Every burger recipe will instruct you to do roughly the same: find good meat, shape your burger, season it with salt and pepper, and cook it to your desired level of doneness.
If you’re here, then you probably agree with me that that’s easier said than done. In fact, burgers can be notoriously hard to get right. You can easily overcook and just as easily undercook them; what’s hard is getting them right.
Whether you’re about to cook burgers on the grill, stove, or in the oven, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be a hit or miss. Here are the three best ways to tell if your burger is done.
Use an Instant-Read Thermometer
Using an instant-read thermometer (also known as a “thermapen”) to check your burger’s internal temperature is the most reliable way to tell if it’s done and cooked to your desired level of doneness.
To get an accurate reading, insert the needle of your instant-read thermometer through the side of the burger patty to a depth of 2-3 inches. 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).
In general, the USDA recommends cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C), which typically yields well-done burgers.
“Hamburgers should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria that may be present,” says 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.
Even if you don’t have an instant-read thermometer in your kitchen, you should consider buying one. It’s a must-have tool for the home cook who wants to make perfectly cooked burgers, steaks, and roasts every single time. It also helps to ensure that your food is generally safe to eat, minimizing the risk of food-borne illness.
If you’re looking for my pick, consider the Alpha Grillers Instant-Read Thermometer for Grill and Cooking. It’s cheap, waterproof, accurate (its range is -58°F to 572°F with a variance of just 1 degree), and comes with a lifetime warranty. I recommended it to a couple of grill buddies, and they also loved it.
Cut One of the Burgers Halfway Lengthwise
This method works if you’re cooking multiple burgers simultaneously, and you’re willing to cut through one of them to determine if they’re generally done. It’s less accurate than an instant-read thermometer, that’s for sure, but it helps to get the job done when you don’t happen to have one.
When your burgers seem right about done, take one off the heat, carefully cut halfway lengthwise through it, and observe its doneness:
- If it’s cooked to your desired doneness, take all of the other burgers off the heat, let them rest for 2-3 minutes, then serve;
- If it’s too raw for your taste, put it back on the grill, stove, or in the oven, and keep cooking for 2-3 minutes more.
This method works only if the patties are of roughly the same thickness (through research, experimentation, and much trial and error, I’ve concluded that the best thickness for a burger is about 3/4 of an inch).
You’re cutting halfway lengthwise through one of the burgers because that’s the easiest way to get to the center of the meat, where it’s typically undercooked, without splitting it into halves. Plus, if you’ll use them to make cheeseburgers, the melted cheese should cover up the cut.
Resting the burgers for a few minutes once you take them off the heat is a step that’s more important than some of you may think. “If the meat is given a chance to rest off heat, the proteins relax, allowing some of the juices to be reabsorbed,” Cook’s Illustrated magazine points out.
Do you need to do this every time? Not necessarily.
Write down the time it took the patties to cook thoroughly. The next time you cook burgers of a similar thickness on the grill, stove, or in the oven again, use it as a guideline.
Notice the Color of the Meat’s Juices
Here’s a way to approximately tell if a burger is done, even if you don’t have a meat thermometer at hand and without cutting the meat. Keep in mind that this method is the least accurate of all.
With your index and middle fingers, press down lightly on the burger patty until a small amount of juice comes out. Notice its color:
- If it’s red, the burger is raw to rare;
- If it’s pale pink, the burger is cooked medium-rare to medium;
- If it’s clear, the burger is medium-well to well-done.
Those of you sensitive to heat can use the back of a fork instead. Remember not to press down on the meat too heavily, as you don’t want it to lose too much juice.
That red juice coming out of your burger isn’t blood. It’s myoglobin, a protein found in animals’ muscle tissue that transports oxygen through the muscle.
Myoglobin contains a red pigment, which is why muscles are red. When meat is cooked thoroughly, the myoglobin inside it is converted into globin ferrihemochrome, and its color changes from red to grey.
Which of these three ways did you end up using—and how did it work out? Have any tips and tricks of your own that you’d like to share with the rest of this article’s readers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.