When the weather turns warm, I find myself craving the smell and taste of a great homemade burger off the grill.
So what makes a great burger? There are a few simple rules. But if you remember just one of them, it should be that less really is more. Which is to say, the less you add to your ground beef, the less you handle the meat when mixing it, and the less you flip it while grilling, the better burger you get in the end.
The foundation of my backyard burger is a 50-50 combination of sirloin and chuck. I love mixing the leaner and cleaner ground sirloin with the rich beefiness of ground chuck. A patty that is 100 percent sirloin is too lean, and 100 percent chuck is too fatty.
If I am close to a good butcher, I also love to make a custom grind. You can ask the butcher to grind the odd pieces of brisket, short rib, skirt and hanger steak, and add it to a lean and clean base of sirloin for a top notch burger. The key is a mix of lean and fatty meat, freshly ground.
Beyond the meat itself, you don't want to add too many other ingredients, particularly wet ones. You don't want to compete with the flavor of the beef or leave it too watery. I limit myself to a sprinkle of salt and pepper, plus just a bit of dry mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The last two amp the savory flavors of the burger without competing with it.
Once the meat is seasoned, I lightly mix everything together and divide it into equal portions. I generally use 2 pounds of meat to make six burgers. This step can be done up to a day in advance. If prepping in ahead, refrigerate the patties, and make sure they are well covered to minimize the oxidation (discoloration) of the meat.
Before the burgers go on the grill, be sure to press your thumb into the center of each patty, pushing it halfway down. This is the real secret to a perfect backyard burger. This is because as the meat cooks, the fibers expand and they inflate the burger, turning it into a ball. If you make the depression with your thumb, the meat expands to fill the hole, leaving the burger flat.
A hot grill also is important to getting a great burger. Be sure to heat it with all burners on high (or wait until the charcoal is covered with a gray ash), then clean the heated cooking grates with a brass-bristle brush. Reduce the heat to a medium just before placing the burgers on the grill. You should hear a satisfying sizzle when the meat hits the grates! Cover the grill and flip the burgers just once halfway through the cooking time.
The meat will initially stick to the grill grates. But as it cooks, it will naturally release itself. This is true of many foods and all protein, whether you are grilling or sauteing it. This is why it is so important not to flip the burgers more than once, as well as why so many burgers end up falling apart when they are flipped too early. And it should also go without saying that pressing down on the burgers with a spatula is a no-no, too!
• Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."