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Why Your Burgers Came Out Red

Why is your burger red? It could be undercooked, have come into contact with air, or have been seasoned with paprika. Read on to learn more!

Just finished grilling up a bunch of burgers, did you?

Or did you say you cooked them in the oven, or seared them in a skillet on the stove? Hey, maybe you didn’t even cook them, and you’re the person eating.

Either way, the question you came here to ask isn’t about how the burgers were cooked—it’s about why the cooked burgers are red. See, a cooked burger should have a golden brown crust and, depending on how you like it, a pink to gray middle. The burger on your plate doesn’t.

So, when you realized this, you did what every rational human would do in your situation: you took the phone out of your pocket, googled the matter, and landed on this article. Which I’m glad you did, because I may have an explanation.

But first, we need to go over the obvious, because obvious things are just too easy to overlook.

Is the Burger Undercooked?

“Of course the burger is cooked,” the critical thinker in you is thinking, “it just came off the grill/oven/stove and it’s still hot!”

But a cooked burger can be cooked poorly, and a poorly cooked burger can be underdone in the middle. This happens when you use too much heat to cook the burger. The exterior of the patty cooks too quickly, so the heat doesn’t have time to get to the middle.

If the interior of the burger looks, feels, and tastes raw, it probably is raw. Technically, ground meat isn’t cooked to safety unless its internal temperature reaches 160°F (71°C). And this isn’t me coming up with numbers; it’s the USDA’s guidelines for cooking meat.

Undercooked meat is not safe to eat. And if you suspect that the meat in your burger needs more thorough cooking, preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and bake the patty for 10 minutes.

Was the Burger Prepackaged?

Okay, so you’re absolutely and positively sure the burger isn’t undercooked. Then why is it red?

If the burger is also red on the outside, one explanation is the air in the packaging. Actually, the air in prepackaged burgers may not be air; it may be a mixture of gases that keeps the meat red long after it’s old.

Meat’s red color comes from a protein in the muscle called myoglobin.

When meat is cut or ground, the myoglobin strands come into contact with the oxygen in the air, and they oxidize. This causes them to change color from purple to red, then from red to brown, and finally from brown to gray as the meat ages.

Now, you may or may not have noticed that the prepackaged burgers at the supermarket are always red. As if the cattle were butchered, the meat was ground, and the patties were formed before you when they really weren’t.

As it turns out, meat manufacturers have been swapping out the air in their packaging with oxygen, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and/or carbon dioxide for decades. This technique is called modified air packaging, and it short-circuits the oxidation of the myoglobin strands, keeping the meat looking fresh.

So the red, almost bloody color may very well come from the pigments naturally present in the meat.

Did You Let the Cooked Burger Sit?

Sometimes, especially in ground meat, where air can penetrate into the meat, author and scientist Greg Blonder writes on his website, the center of the meat will come out grayish-brown after cooking.

But if you cook the burger to medium well and let it sit for a while after you bite into it, or cut it open, Blonder says the oxygen and the enzymes can react and “revert” the meat’s color back to a shade of pink.

This means a burger can be slightly pink in the middle and nevertheless be safe to eat, as long as you cooked it to the correct internal temperature.

Was the Meat Seasoned?

Most people season their burgers only with salt and/or black pepper. And most store-bought burger patties contain only meat.

That said, if you, the person who cooked the burger, or the manufacturer who made the patty added paprika to the mix, the paprika will mix with the meat’s juices during cooking and the burger will come out red.

If you bought the burger from the store, check the ingredients list. If you see paprika or some sort of seasoning, that may explain the mystery.

The Bottom Line

If you’re like most people, you probably cook your burgers until they’re visibly brown on the outside. But what if the burgers you cook come out red instead of the usual golden brown? Now, you know some of the most plausible explanations, from undercooked meat to modified air packaging.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.