Hamburgers are a favorite food for cookouts and parties over the July 4th holiday. According to a poll by the Food Network, 2 out of 5 people would pick a burger if they could have only one food on their party plate.
If you’re one of them, you need to know how to prep and cook a hamburger that won’t come back to bite you with a case of food poisoning. More than 200 people became ill this past spring from beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that outbreak over, ground beef must always be handled with care.
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 steak or roasts because of the way it's 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,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports.
But serving up a safe burger doesn’t mean serving up a dry and tasteless one. For safer burgers that still are juicy and flavorful, take these precautions at each step of your burger’s journey, from the supermarket to the grill to your plate.
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° and 140° F. Keep your fridge at 37° F, CR's refrigerator testers advise. To make sure temperatures stay in a safe range, use a refrigerator thermometer.
Time your shopping trip. Raw ground beef should be stored in the refrigerator for no longer than two days. So if you don’t want to freeze the 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 or if you’ll be traveling more than a short distance from the store to home. And even if you're 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. (They can contaminate other food.)
Pack meat separately. When checking out, bag ground beef (or any raw meat) separately from other food to avoid bacterial cross-contamination.
When Making the Burgers
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Keep the ground beef refrigerated until you're ready to form it into patties. (When shaping your ground beef, use your thumb to make a slight indentation in the top of each to keep shrinkage to a minimum when they’re cooking.) If you want to form the patties ahead of time, immediately put them back into the refrigerator until you're all set to begin grilling. In fact, chilling the patties in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before cooking helps them retain their shape when they’re sizzling on the grill, says Claudia Gallo, a professional chef and a member of CR’s food-testing team.
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.
When You Cook Hamburgers
Season at the last minute. Seasoning a burger too far in advance pulls liquid from the meat, producing a dry burger, Gallo notes. 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. “When you cook hamburgers, never push down, because you’ll be draining out flavorful juices,” Gallo advises. Let the cooked patties rest on a clean platter for about 5 minutes to let the juices redistribute.
Use a meat thermometer. To be sure you destroy bacteria that can make you sick, cook hamburgers to 160° F. Burgers served rare or medium rare are riskier because they aren’t cooked long enough to hit that safety point.
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 you may have used on the raw meat. “Many people are careful to use different plates but forget about cross-contamination from utensils,” Rogers says.
After the Feast
Clean up in a timely way. Don’t let a platter of cooked burgers sit out for more than 2 hours, or for more than 1 hour if the outside temperature is above 90° F. Toss any burgers (and other food) that have been out longer.
Store leftovers correctly. 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.