The sauce that makes the burger plus all the tips you need for the best backyard burgers!
“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun….” Can you almost hear the music? This iconic McDonald’s jingle was etched into my childhood brain, even though I never quite made the leap from the Quarter Pounder to the Big Mac.
These days, I prefer the backyard grill to the drive-thru, ideally on a warm evening in the company of family and friends. In my humble opinion, the best burgers are really the simplest, and following a few basic tips is all it takes to ensure a perfect patty.
To help make your hamburgers the highlight of any backyard barbecue, I put together my top 10 tips for grilling a better burger, which follow. Once the burgers are cooked to juicy perfection, all that’s needed is a few choice condiments. Of course, personal preference ultimately rules here.
Thankfully, however, there’s no need to relegate the “special sauce” to Big Macs alone. I’ve always been a fan of the classic condiments and enjoy generous servings of all of them. Special sauce is a creamy mix of sweet and tangy and allows for one-stop shopping.
Just for kicks, I looked up the ingredients in the original special sauce recipe before I attempted to mimic it a few years back. Although the taste is similar, the ingredients in my recipe are quite different than the original. I stopped counting at the 25th ingredient of the namesake version because certain items (like salt and high fructose corn syrup) were listed more than once.
After the sauce, my personal favorite toppings include crisp lettuce, a juicy slice of tomato, a few slivers of red onion—and almost as critical as the special sauce—pickles.
How do you create the perfect burger?
Tips to Make a Better Burger:
- For the juiciest, most flavorful burgers, choose freshly ground beef with a ratio of 80-20 lean meat to fat. Extra-lean meat will more likely lead to tough, dry burgers.
- Good beef alone makes a delicious burger. When extras like onions, herbs, and sauces are added, it’s easier to overwork the meat and end up with a rubbery burger. For tender burgers, work the meat as little as possible and form into loose patties.
- Uniform size and shape will ensure that all the burgers cook evenly and at the same rate. A kitchen scale makes this super easy and very accurate—although a good eyeball will do!
- Don’t forget to make an indentation in the middle of the burger with your thumb. This will promote even cooking and help the burgers to maintain their flat shape as they cook.
- Though it’s preferable to allow a steak to rest at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before cooking it, ground beef will stick together and stay juicier when cooked cold. Cold ground beef is also easier to shape into patties. (Warm fat becomes pliable and sticky—and much of it will adhere to your hands.) If you shape the burgers in advance, cover and return them to the fridge without salting. (That comes later.)
- Season both sides of the patties with Montreal steak seasoning or coarse salt and freshly cracked pepper just before grilling. Over time, salt will break down the proteins of the meat and draw out moisture, so it’s best added just before grilling.
- Start with a hot grill. The goal is to quickly sear the meat and seal in the natural juices.
- Common knowledge dictates that hamburgers should only be flipped once, but I recently read that frequent burger flipping will actually speed up the cooking time by encouraging more even cooking. So it’s the cook’s prerogative on this one…just don’t press down on the burger with a spatula to expedite cooking. We want to keep those flavorful juices inside the burger.
- Avoid cutting into the burger to check for doneness, lest those juices come running out. When in doubt, use a quick-read thermometer to ensure that the patties are perfectly cooked to your preferred level of doneness:
- 130°F for medium rare
- 140°F for medium
- 150°F for medium well
- 160° for well done (According to the USDA, this is the minimum safe temperature for ground meat.)
- Once your burgers are cooked to tender, juicy perfection, the bun and toppings provide the finishing touches. I prefer smaller, less bready buns that allow the flavor of the beef and condiments to shine through. Choose what you like in terms of white versus whole wheat, with or without sesame seeds, etc. Toasting is a plus in my book, but not essential. Likewise, personal preference should be the guide when it comes to toppings and condiments. To make everyone happy, offer a toppings bar with all the classic options—and maybe even some homemade Special Sauce to slather on top.
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon ketchup
- 1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish
- 1/2 teaspoon white or apple cider vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- A pinch (1/16 teaspoon) kosher salt
- Optional: 1/2 tablespoon minced yellow onion
Mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Stored in the fridge, the sauce will keep for at least one week.