Why are my hamburgers falling apart on the grill?
May 3, 2005 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Why are my hamburgers falling apart on the grill? I usually use ground sirloin and add an egg and some breadcrumbs to a pound of meat, along with other assorted liquids of the day, like BBQ sauce, etc.

I have stopped putting in things like coarse chopped onion which really causes them to breakup, but that has only helped a bit.
posted by SNACKeR to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ground sirloin may be too lean. Try something fattier.
Also, swap out the egg and crumbs and use a bit of olive oil.
And resist the temptation to turn them too often.
posted by sad_otter at 10:07 AM on May 3, 2005

I'll second the "not enough fat" theory. We never use anything except 80% lean meat in our burgers, no fillers, and they don't fall apart.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:17 AM on May 3, 2005

Agreed about the fat -- 85% lean is the absolute maximum you'll want for making hamburgers (I usually use 80%). Too little fat and your burgers will be dry, flavorless, and fall apart. You definitely do *not* need egg or breadcrumbs to make hamburgers. Those are for making meatloaf.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:18 AM on May 3, 2005

I use "regular" (which is to say, not lean) ground beef from my butcher, and no binders (egg, breadcrumbs), just some pepper, the tiniest pinch of salt and maybe some soy (for savour), and I never have problems.

P.S. It's probably paranoid, but I will only buy/use/eat ground beef from a butcher that grinds it on the premises. If they do that, you know it contains meat from maybe 4 or 5 different carcasses. If you get it pre-packaged from a factory slaughterhouse from the supermarket, it could contain meat from literally thousands of different carcasses, and the chances of getting a bit of some CJDerefic spinal chord or something go up a lot.
posted by Capn at 10:22 AM on May 3, 2005

also try chilling the burgers before you grill them
posted by mmm at 10:22 AM on May 3, 2005

Yeah, the butcher once made fun of me for getting lean meat for burgers. He was right: go for the fattier stuff and it will hold together much better.
posted by fionab at 10:24 AM on May 3, 2005

I use oats instead of breadcrumbs and avoid adding too much saucy stuff -- bbq sauce, except on top once they're on the grill. Egg and pepper and salt and oats. If I try adding fresh onions (rather than dried), the burgers tend to fall apart.

Those are for making meatloaf.

Or delicious burgers that retain all the fat. Delicious, forbidden fat...
posted by Gucky at 10:24 AM on May 3, 2005

For god's sake don't chill the burgers first, unless you prefer than to be charred on the outside and cold and raw on the inside...

And I would like to second (third?) the notion that ground sirloin is too lean for burgers. Go to a good butcher, get him (or her) to cut you a piece of chuck roast of the appropriate weight, and then have him (or her) grind it.

It will be a little more expensive than supermarket ground chuck, but still probably cheaper than ground sirloin. And you will thank yourself.

Also, please, for the love of all that is good food, don't put egg or breadcrumbs in a hamburger. Some sauteed onions or shallots or garlic? Yes, if you like that sort of thing. But egg and breadcrumbs? As unlceozzy points out, if you add those, you're making grilled meatloaf patties, NOT hamburgers...
posted by dersins at 10:30 AM on May 3, 2005

And resist the temptation to turn them too often.

Seconded. I've found that cooking them almost completely on one side, then flipping for a last-minute other-side sear, is the best method.
posted by scratch at 10:41 AM on May 3, 2005

Are you adding the BBQ sauce to the ground meat? That probably isn't helping. The bread crumbs are a definite no-no, and you can also skip the egg.

If you want to find out what a plain burger prepared correctly can taste like, try this recipe from Alton Brown. It can be modified for the grill if you like (that is how I do mine). Remember, don't flip often, and never push the burger down with the spatula.
posted by bh at 10:43 AM on May 3, 2005

Two words: Worcestershire Sauce. I'm surprised no one has mentioned it yet!

You can use lean beef, but it will be harder than the fatty beef to keep together. Personally, i don't measure anything, but i splash in the worcestershire, add some garlic (powder, if you must), cumin and yes, chopped onions. (but make sure they're diced very small)

Its all personal taste, but my last piece of advice would be don't make the ratio of additives to beef too high. Its a burger, you know? Use mostly meat.
posted by indiebass at 10:49 AM on May 3, 2005

Not mentioned yet is how your patties are formed. If you are using one of those cookie-cutter type presses, stop it. They just don't do the job. (And they make the patty too small!) Instead, take a ball of cool (not cold!) ground beef and knead it for a minute or so. This intertwines things better. Press flat, then, with one hand on top use a couple of fingers to push in and firm up the edge of the pattie. Firming the edge is the defence against cracked patties. Do this with an 85% mix and don't turn it until you see juice on top and you'll be set.
posted by kc0dxh at 10:56 AM on May 3, 2005

Worcestershire Sauce and refrigeration are important in my opinion, but there are a few other factors I think need to be considered.

