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How to serve a safer burger

Here's how to prep and cook a delicious burger that won't come back to bite you

Published: July 02, 2015 06:00 AM

If burgers are on the menu for your July 4th holiday weekend, don’t fire up the grill until you know the right way to safely shop for, handle, and cook ground beef. You want to have a good time and minimize your risk of getting food poisoning.

Like most meats, beef can be contaminated with harmful bacteria at various points in the production, packing, and handling process. But the odds of contamination may be higher with ground beef than with steaks or roasts because of the way it is produced. Meat trimmings used to make it often come from multiple cattle, and grinding can spread bacteria that may be on just a few pieces of meat throughout the entire batch.

Photo: CDC

Tasty though it may be, ground beef is a significant source of foodborne illness, and summer is a risky time. Outbreaks caused by beef contaminated with the deadly bacteria E. coli 0157: H7 peak in July, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2009 and 2013, nearly half of the 74 E. coli 0157 outbreaks were traced to ground beef, and more than 40 percent of them were from meat people cooked at home.

You can reduce your odds of becoming one of those statistics by taking the right safety precautions at each step of your burger’s journey, from the supermarket to your plate.   

For more information on preventing foodborne illness, see our food safety guide.

Before you shop for ground beef

  • Take your fridge’s temp. Bacteria that can make you sick grow very slowly in ground beef (and other foods) stored at temperatures below 40° F, but they multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40° F and 140° F. Our experts recommend keeping your fridge at 37° F. To make sure temperatures stay in a safe range, use a refrigerator thermometer, which you can buy for $10 or less.  
  • Time your shopping trip. Raw ground beef should be stored in the fridge for no longer than two days, so if you don’t want to freeze your meat before grilling your burgers, time your grocery shopping trip accordingly.
  • Pack a cooler. When you head to the market, bring along a cooler or an insulated bag with an ice pack to keep beef (and other perishable foods) cold if you’ll be making other stops after the market, or you’ll be traveling more than a short distance from the store to home. And even if you are going straight home, consider taking this step just to be on the safe side if it’s an especially hot day.

At the supermarket

  • Shop for meat last. This minimizes the time it spends unrefrigerated.
  • Reach into the back of the cooler. Choose a package of meat that feels cold and is securely wrapped. If possible, place the ground beef package securely inside a plastic bag in your cart in case any juices from the meat leak out and contaminate other foods.
  • Pack meat separately. When checking out, bag ground beef (or any raw meat) separately from other foods to avoid any bacterial cross-contamination.

When making the burgers

  • Don’t get ahead of yourself. Keep the ground beef refrigerated until you are ready to form it into patties and cook them. If you want to form the patties ahead of time, immediately put them back into the refrigerator until you are all set to begin grilling.
  • Wash up. Don’t touch anything in your kitchen after you’ve handled raw meat until you have thoroughly washed your hands with hot, soapy water.  Immediately clean counters and any utensils you used to avoid spreading bacteria. Sanitize plastic cutting boards by washing them in the dishwasher. 

At the grill

  • Use a thermometer. To be sure you destroy bacteria that can make you sick, ground beef needs to be cooked to 160°F. Burgers served rare or medium rare are riskier because they aren’t cooked long enough to hit that safety point. Rely on an instant-read meat thermometer (rather than the color of the meat) to ensure your meat reaches the desired temperature. If you’re worried that burgers cooked to this level of doneness will be dry, experts at the Consumer Reports’ test kitchen have some tips for keeping your burger tasty.
  • Double up on your serving utensils. Don’t put cooked burgers back on the same platter or plate you used to carry the raw meat to the grill. And be careful with forks, spatulas, and other utensils that you may have used on the raw meat.

After the feast

  • Clean up in a timely way. Don’t let a platter of cooked burgers sit out for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if the outside temperature is above 90° F.  Toss any burgers (or other food) that have been out longer.
  • Store leftovers right. Cooked burgers can be safely refrigerated for about three to four days and can be frozen for up to four months.
  • Reheat properly. When reheating fully cooked patties, make sure the internal temperature reaches 165° F as measured on an instant-read meat thermometer to kill bacteria. 

—Andrea Rock

Keep burgers tasty

If you’re assuming a burger that is cooked long enough to kill dangerous bacteria will be dry and tasteless, think again. Here are some simple tips that will help you serve safer burgers that still are juicy and flavorful:

Prep your patties. When shaping your ground beef into patties, use your thumb to make a slight indentation in the top of each to keep shrinkage to a minimum when they’re cooking. Then chill the patties in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to help them retain their shape when they’re sizzling on the grill.

Season at the grill.  Seasoning a burger too far in advance pulls liquid from the meat, producing that dry burger. Just before cooking, sprinkle salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you like on one side of each burger and place that side down on the grill first. As they’re cooking, season the other side before flipping to finish them off.

Take a hands-off approach. Never push down on burgers while they’re cooking because you’ll be draining out flavorful juices. Let the cooked patties rest on a clean platter for a few minutes—no more than five—to let the juices redistribute.



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