Grilling Burgers This Weekend? Up Your Game With These Easy Tips from Top Chef Alums

Grilling Burgers This Weekend? Up Your Game With These Easy Tips from Top Chef Alums

Sugar? Yes, sugar.

By Paul Zahn

Making a decent burger is easy, but creating a burger that will get your guests talking—long after the party is over—takes extra attention to detail. But you can pull it off, no sweat. Check out these simple tips from Top Chef alums and burger luminaries, and get ready to seriously up your burger game this weekend. 

1. Think Fat.

A crucial tip for juicy, delicious burgers: Don’t skimp on the fat. Top Chef Season 13 contestant Frances Tariga-Weshnak recommends “always checking the marbling" in your chopped meat blend. Her suggested blend is “70% lean and 30% fat.” Season 13 cheftestant Stephen Hopcraft opts for "Wagyu beef, which has a very high fat percentage, around 20-25%.” If you don’t have Wagyu beef, don’t fret. Stephen recommends “using a ground beef with an 80/20 meat to fat ratio for the juiciest burger.” Hopcraft knows what he’s talking about: His famous Lil BRGS at STK Las Vegas are to die for; below, he gives us his recipe for sliders inspired by the ones he serves at STK.

Chef Paul Denamiel, who won the 2013 Food & Wine Burger Bash in New York City, suggests engineering the perfect burger by using different cuts of beef, for instance by "combining a highly flavored cut of meat like skirt steak and a high fat content cut like short rib.” His French Onion Burger, a blend of brisket, chuck beef and short rib, is a favorite at the NYC restaurant Le Rivage.

2. Don't Sleep on the Sugar.

Paul Denamiel marinates his burger with  “dried out brown sugar (just like for a crème brulee) along with kosher salt and just a touch of clarified butter.” Why use sugar? “It acts like an accelerant that seals in all the juices and creates a beautiful crust that's just so lovely to bite into,” he says. Other ingredients provide flavor and texture bonuses too. Top Chef Season 13's Chad White likes to “lightly rub a thin layer of olive oil on my meat before seasoning. This helps to keep the meat from sticking to the grill.” He also creates a meat rub that includes an unlikely ingredient, orange peel. He mixes “toasted sesame oil, sea salt and togarashi, a Japanese spice mixture of chilies, black sesame and dried orange peel.” Frances Tariga-Weshnak takes it a step further right before placing her seasoned burger on the grill. She says, “I always tie it with herbs underneath it. This gives your meat a smoky flavor and prevents the burger from burning.” 

3. Let the Chips Fall.

If you use only charcoals on your grill, you're missing out on the smoky flavor notes that come from using wood chips. Stephen Hopcraft recommends “soaking a few handfuls of wood chips in cold water for around 30 minutes.” Then just toss them on your coals and wait for them to smoke before you start grilling. This will definitely “enhance your burger with a smoky flavor.” What kind of wood should you use? "Different wood chips will give you different flavors; I like hickory wood for a full, classic flavoring,” says Stephen. Other options to try: cherry wood, apple wood or peach wood.

Labor Day Lil’ BRGs

By STK Las Vegas Chef Stephen Hopcraft

2 mini hamburger rolls

2 slider patties, 2oz each (see recipe below)

2 slices cheddar

1 oz burger sauce (see recipe below)

2 slices roma tomatoes

2 slices butter pickles

1 ramekin of sliced pickles and cornichons

Burger Patties

4 oz. ground beef

1.3 oz Certified Angus Beef

Clean and cube the beef. Mix all ingredients together, then grind in a food processor or with a medium grinder plate ¼” two times. Portion out to approximately 2.5 oz patties.

Burger Sauce

1 qt mayo

8 oz ketchup

1 cup chives, finely chopped

1 cup pickles, finely chopped

4 oz truffle oil

6 oz pickling liquid (vinegar, water and sugar; use liquid from a pickle jar or customize blend to your liking)

½ cup minced shallots

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Portion and refrigerate.

To make the sliders: 

Heat the skillet/grill. Place a skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat. While the pan is warming, prepare the burgers. Use your hands to gently flatten each portion into a burger patty, about 2 ounces each. Tip: Do not compact or overwork the meat. 

Sear the burgers for 2 minutes on each side. Cook another 2-3 minutes for medium-rare burgers, 3-4 minutes for medium, or 5-6 minutes for well-done.  Do not flatten the patties while they're cooking. In the last minute of cooking, lay a slice of cheese on top of each burger and arrange the buns over high heat to toast. Build toppings on burger and add sauce.

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