Temp. You want the grill to be at a medium temp when you grill. I prefer 375 or so, or to be less precise, when the charcoal starts to break apart. Sure it takes longer to cook this way, but you'll be sure to get a more even job done. Resist the quick fix, high heat version as all it does is burn the outside and leave the inside dangerously cool.

Time. This is a tricky thing, you can leave them on too long and end up with dried hockey pucks, or you can take them off too soon and end up with a bloody mess.

I prefer 90% lean (some fat still) ground beef, use worcestershire sauce, keep the patty under 1/2 inch thick, try to use a patty press (or some other method of smushing the meat a bit as it will help hold the strands together), cook at around 375 for 15 - 30 minutes (depending on how done you like 'em), flipping only twice, once about halfway through and the second time with about a minute or two to go (this is the point where you add the cheese).

On Preview: kc0dxh, the kneading is important, but I've found that a proper press works well with your method. The reason I use them is to get a consistent diameter and width.
posted by Numenorian at 11:06 AM on May 3, 2005

Wow - great feedback here. Sounds like any change I make to my method is gonna help, 'cause I am doing pretty much everything everything wrong, lol.
posted by SNACKeR at 11:18 AM on May 3, 2005

I see all the references to "just use the fattier stuff", but what about those who perfer less fat? Is there no alternative? I personally use ground turkey sometimes, but it is as crumbly as the lean beef.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:21 AM on May 3, 2005

I wonder if this helps. I think of a hamburger as a kind of sausage, but without a casing (e.g. frankfurter, etc). I make sausages at home. I used to buy into the "lean = healthy" argument, until I got tired of making hockey pucks.

I use extenders: egg, matzo meal (only reason we have it), tabasco, onion, s&p, etc. But sparingly. And I fully agree that fat is the key here. Soft, marbled fat, not hard suet. A lot of it cooks out anyway (thus the flames).

If you don't grind your own, I agree making the burgers from "ground on premises" meat. Buy a cut, ask them to grind it for you. Many supermarkets are already responding with premium grades of ground beef, but there's no substitute (as previously mentioned) for selecting the cut yourself.

Jamie Oliver's Botham burger, (Return of the Naked Chef) is a pretty good burger (and finish). Beet(root) on a hamburger is an undiscovered pleasure.
posted by sagwalla at 11:24 AM on May 3, 2005

My method follows Numenorian, especially the Worcestershire Sauce, to a T except I don't use a press because I like to make the patties different diameters for different people. I also will had a bit of pressed garlic to the mix.

A meat grinder is pretty cheap and will allow you to turn roast into hamburger when ever you want. We use a hand grinder when we are camping. A frozen steak will keep for a couple days in a cooler. Once it has thawed out you can run it through the grinder for hamburger that is safer than hamburger than has been thawing over a weekend.
posted by Mitheral at 11:27 AM on May 3, 2005

what about those who perfer less fat? Is there no alternative?

I don't mean this to sound snarky, but if you want less fat, you should probably not be eating a hamburger. Hamburgers are greasy and bloody and drippy and decadent. If you want less fat, have a chicken breast, which is also delicious on bread.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:32 AM on May 3, 2005

Regarding the shape of the burger, Cook's Illustrated did one of their exhaustive studies on the best shape for cooking a burger a little while ago, and they found that something akin to a red blood cell worked best--not too exaggerated, but a little thinner in the middle than it is on the edges.

I've tried that approach myself, and it works pretty well. It helps prevent the "baseball on a bun" problem, and the middle also cooks through a bit consistently with the rest of the burger. Especially for folks who like a truly "medium" burger, cooked evenly throughout, it's a good way to go. (Me, I like mine crispy on the outside, and pink in the middle, so I tend to leave it a bit thicker.)

Finally, definitely use your fingers to firm up and shape the edges. That helps a lot.
posted by LairBob at 11:41 AM on May 3, 2005

See also...
posted by sad_otter at 11:53 AM on May 3, 2005

Are you starting with frozen meat? Previously frozen ground beef will never form a proper patty. It must be fresh when the burgers are formed.

Try to handle the meat as little as possible. Obviously, it's been traumatized by going through the grinder, but it still has some structure left. The more you knead it up, the more you break that down, and the more likely it is to just crumble to bits on the grill as the fat holding it together drips out.

Forget eggs and other binding materials and just molest not your burger.

Form patties as gently as possible from fresh ground beef. Pat extra ingredients onto the outside. Place it on the grill and leave it alone. Turn ONCE. Do not press on it. It's done when the rising juices are clear.

