14 mistakes everyone makes when cooking burgers

While we all enjoy a good cheese-laden New York-style pizza, a comforting chicken pot pie, and zesty pile of saucy pasta, there is nothing like a killer burger.

Nothing comforts to the core the way a thick, tender all-beef burger can. In its simplicity, this dish is about juicy meat, good cheese, perfect flavor, and balanced toppings. And while you can certainly get a good burger at a wide selection of restaurants, sometimes you just feel like staying home and making your own food. A burger isn't particularly fancy or even difficult to make, after all, but it can still go terribly wrong.

To help you steer clear of the common mistakes people often make when cooking burgers, we're sharing everything we know about achieving a burger that reaches last-meal status. These are the finer points of burger-making, and boy, do they make a difference.

Buying expensive lean meat

While filet mignon and similarly expensive cuts of meat are considered the creme de la creme when you want to enjoy a fancy steak, they aren't ideal when you're looking to make a mean burger. Leaner meat has its place, but burgers require juicier meat — in other words, you want some fat in there. While ground sirloin is a good option for lasagnas, bolognese, and shepherd's pie, ground chuck is ideal for tender, moist, juicy burger patties. You want to buy meat with roughly 15-20 percent fat to avoid dry burgers that make you sad.

You might see pre-formed burger patties at your local grocery store, but it's definitely better to purchase ground meat and make your own. It's super easy to do, and doing so lets you determine the type and amount of seasoning. And sure, you can make burgers out of beans, quinoa, salmon, vegetables, or chicken — but we're strictly discussing all-beef here.

Overdoing the seasonings

Like with any cooking endeavor you'll ever be involved with, experienced chefs will extol the virtues of excellent seasoning skills. This holds true for making burgers, however, it does not mean you should add everything and the kitchen sink to your meat mixture. While breadcrumbs, eggs, onions, garlic, and other spices are useful additions for meatloaf, they are distracting in burgers. While it may seem fancier to add more stuff to your patties, try to exercise restraint. You will be rewarded for sticking to good kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

The best way to season? Form your meat into round pucks as desired, then season generously with salt and pepper on one side. Add the patties to the grill seasoned-side down, and season the other side. Done, done, and done.

Being too rough with the meat

It's pretty common for home cooks to be pretty rough and careless with their burgers. Most tend to stir the meat mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon, then manhandle them into dense hockey pucks. For shame. Burgers may seem tough, but they need love, too!

For delicate burgers that are tender and moist, learn from your youthful mistakes. Skip the spoon! Slightly dampen your clean hands and use them to combine the meat and form the patties into moderately packed rounds. You're going to get messy, but the light touch makes a world of difference when comes to cooking up perfect burgers.

Packing your meat too tightly

Related to the last point about handling your meat with care, you want to avoid packing the meat together too tightly, as well. 

Doing so may make pretty burgers before they hit the grill, but it also results in hard, dense burgers that please no one. Instead, use your hands to lightly clump the meat until it holds together just enough to not fall apart on the grill — they'll firm up a bit as they cook together. If you're able to get through this step, we promise you tender burgers that will rock your world.

Not indenting your patties

No matter what, your burger patties will puff up in the center during cooking. If you ever grilled your own burgers, you've seen it happen — they will expand in the center and become domed, slightly spherical. This is why made-at-home burgers tend to look more like meatballs than burger patties once cooked. 

Burgers can be messy to eat anyway, but try to eat a ball of meat wedged between two pieces of bread and see how much of a mess you make. To avoid personally humiliating dining experiences, use your thumb to make a slight indent in the center of each burger patty before placing it on the grill. Doing so will give them room to expand without rising too much in the middle. Magic.

Using the wrong buns

For the love of burgers, please choose burger buns wisely when you're in the grocery store staring at a gazillion different varieties and brands. Sure, it makes you feel superficially good about your life choices when you opt for whole wheat or multigrain bread products, but save those for morning toast. Burger night is not the time to get sanctimonious about your bread.

Go for soft buns with or without sesame seeds. While you're contemplating which buns to buy, be sure to consider getting buns roughly the size of the burger patties you plan to cook. The average amount of meat per burger falls somewhere between six and eight ounces. A mouthful of bread with no meat is basically the pits.

