Medium? Or medium rare? Anyone who takes steak seriously knows the answer to that question. Steaks cooked to medium rare (130° F, see Chef Recommended Temps) simply taste better and have better texture.
So why do we cook our hamburgers to 160°? As the old A-1 commercial used to say, “What are hamburgers, chopped ham?? No, they’re chopped steak!” Wouldn’t hamburgers cooked to 130°F taste moister and more flavorful?? The answer is a resounding yes!
The painful truth is that we cook our hamburgers to 160°F because of bacteria.
As Chef Bruce Aidells points out in his book The Great Meat Cookbook, whole cuts of meat, like steaks, only develop harmful bacteria associated with raw beef like E. coli on their outer surface, which just happens to be the part of the cut that is exposed to the most intense heat in the grilling or cooking process. No problem.
But in the grinding process, that surface bacteria gets mixed throughout the hamburger meat. Hence the USDA recommends bringing the center of the burger up to 160°F, or well done, to kill the bacteria in the center of the burger.
There is a better way. Are you ready??
Option 1: Pasteurization
In his book Cooking for Geeks, Jeff Potter explains one way around this problem: “…if you have a way of cooking your burger to a lower temperature and then holding it at temperature long enough to pasteurize it, you could avoid denaturing the actin proteins while still pasteurizing the meat.”
Translation: if you can get your burgers to 140°F internal temperature and then hold them there for 12 minutes you can kill the bacteria without overcooking your burger (as recommended by the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management).
Step 1: Turn on your oven and bring it to a warming temperature of 140°F
Step 2: Grill your burgers to an internal temperature of 140°F (or even 138°F since the internal temperature of the burgers will continue to rise during the resting phase)
Step 3: Place your burgers on an oven-proof tray, wrap them with tin foil and place them in the warm oven
Step 4: Immediately after placing the foil wrapped burgers in the oven, turn the oven off, close the oven door, and let the burgers “rest” for 12 minutes before enjoying
Option 2: Grind Your Own
But for real meat lovers, 140°F is still too high.
The fact of the matter is you can actually safely grill and eat a moist juicy hamburger at 130°F internal temperature (medium rare) if you bypass what Bruce Aidells calls “the germ-filled environment of the butcher shop or packinghouse” altogether.
Yep, we’re talking grinding your own beef.
Step 1: Select the blend of meat you wish to grind (J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats recommends equal parts beef sirloin and brisket and oxtail, but here’s his rundown of cuts to use: Mastering the Art of Burger Blending)
Step 2: Cube your meat into 1 inch squares
Step 3: Professional chef and food scientist, Harold McGee recommends “blanching” the cubes of meat to remove any surface bacteria by bringing a large pot to boil…
Step 4: …and then immersing each piece of meat for 30-60 seconds before removing them and patting them dry
Step 5: Grind the meat in your home meat grinder or food processor
Step 6: Form patties and grill them to a succulent 130°F (medium rare) and enjoy
Because the environment of home-ground burgers (i.e. your kitchen) can be controlled in such a way that there’s limited exposure to harmful bio-contaminants, cooking the hamburger to lower temperatures should not be a problem.
Obviously, getting an accurate reading on internal patty temperature is critical to the success of any of these processes. We recommend using your Super-Fast Thermapen. Look for the coldest temperature in the thickest part of the burger to gauge doneness. When dealing with thicker burgers, probe from the top, or from the side when grilling thinner patties.
Aidells, Bruce. The Great Meat Cookbook.
Potter, Jeff. Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food.
López-Alt , J. Kenji. Mastering the Art of Burger Blending with Eight Cuts of Beef
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.
Food Safety Hazards and Controls for the Home Food Preparer. 10/30/08 print 10/30/08 © HITM 1994 Jun 06 edition
Updated Post from May 23, 2013