Happy grilling.
posted by bradhill at 12:20 PM on May 3, 2005

Lots of the fat drips out during cooking anyway, so if you start with super lean meat, it just ends up dry and crumbly. If you start with it slightly higher, it gives you some room to cook and draw out the juices. But yeah, if you don't want fat, don't eat a cheeseburger...mmm.... cheeseburger!
posted by fionab at 12:46 PM on May 3, 2005

Don't handle the meat too much. This really makes a difference.
Also, don't add too much stuff. My mom always uses lean (NOT extra-lean) and adds an egg, which you should only do if you're using a leaner cut to begin with, and occasionally some dry onion soup mix for that extra onion flavour, but this is hardly necessary.

However, another option is ground pork, which makes a delicious burger and holds together really well, because it is fairly fatty and of a different texture than beef. (It also tastes totally different; you get this sort of nice crispiness on the outside.)
Secret: You can add a little chopped (very finely) red pepper and a teeny bit of goat cheese (seriously) to the meat before you form the patties and you will seriously be the happiest eater of meat on bread in the world. The goat cheese won't taste especially cheesy, as you should use that much. It will just kind of cook in with the pork and create this delicious juicy meat-thing. A friend and I used to make these and eat two huge burgers each in one sitting.
posted by SoftRain at 1:28 PM on May 3, 2005

Next time you make burgers, try just adding some salt to the meat. Nothing else. It's really all you need and it makes a huge difference.
posted by stavrogin at 1:32 PM on May 3, 2005

Ditto stavrogin.

Certainly don't add any "liquids of the day!" That would be your problem. Egg is unnecessary. I know there's a lot of resistance here to using lean meat for hamburgers, but I like to use sirloin for burgers. Even though I love juicy, fatty meat, I like a hamburger that's nice and crispy-charred on the outside, while still almost raw in the middle, and has a lot of beefy flavor. Sirloin does this for me. That crispy-char on the outside is hard to accomplish with a fatty beef.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:42 PM on May 3, 2005

Julia Child has a recipe for "Biftek Haché Lyonnaise" where you add in diced, sauteed onions, I think some butter, and season with thyme. Quite tasty, though it's more for skillet cooking because then you make a yummy wine sauce from the pan drippings, along with some shallots and parsley.
posted by dnash at 2:08 PM on May 3, 2005

I see all the references to "just use the fattier stuff", but what about those who perfer less fat? Is there no alternative?

Sure. The alternative is, your burger falls apart on the grill.
posted by kindall at 2:34 PM on May 3, 2005

Here's my post in the original thread.

My experience tells me that cool patties stay together better, sorry to contradict you dersins. The key is cool, not cold. In addition, it's important that the meat be cool when you form the patties -- and don't handle them too much or the fat will start to melt and you'll lose flavor and cohesion.

If you want a leaner burger, it's not impossible -- I'm not against additives like bread crumbs or eggs, just don't add too much, or, as has been said, you're making meatloaf.
posted by o2b at 2:50 PM on May 3, 2005

For those who asked for a leaner burger: Grill-master Bobby Flay makes an excellent tuna burger. In this case he recommends having the meat be colder after you shape the patties: "Refrigerate for 30 minutes; the burgers must be very cold to hold their shape when cooking."
posted by fourstar at 4:19 PM on May 3, 2005

Just to add a little scientifically-collected data into the mix, I just made burgers the same way, but substituting lean ground beef for ground sirloin. The difference was night and day. You could play hacky-sack with these burgers. So I am leaning towards the oil school at this point. Eggs, breadcrumbs, and liquid did not seem to have negative effects. Except, perhaps on flavour :)
posted by SNACKeR at 4:32 PM on May 3, 2005

All the Bifteck Haché from Mastering the Art of French Cooking have that same base of sauteéd shallot, salt, pepper, thyme, butter and egg. Trust in Julia! Seriously, it's the best hamburger I've ever had.

We were just talking about how to combine the awesomeness that is that burger and sauce with the excellent flavor that grilling imparts -- we're going to try par-cooking them in the skillet to seal in the juices (the burgers are lightly dusted in flour to help create a nice, juice-retaining crust) and render a sauce base, then finishing the meat later on the grill.
posted by mimi at 4:48 PM on May 3, 2005

To reiterate what others have said, and my post on the other thread, salt is required for the minced meat particles to gel together. This is why kindall is wrong. You can have very lean mixes indeed, provided you have added salt and worked it in.

Egg and liquid are only required if you are going to extend your mix with bread crumbs or other dry starchy additives. They're not helping you if you have an otherwise pure meat mix.

Personally I've often noticed that too low a heat can cause problems too. You want the outside to form a cooked layer fairly fast, then it will hold the inside together.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:26 PM on May 3, 2005

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