grinding meat

Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman


It’s summertime, for crying out loud! Nothing beats the smell of the smoke when hot fat hits hot coals. Grilling alone is a primal pleasure. Grilling among friends is a social pleasure. The flavor of a grilled burger is different from that of one fried in a cast iron pan–it takes on many complexities of the smoke, and if you’ve built a really hot fire, flames will lick the burger, adding even more complex Maillard flavors from all these differing heat levels. Grilled burgers have incomparable flavor for these reasons.


Why am I going on about the greatness, the inimitable deliciousness of the all-American summertime staple? Because my pal Michael Symon urged people, in the NYTimes of all places, to avoid using a grill because, “A grill is too difficult.”


Let me repeat this. Iron Chef Mike Symon. Said. “A grill is too difficult.”

“A grill is too difficult.”

You can understand, I hope, why that lame-ass remark rankles.

Symon was quoted by the estimable Sam Sifton in an article deconstructing the perfect burger, a very good article with lots of useful and thoughtful information. I loved that numerous people extolled the virtues of cooking burgers in cast iron, indeed a superlative cooking surface (just be sure to heat it properly before you put the meat in). Sifton stresses the importance of fat (he prefers 20%, I prefer 25–30%; this is a matter of taste) and of keeping it cold. Grind your own meat for maximum control of flavor, texture, and safety (regarding the latter, when someone else is grinding, you just never know). See my post on the best way to grind burgers (twice through the large die).

Watch Sifton’s excellent video (in the above article link) on two different burger styles cooked on cast iron (I love that he did the diner burger, which maximizes the seared crust ratio).

But Iron Chef Mike, I gotta worry a little. This is the same guy with whom Donna and I grilled and photographed lamb chops for his book Live to Cook, during which, comparing charcoal grilling and gas grilling, he said, “Using a gas grill is like kissing your sister.”

And now this: “A grill is too difficult.” Say it ain’t so, Joe!


Other links you may like:

© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.




29 Wonderful responses to “Grill Your Burgers!”

  • Charles Curran

    Looks like ‘Iron Mike’ has spent too much time on the ‘Chew’, and not enough time in his back yard.

  • Nathan

    Interesting that when he was in the Next Iron Chef competition that he actually won, he was the only chef who knew how to properly start a charcoal grill…

  • Tags

    When they’re trying to decide on which one of you to canonize as “St. Michael of Cleveland,” this remark will not count in his favor.

  • E. Nassar

    “Too difficult” compared to what? Cooking on cast iron is also “too difficult” compared to buying a burger from your neighborhood pub.

  • Gwyn

    hmmmmm, this is going to be interesting to watch play out. i’m betting there was something in the editing that would make us all feel better. yes a real ‘diner’ burger on a grill would be hard. i could see him cracking wise about the messy result of squashing meat on a grill. and i’m curious about the comment in the article stating the 1,000 burgers made each day in Chef Symon’s restaurants–that they are “…’finished’ on a flat-top griddle…” does this suggest they were started somewhere else?? ah, language.

    on another note, Chef Ruhlman, there’s something i’ve been wanting to find out about. when i opened my new quiche ring ordered from your site, i was surprised to see it’s only 8″. i thought i had ordered the wrong one, but when i checked i saw no diameter is mentioned. all of your recipes for quiche mention 9″ rings–on your site and in ‘Egg’. since the rings on your site are designed and made in association with your partner, i’m wondering why you opted for the 8″ size? is there an advantage? i know it’s only an inch, but you are always so thoughtful about process that i’m wondering what the issue was. thanks!

    • Emilia

      Great catch! Yes, our quiche ring is 8″ in diameter. I will check up on that inch. Thanks 🙂

  • Larry Wagner

    I’m with you Michael, 30% fat, ground yourself at home, 1/2 pound size, grilled on charcoal, salt and pepper only at the grill! Sounds like there was some liberties taken with MS’s comments.

  • Angel Reyes

    Oh, SNAP.

    Although I’ll have to confess that if I’m craving a burger during winter, I make them in the oven on an iron skillet (or I go to a restaurant).

    • ruhlman

      nothing wrong with cast iron. everything wrong with telling people lighting a grill is too difficult.

  • Mark J Hoenigman

    My grandfather did not have a grinder. Meat was cut, cut again and cross cut, then chopped for sausage and burgers. He slaughtered and butchered his meat and I still do the same. I do grind occasionally but my wife prefers the cut and chopped meat. And a wood fire is better than charcoal.

  • Rich

    What size is “the large die” i don’t own that model grinder. Thanks.

  • Big Mike


    This brings up another question. I grind meat for burgers in 4lb batches. Form into patties & freeze individually. In your opinion what is the safest / fastes way to defrost for cooking?? Also, what do you use to sanitize your grinder before every use?

  • Allen

    Although you make a great case, I with Mr Symon on this.
    Although I like crisp chicken skin over charcoal, beef I prefer in my cast iron skillet.
    I much prefer the taste when it’s cooked in a cast iron skillet, it gives you better control over the heat, keeps the true flavor of the meat intact and you can use a little of the drippings to butter the bun and toast it in the pan for an even crunch.
    And I like that you can take the residual heat with you, keeps a meal warm, especially nice during the winter months.
    Makes a nice presentation right out of the pan,
    especially breakfast, like your egg, tomatoe, salsa verde post.
    It’s like a La Crusset without the enamel, so if it’s well seasoned and cared for, it’s almost as good as a La Crusset.
    Kinda gets me choked up just thinking about it.
    Damn, I love that cast iron pan!