Not paying attention during cooking

We all love the kind of set-it-and-forget-about-it cooking that allows us to finish reading a chapter of a good book while dinner is making itself. Unfortunately, burgers don't really allow for this — not entirely anyway. While you don't need to move them around and flip them a dozen times during cooking, you do want to keep an eye on them.

Be sure to rotate the patties once before flipping and once after. Doing so ensures that the hot spots on the grill or stove hit all parts of the burgers. If you're unsure if they have finished cooking, don't be shy about inserting a meat thermometer to check. Keep in mind that burgers cooked to medium doneness will most likely require 4-5 minutes on each side.

Pressing down on your patties with a spatula

While you may instinctively want to press your burger patties down onto the grill or pan with a spatula (you've seen it done on TV, we know!), don't do this. If the platonic ideal for burgers is juiciness, imagine how much of that you're losing when you literally wring out the moisture with your spatula. Sad, right? If the burgers aren't flat enough for you, you may have forgotten to indent the middle, or you might just need to make your patties a little thinner next time.

Adding the cheese too early

Melty cheese on your burger? Good. Melty cheese all over the grill grate or pan? Bad. 

Adding cheese to your burger patties is a recipe for deliciousness, but adding it prematurely means it will melt too much before the patties are actually finished cooking. To avoid the mess, you'll want to cook your burgers on one side, then flip them and continue cooking. Add the cheese after flipping, and only when you are about 2 minutes away from finishing. Doing so ensures there's still cheese on your burger when you're ready to eat — and that it's melted just perfectly.

Not seasoning the patties at the right time

Does it really make a difference when you season your burger patties? The answer is a resounding yes! Since salt naturally pulls moisture from food, adding it to your burgers too early — whether you do it when forming the patties or right afterward — dries them out. Moreover, since salt breaks down proteins, premature seasoning greatly affects the textural integrity of your patties, rendering gummier meat strands that result in denser burgers. Besides, adding the salt to the meat before you form them only means you have to handle it more in order to make sure the seasoning is incorporated. Since overhandling burgers make them tough, you definitely want to avoid doing this.

The optimal time to season your patties is right before you're ready to cook them on the grill or in the pan. That means you should wait until the grill or pan heats up to the appropriate temp before seasoning, then cook the burgers immediately. Doing so results in flavorful and tender meat.

Not cooking the burgers on high enough heat

Let things get really hot. It's more exciting that way! No, but seriously, burgers require a beautifully browned exterior in order to seal in the juicy flavors. In order to get that desirable crust, you need to push aside some of your anxiety about using super high heat. While you don't want the burgers to burn and you should adjust the heat accordingly, you also want to embrace the hotness of the grill or pan. Heat is your pal when it comes to achieving an envy-inducing sear — and that's exactly what you want on the outside of your perfect burger.

Cutting into the patties to check for doneness

If you cut into your patties to check for doneness, you can forget about that perfect Insta shot. Superficial reasons aside, hacking through the burgers also means you're allowing all the delicious meat juices to run loose. Ahhhh! Unless you want burgers that are beyond dry, please don't do this. Keep all those juices in order to enjoy moist burgers that make you proud.

If you really can't tell when your burgers have finished cooking, make and eat them every night until you get it down pat. To get to glorious medium rare, you could also press the meat with your fingertips to see if it springs back. If you want it well done, there's no need to cut. Simply keep on cooking.

Cooking the patties on a dirty grill — yuck!

There are few things in life sadder than bits of good burger meat stuck to a grill. If this keeps happening to you, it's time to reevaluate your life choices. Okay, maybe it's not that dire, but you should consider cleaning your grill a little more often.

Cleaning the grill is a task akin to cleaning the oven or worse, the bathroom. It seems like a big job — daunting and no fun at all. That said, if you want your burger patties to come off the grates cleanly, you must get rid of all the gunk that tends to build up on those grates over time. Luckily, Martha Stewart has some tips to help you do it.

Going overboard with the add-ins

You know the old adage about removing one accessory before leaving the house because less is more, yadda yadda yadda? Well, you should apply this rule to dressing your burgers, too. Of course, you want to add your personal touch by throwing in lots of extras, but please do so with some degree of restraint. (Not like these crazy burgers.)

While you want the burgers to have character, adding a dozen garnishes on top of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles necessarily means you'll be unable to hold your burger in two hands without making a huge mess. You want a balance of flavors and textures and a little bit of everything in each bite, while avoiding the ugly carnage of burger parts all over your plate.

Ready to make the burger of your dreams?