Fourth of July. Memorial Day. Labor Day. Are you craving what we’re craving? Burgers, burgers, burgers. Here’s a pro tip for tastier patties this summer.
Let’s not bury the lede here: Salt is the key to a better burger.
But when? When, when, when? Maybe you’ve read about salting huge cuts of meat in advance, letting the salt penetrate a leg of lamb or dry out the chicken’s skin. But how does that apply to ground burger meat?
Turns out there are strong opinions out there, so we looked into it, scouring the internet and calling Adam Harvey, chef and owner of A&E Supply Co. in Brooklyn, New York. Harvey is also the resident meat expert, having taken a couple years off of cooking at Manhattan restaurants like Union Square Café to work on his whole-animal butchery technique.
You’ll find a different opinion depending on who you talk to, and it’s worth keeping in mind that larger, pub-style patties are trickier to salt all the way through than their skinny diner-style patty counterparts. For Harvey, who prefers a smashed patty, the key is the timing. (He’s gearing up to compete in the Food & Wine Burger Bash this fall, so—as is true of other experts—he comes to the conversation with strong opinions.) Sure, it might be easier to make a huge batch of ground beef with salt and pepper in advance, then form the patties and pop them in the fridge. You could do that. But he would never do that.
Harvey is in the minute-to-three-minute-prior-to-grilling camp when it comes to seasoning. If you salt too early, he warns, you will draw the water out of the meat and onto its surface, making for a wet patty. In his restaurant, cooks form patties, season on both sides with salt no more than three minutes before they go on the grill, and perhaps add a tiny bit of finishing salt when they come off the grill, too. What he wouldn’t do is salt too early or too late, or toss salt onto burgers already on the flames. “When you’re salting it on the grill you’re just throwing salt and hoping it sticks!” he exclaimed.
And if for some reason your burger does look wet before you throw it on the grill, pat it dry. You’ll get a better caramelization on the crust.
We’d like to add one more note of advice here: If you must season the entire batch of meat in advance, do what pros do and make a little mini-slider, throw it into a cast-iron skillet on your stovetop, and make sure it’s seasoned sufficiently—because an under-salted burger means you won’t appreciate even the best burger meat.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.