How to Make the Best Burger Ever
We cooked in a cast-iron skillet, in a broiler, and on a gas grill to see which method yields a juicy burger without a lot of fuss
I’ve been a burger lover my whole life. Growing up, burgers were a staple in my house, typically served on English muffins and always with a slice of sharp cheddar.
When I was a kid, my mom would wrap burgers in foil and drop them in a paper bag, along with apples sliced into the shape of French fries—she called it a "Happier Meal." My family would eat heart-shaped hamburgers every Valentine’s Day. The night of my wedding, I made a pit stop at a local burger joint. I was still in my suit.
But I’m no burger snob. I don’t believe there’s one “right” way to make the perfect hamburger. I love a dressed-up burger with all the premium accoutrements, like house-brined pickles and aioli. But I’ve also been known to make midnight runs for burgers from a drive-thru.
For the experiment, I used 80/20 ground beef patties from my local supermarket. (That means there’s 80 percent lean meat and 20 percent fat.) And I opted for 5-ounce patties, which is the perfect size because it’s substantial but not so large that it overpowers all the toppings.
I tried meat alternatives, too: Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers. For each type of burger I lightly salted the patties but added nothing else.
For the beef burgers, I cooked each patty to 160° F—well-done but still juicy, and the temperature recommended by the Department of Agriculture for food safety.
“You want to get enough heat into the burger so that everything is killed,” explains James E. Rogers PhD, CR’s director of food safety research and testing. “Many of the bacteria that can make people sick lie inside the burger itself, not just on the surface.”
As for plant-based patties, it’s still advisable to cook them through. Rogers says the verdict is still out on safety, in part because animal-derived pathogens can end up in vegetables.
With everything set, I had my family, a few friends, and even a construction crew working at my house for the day join in my burger cook-off as taste testers. In all, I cooked more than 50 patties. Here’s every mouthwatering detail.
The Cooking Methods
Cast-Iron Skillet Results
The skillet method was stellar in that I could easily flip or rotate the burger without having to open a grill or oven door. That highly controlled approach resulted in a burger with a crisp outer layer and tender interior.
Like all the burgers I made, the skillet batch cooked up quickly, in under 10 minutes. I used a tiny amount of oil for the pan but found that as the fat rendered from the meat, it actually helped surround the patties, sizzling and browning in turn. And both the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger patties looked their part, sizzling in the pan like their meat counterparts.
The beef burger—which I tried plain as well as dressed up with my favorite condiments—was nice and juicy. And the plant-based patties, which I’d never tried before, were surprisingly excellent. In fact, with all the fixins’, they were nearly indistinguishable from the beef burgers. (Tasted plain, however, I felt each fell just short of a traditional beef burger.)
This was definitely the messiest of the cooking methods I tried, though, with oil splattering across the counters and backsplash. It was also smoky. Even with the windows open and my range hood on high, it produced enough smoke to set off my smoke alarm.
Here I used the broiler in my electric smoothtop range to sear a single burger. In CR’s testing, electric broilers tend to be better at searing than their gas counterparts, and the range below is an excellent option.
The broiler left a little to be desired in the way of control. My oven calls for broiling with the door closed, and the glass window is tough to see through. That meant every time I checked the patty, which I did three times before I’d even flipped it, I had to open the oven door fully and slide out the broiler pan, losing heat in the process.
I made an educated guess and flipped the first burger after about 6 minutes, but it only needed another 3 minutes to cook through to 160 degrees. In the end, the top of my burger was more browned than the bottom—not a deal-breaker, but not ideal, either.
I came closer to an evenly browned patty on a subsequent attempt, but the same basic problem held; it’s hard to know how your burger’s cooking in an oven. I will say that I loved that the oven kept grease from splattering all over my kitchen, even if it left the oven itself a little greasy.
As for the burgers, they were my least favorite of the bunch. On multiple attempts I found it hard to cook them evenly on each side, and that left one side slightly mushy. This was especially unpleasant with the plant-based burgers. Although once I added lettuce, tomato, and ketchup, the differences between these and the burgers cooked in the skillet seemed more subtle.
I used my 10-year-old three-burner Weber gas grill, which is similar to the model below from our tests.
Gas Grill Results
The gas grill proved to be easy to control but required the longest preheating of the three methods—a full 10 minutes. But as I often find when I grill, the wait was worth it. The patties cooked quickly once they were on, taking only about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Bonus: They got distinct grill marks.
While it’s true that lifting the lid to check the patties caused the grill to lose heat, they still continued to cook as a result of the direct flame. All told, they were slightly less browned than the skillet batch, but they were still evenly cooked on each side. I also love that the grill contains any mess. All I had to do after cooking was quickly clean the grates.
As for the burgers themselves, they were everything a burger should be. The meat was flavorful enough to stand up to the char from the grill, and I’d have gladly eaten the beef or plant-based options plain. Dressed up with condiments, the grilled burgers were still able to shine against the backdrop of onion, bacon, and other flavorful add-ons.
In the end, the grill won out by a mile. While the skillet provided very good control and the broiler was a no-mess option, the grill checked every box for me. And the grilled burgers garnered the most votes for how tasty they were from my admittedly unofficial tasting panel. (Though we all agreed that the differences were far less pronounced once we’d outfitted each burger with toppings.)
Plus, whipping up a bunch of juicy burgers is easy on a grill. I cooked more than a dozen at once to feed the construction crew and easily could’ve fit twice as many. The broiler pan in my oven could hold about nine patties if needed, and the cast-iron skillet really only comfortably fits about three patties. The grill also offered minimal cleanup, quick cooking after the preheat, and best of all, unmatched flavor.