  • Allen

    Sorry for the late reply Emilia, from the “Chef” post
    the aged eggnog was a great substitute for not having any ice cream style treats on hand.
    I was a little apprehensive about opening it in July, out of season.
    Seemed strange at first, like wearing a Santa suit in July, just weird… until I took my first sip.
    I loved it.
    The precious liquid must make it to Xmas, and it’s very hard to stop, like those little pints of ice cream, when they turn into a single serving after the first bite.
    So don’t get tanked like I did, Wednesday became my Friday hour.

  • James O.

    I’m with you 100% regarding the “grilling is too difficult” comment. And I will always — always — choose chunk charcoal grilling over any other method for my own burgers.

    But I have to agree with Chef Symon’s reasoning as it relates to filmmaker George Motz’s comments in the preceeding NYT’s paragraphs: Grease. In this context, his comments make perfect sense.

    Grease acts as a condiment in the skillet burgers, not just as a heat-transfer agent. The fat in the burger adds flavor and ‘juiciness’, but at the crust — man-oh-man: crispy-fried meat-crust is just something you can’t get when it drips onto the coals. It’s a completely different flavor profile than flame-licked beef.

    Not better, not worse; just different. Both equally awesome.

  • Danny Williams

    (Dons flame retardant suit)

    As an avid (charcoal) griller, I don’t have ANNY problem lighting, heating, and cooking on a grill. That being said, burgers (IMO) are a bit trickier on a grill than on a cast iron grill pan. If you are looking for perfection.

    1) A cast iron grill allows you to create more crust because of the uniformity of the meat’s surface area contact with molten hot iron compared to a grill.

    2) If you use a lot of fat in your blend the open flame on a grill is more subject to flareups on a grill (although a small house fire is a possibility with a cast iron)

    3) if you go easy on the fat (say for a tuesday night burger) I find the cast iron more forgiving with regards to keeping the burger together…

    Alll that being said, I probably grill my burgers outdoors 70% of the time but I would say my best burgers are consistently delivered via cast iron.

    Best of luck, happy grill…er….casti….eh…oh whatever.

  • Eric

    I have an older house with a built in grill in the kitchen. Use it in the winter and my Weber in the summer. Just create a hot/cool zone and grill away.

  • dave

    I’ve a question that has been bugging me for a while: How do you figure the 70%/30% when you’re buying your chuck steak? If I buy a 1 lb chuck steak, is that butchered to that ratio already, or do I need to clean fat off, (or add fat)?

    Does one weight the meat and fat separately, after trimming the whole steak?

    Inquiring minds…

  • Michael G

    Grilling burgers, for me, is always preferable. It’s a completely different experience when that fat drips to the coals, ignites and kisses the meat with flame and smoke. You just can’t get that on a griddle. Don’t get me wrong – you’d have to pry my cast iron skillet from my dead fingers to get it out of my kitchen… but understanding direct and indirect heat and how to take advantage of what a grill does well makes grilling a summer joy.

  • Steve

    I just did burgers on a KA grinder setup for the first time. I have the Pro 600 KA mixer and it really worked well on everything I ground. Only drawback was the grinder wanted to walk out of the power head regardless of how hard we tightened the retainer down. But it didn’t become enough of a problem to stop us.

    We trimmed our fat from the beef and froze it. The beef was nearly frozen too. No problems with either lean or fat.

    Then we tried bacon – I cure and smoke my own. Cut into chunks and almost frozen like the beef it ran through the KA grinder setup without a hitch.

    We dd a mixed Bacon/Beef Burger. Results when cooked were on the B+ to A- range. Flavor was A+ and juiciness was B. i thought it would be moister with all the fat from the bacon but most of that ran off when cooked – which we took to a higher done-ness due to the bacon. Still, the ground Bacon Burger is definitely on regular rotation for family and friends. Something we couldn’t do without grinding our own.

  • Erick Chamberland

    Hi Michael
    Do you like the Kitchenaid meat grinder attachment? Did you try the sausage stuffer kit ? I have read bad review

    • Michael Ruhlman

      their old one was good but quality has declined to the point that I can’t recommend. it’s ok but, well, not.

  • Lee

    I use a cast iron griddle on both my gas and charcoal grills. When using it on the charcoal grill you get a more even temperature cooking surface and the smoke flavor. When making the diner burger I would suggest that you weight them out to 3 to 3.5 oz (perfect size to make a double cheese burger) and form into ball and place onto the hot griddle and cook for 1-1.5 minutes. After that flip over and flatten as much as possible with heavy duty flipper, cook for another couple minutes and flip it over once more to cook through. Make sure you have a heavy duty flipper because I have broken the flimsy ones, the goal is to get it as thin as possible to get that wonderful crust. If you ever watch the guys at Steak ‘n Shake this is exactly their method. Plus it will never stick to the griddle when done this way.

  • Don

    Chuck mixed with some short rib is nice. Cut into cubes and put into the freezer with the grinding attachment for 10-15 minutes and then ground into a bowl placed in a ice water bath. I like a thin layer of mayo and yellow mustard, with lettuce, tomato and a thin slice of red onion. I like the Caramelized onions on a grilled cheeseburger (diner style) on rye bread with mustard.

    Here’s a question regarding home made chips to go with the burger. What type of oil should I use to fry them in?


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