Sooner or later, every home cook learns how to cook a burger on their stove. Simply grease your pan with whatever cooking oil you have in your pantry, preheat it for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat, and get that burger sizzling, right?
For most of you, that oil in your pantry is probably going to be olive oil. After all, almost every recipe calls for it and it’s by far the most prevalent product of its kind on the shelves in the grocery store.
In this post, I’m going to tell you why cooking burgers with olive oil isn’t really a good idea—and which of its substitutes you should be eyeing instead.
Don’t cook burgers in olive oil. Olive oil burns and starts to taste acrid at 375°F (190°C), which is why it isn’t suitable for high-heat cooking. Use avocado oil, rice bran oil, sunflower oil, or corn oil instead.
All vegetable oils and animal fats have a smoke point. Also known as the “burning point,” this is the absolute highest temperature to which they should be heated.
If you heat oil or fat past its smoke point, it stops to glisten and shimmer—and starts to deteriorate and burn. Its chemical composition changes, causing it to emit a continuous wisp of bluish smoke and release free radicals and carcinogens harmful to your health.
For one reason or another, most celebrity chefs and cookbook authors don’t talk enough about the smoke point of cooking oils (some even completely fail to mention it). That’s probably because they haven’t done their own due diligence on the topic.
One of the most important skills you need to learn as a home cook is how to tailor your choice of oil or fat to the cooking method and heat for every recipe.
When it comes to smoke points and cooking oils, the rule of thumb is:
- Cooking oils with a low smoke point are best for dressing salads; marinating meats; adding to sauces, soups, and stews; and mixing in with doughs.
- Cooking oils with a high smoke point are best for searing, sautéing, shallow-frying, deep-frying, roasting, broiling, and grilling.
Butter and extra virgin olive oil have relatively low smoke points at, respectively, 350°F (177°C) and 375°F (190°C). If you cook with them on the stove, you shouldn’t really do so above medium heat unless you want to introduce toxicity into your food.
Avocado oil and rice bran oil have some of the highest smoke points of all supermarket cooking oils at 520°F (271°C) and 490°F (254°C). Unsurprisingly, this makes them the perfect choice for searing meat over medium-high heat in your skillet or cooking it on the outside grill.
This is why I always keep rice bran oil in my pantry for high-heat cooking; extra virgin olive oil for dressing salads and baking loaves of bread and pizzas; and butter for adding to pan sauces, gravies, and stews.
Shout-out to one of my regular readers, Amma, who got me hooked on rice bran oil in the first place. Previously, I used to use avocado oil. When you consider how hard it is to find good avocado oil—and how expensive it is in the first place—rice bran oil easily won me over.
Do You Need Any Oil to Cook Burgers?
So far, so good. We’ve established that olive oil is definitely not the best oil to grease your pan with when you’re cooking a burger. Since burgers should be cooked on medium-high heat, you will easily heat the oil past its smoke point.
At this stage, some of you may be thinking, “Burgers are fatty, Jim! Do I need to use oil in the first place?”
To put it simply, the answer depends on the kind of frying pan that you’re using.
If you’re cooking burgers in your non-stick frying pan, you won’t need any oil whatsoever as the PTFE or ceramic surface will keep the ground meat from sticking.
A seasoned cast iron or carbon steel skillet has a coating of carbonized oil (also called a “patina”), which acts as a naturally non-stick cooking surface for your food. So you can cook a burger with little-to-no oil in one.
Those of you who cook with stainless steel or copper (copper pans are typically lined with tin or stainless steel to keep the metal from reacting with your food) should consider greasing the bottom and sides of the pan with cooking oil.
I know because I cook with stainless steel, and I’ve made the mistake of not adding any oil to my pan before cooking a couple of burgers. Guess what happened… Detaching the burgers from the pan (without letting them fall apart completely) proved to be a real challenge.
For those of you who are curious about the different kinds of frying pans (and which is best for you), I recently wrote extensively on the topic in a post titled, “How to Choose Your Next Frying Pan.”
What Is the Best Way to Cook Burgers at Home?
A good burger starts with your trip to the butcher shop or grocery store. For juicy and flavorful burgers, choose ground beef that’s 70% lean, 30% fat.
If you live in the United States, beef is graded by the USDA as Prime, Choice, and Select. USDA Prime beef is the highest-quality meat with the best marbling, Choice gives you the best price/quality ratio, and Select isn’t a good choice as it tends to come out tough and dry.
Though you could buy frozen burger patties, it’s better to buy ground beef and shape the burgers by hand. As a rule of thumb, the thickness of a burger should be about ¾ inches. You don’t need to add anything to the meat; simply season it with salt and pepper before you put it in your frying pan or outside grill.
The best way to cook burgers at home is in a stainless steel, carbon steel, or cast iron frying pan with a thick and heavy bottom. Grease your pan with a high smoke point cooking oil, preheat it for 2-3 minutes over medium-high heat, and cook the patties to your desired doneness.
Assuming that you’re cooking a burger with a thickness of ¾ inches over medium-high heat, here are the approximate cooking times for different levels of doneness:
- For rare burgers, 1-2 minutes per side
- For medium-rare burgers, 2-3 minutes per side
- For medium burgers, 3-4 minutes per side
- For well-done burgers, 4-5 minutes per side
My burgers, I cook medium-rare. There’s something about the texture, aroma, and flavor of medium-rare beef that higher levels of doneness can’t give me.
Don’t cook your burgers with olive oil. Since you’re cooking at medium-high heat, you’re probably going to heat it above its smoke point.
Instead, grease your pan with a small amount of avocado oil or rice bran oil right before preheating it. Since these two cooking oils have the highest smoke points of all other oils in the supermarket, they’re also the most suitable for shallow frying.