One of the most heated debates in the world of burgers is about the level of doneness the patties should be cooked to.
There are convincing arguments on both sides. In this post, I’m going to take an honest and non-biased look at each—and help you decide to what level of doneness to cook your burgers.
Some eaters like their burgers well-done. So they take their time to cook them through on the outside grill, stove, or in the oven. Others find well-done burgers a little too dry for their taste, so they make theirs rare or medium.
So, what’s the long story short? Are burgers cooked medium safe to eat?
Ground meat can contain bacteria known to cause food-borne illness, which is why the USDA recommends cooking burgers well done; to an internal temperature of at least 160°F (71°C). If you like them rare, medium, or anything in between, you can reduce the risk by buying high-quality meat from a butcher shop or grinding it yourself.
The important thing is not to do this with supermarket ground meat. In the following few paragraphs, I’m going to tell you why. I’ll also share some of my best tips for telling when a burger patty is done.
So keep on reading if I got you curious.
Why the Doneness of Your Burger Matters
Raw beef is considered to be unsafe to eat. It can contain harmful bacteria known to cause food-borne illnesses, such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Shigella, and Staphylococcus aureus.
Generally speaking, the risk is higher with supermarket-bought burger patties than with high-quality ground beef you’ve bought from the local butcher’s or a cut you’ve ground yourself.
Meat factories grind parts from many cows simultaneously, increasing the risk of cross-contamination for every batch. In comparison, you and your friendly neighborhood butcher have much more control over the inputs and outputs.
Happily, these bacteria get killed at high enough temperatures, which is why we consume cooked meat in the first place.
When a raw burger comes into contact with a hot grill, fry pan, or baking sheet, the meat slowly starts to cook from the outside in. It takes the heat time to enter and spread inside the patty until it comes out fully cooked.
The challenge that most home cooks have is in telling when the burger is done.
Telling When a Burger Is Done
Some food bloggers and YouTube cooks will advise you to look at the color of the meat. Don’t listen; a beef patty can turn brown before reaching an internal temperature that’s considered safe for human consumption.
Food experts agree that ground meat’s internal temperature—not its color—is the most reliable indicator of both its safety and level of doneness.
“Hamburgers should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria that may be present,” writes Diane Van, Food Safety Education Staff Deputy Director at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“Use a food thermometer to be sure they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 160°F (71°C). If you’re cooking turkey burgers, they should be cooked to 165°F (74°C),” she adds.
Now that you know the correct temperature for cooking ground beef, here are two ways to tell when your burger is done. One is entirely accurate; the other is more of an estimate. So take up whichever you prefer.
Method no. 1. Use a Meat Thermometer
The fail-safe way to tell if your burger is done is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Insert the needle into the center of the patty and look for the correct internal temperature based on your desired doneness.
As a general rule of thumb:
- A rare burger has an internal temperature of 125°F (52°C);
- A medium-rare burger has an internal temperature of 135°F (57°C);
- A medium burger has an internal temperature of 140°F (60°C);
- A medium-well burger has an internal temperature of 155°F (68°C);
- A well-done burger has an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C).
As you can see, the USDA recommends cooking burgers well-done. However, anyone who’s eaten at a fancy burger joint knows that that’s not necessarily how some of the best burgers are prepared.
So if you like your burger anything but well-done, the secret to making it safe for consumption is in grinding the meat yourself or buying high-quality ground meat from a trusted butcher. Any of the two options is good, as long as you remember not to do this with supermarket beef.
Method no. 2. Observe the Color of the Juices
It goes without saying that this method is significantly less reliable than a meat thermometer. At the same time, I know that not all of you will have one at home—and some of you won’t even think about buying one.
Here’s a trick that I learned from one of my friends, a sous chef at a French restaurant who happens to make some of the most amazing burgers I’ve ever had.
Poke the burger lightly with your index finger and look at the color of the juices that comes out:
- If the juices are bloody, the meat is still pink on the inside, which means it’s anywhere from rare to medium;
- If the juices are clear, the meat is cooked through on the inside, which means it’s anywhere from medium-done to well-done;
- If no juices come out, you’ve overcooked the burger. The meat will be dry and tough and, unfortunately, it can’t be salvaged.
If your fingers are too sensitive to the heat of the burger, you can just as well press down on it with a fork or spoon. You could also use a spatula—but careful not to make a smash burger.
No, you shouldn’t cook your burgers to medium. And yes, you can still do that, as long as you source high-quality meat from a butcher shop or grind it from a good cut of beef yourself.
I too like my burger a tad juicier than well-done. Which is why I typically grill or pan-fry it to medium-rare and, occasionally, medium. Is it safe? From what I can tell, I’m still around.
How about you? Did reading this article in any way change your mind? Share your thoughts with the rest of its readers and me by leaving a comment in the form below.