.
If, however, you plan on basting your burger from the very beginning with a sauce or some spare marinade, stop basting three to four minutes before the hamburger is done and make sure you turn the burger over at least once or twice more before removing the meat from the grill. That way, you’ll destroy any bacteria that may have gotten onto your mop brush or into your sauce or marinade when the burger was raw.
7. IF STEAKS CAN BE COOKED MEDIUM–RARE, WHY CAN’T MY BURGER?
According to the Institute of Food Technologists, the bacteria on whole pieces of meat such as steaks—those that have not been cut into, mechanically tenderized, or injected with anything—are on the outside surfaces. When you grill a steak, you promptly kill the bacteria on the outside. But if you take that same raw steak and grind it for burgers, any harmful bacteria or pathogens on the exterior will be spread throughout the meat. If the grinder itself isn’t clean, that’s another source of potential trouble. That’s why you need to cook your burger to 160°F.
8. DON’T DIY
There’s a growing movement to grind your own meat for burgers. Many bloggers consider it a possible path to that medium–rare burger they crave. The thinking is: If they buy the meat from a rancher or farmer they trust and they know the small–scale processor, do–it–yourselfers feel the risks are reduced to a reasonable level. There are too many variables for the USDA to give home grinding its blessing, however. “E. coli can be anywhere,” counsels Diane Van, manager of the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. It’s up to you to figure out what risks you are willing to take.
If you have a beef with my take on burgers, let me know in the comments section below.
Kemp Minifie was wrapped up in all aspects of food at Gourmet magazine for 32 years, and is now part of the Gourmet Live team. For more tried and tested tips and tricks, check out her weekly Kemp’s Kitchen column.