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Cyndi Allison - Grill Girl

Grilled Hamburgers - Trouble Shooting Guide

grilled burgers
Grilling Hamburgers

Having problems with your grilled hamburgers? Well, you are not alone. I’ve had several questions from readers about difficulties they’ve had with making barbecue burgers. Here are some of the questions and my suggestions or remedies to burger bungles.

Why do my grilled burgers fall apart?

There can be several things that make hamburger meat fall apart on the grill (or even while you’re trying to get them on there).

The most common reason is that you’ve purchased “good” ground beef.” In other words, you’ve bought more expensive meat, and it’s lower in fat. Burgers need some fat to really hold together when grilled. Generally I go for 80/20 which means 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat.

Another meat tip is to look for meat that is not ground too fine. You know how some ground beef looks like strings. That works better than the ground beef that has been processed more.

Along those same lines, don’t play with your hamburger meat too much. You really need some air in there (which is why the looser ground beef works out better). Those burger presses make more uniform hamburgers, but they often press them too tight.

Adding ingredients to hamburgers can also be a problem. If you put sauce or liquid fillers in, then the burgers may be too runny (for lack of a better work). Likewise, big chunks of onions or peppers and so on provide gaps where the meat may slip and slide and fall apart.

If you are using frozen ground beef and don't let it thaw all the way or if you try to quick thaw the meat in the microwave, then you may have problems with your burgers falling apart. Fresh burger meat works better. If you get a good deal on burger meat, then pat the burgers out before you freeze the meat. Frozen patties work fine while making patties out of frozen beef or partially frozen beef does not work out so well.

Hand patted hamburgers do taste better than the little formed patties. Keep the above tips in mind and also check out my Best Grilled Burgers Guide.

Why do my hamburgers stick to the grill?

If the heat is too low on the grill, the meat may stick especially if the grates are not well seasoned. Spray a little Pam or Crisco can spray on the grates (before firing up). Also aim for medium heat when placing hamburgers on the grill. That helps seal the meat. You can lower the temperature after a few minutes or move the patties to a cooler part of the grill if needed but start with pretty good heat.

Another reason burgers may stick to the grill is that you’re turning them too soon or too often. It’s best to cook one side completely before turning. You will see the burger edges slowly cooking. When you see that the sides look cooked, that’s the time to turn and let the burgers cook along to the desired doneness.  

Avoid the temptation to smash the burgers with the spatula or turner. If you mash the meat down into the grates, then it’s no wonder it sticks. Mashing grilled burgers also makes them less juicy too. Don’t be a burger smasher.

Why are my grilled burgers black on the outside and bloody inside?

You cooked your hamburgers over too much heat and too fast. Although you want the heat up pretty good when you put the burgers on – to prevent sticking – you also need to allow enough time for them to cook through.

On a gas grill, turn the heat down once the burgers go on and sizzle. With charcoal, have the coals more heavy on one side – leaving a cooler side where you can move the burgers if they are cooking really fast.

Use the lid and vents on your grill. The lid holds in the heat and will help the burgers cook if you shut the lid (kind of like an oven). The vents (on charcoal grills) regulate the temperature. If the burgers are cooking too fast over charcoal, put the lid on and close (probably just partially) the vents.

Why do my grilled burgers look like big fat meatballs?

Hamburger (especially with a good fat ratio) shrinks. As the fat drips out and the meat pulls up, it may begin to look more like a tennis ball than a burger if the patties are not shaped right when you make them.

Make the hamburgers for the grill rounder and flatter than you want them to look when you’re done. Also take your thumb and mash the center a little flatter than the edges (which also helps to hold the marinade). As the meat draws up a bit, the center will come up higher and the entire burger will be even looking.  

Why do my burgers turn out smaller than the buns?

Remember that grilled hamburgers shrink and often as much as 25%. If you’re making them bun sized when the meat is raw, then you’re going to have skimpy burgers.

For standard sized small hamburger buns, I use around ¼ or up to 1/3 a pound per patted out burger. They look awfully big when I’m patting them out, but they shrink and fit just right. With the big fancy buns, go even bigger with the patty size.

Why don’t my grilled burgers have much flavor?

If you use plain hamburger meat and don’t marinate, you will not have a lot of flavor to your grilled burgers especially if you’re cooking over gas. You’ll have a basic meat flavor, because that’s all you’ve got – meat cooked over gas (which does not flavor like charcoal).

Typically I marinate my hamburgers for an hour or more before putting them on the grill. I add sprinkle seasonings or sprinkle on rub first and then use an oil based marinade. I don’t use a thick sauce (like barbecue sauce) at this point, because the sauce will cook too fast and burn before the burgers are done.

I also brush on some marinade as the burgers are grilling. This is the marinade that is in the pan or dish where I had the burgers soaking beforehand. I don’t brush that on near the end of the cooking time, because raw meat has been sitting in the marinade, and that’s not safe. But if it goes on early, then the marinade cooks too.

If I want more flavor like barbecue sauce, then I brush that on the last few minutes while I’m grilling the burgers. Sauce can also be added after the burgers are cooked, but it does taste better if it gets cooked on a bit on the grill.  


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