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A grilled grassfed burger with all the toppings, a how to at

The Ultimate Guide to the Best Grilled Grassfed Burgers at Home

At last, it’s grilling season!

In celebration, I’ve compiled everything I know about grilling grassfed burgers. For a quick primer, check out my previous post on perfect grassfed burgers:

5 Quick Facts for Perfect Grassfed Burgers at Home

For this post, I’ve compiled an in-depth guide to the composition, shaping & handling and cooking to make the best burgers from 100% locally raised grassfed beef {with or without a bun}.

What’s Different about Grassfed Burgers

By now, you’ve certainly encountered grassfed ground beef wherever you shop. And maybe you’ve even made the switch because of the reasons I touched on in Part 1–namely the traceability and quality of grassfed beef.

You feel good about buying grassfed beef for your backyard barbecue, but how confident do you feel about grilling it? I’m here to help.

Most important to me is that the beef I buy comes from animals raised for their whole lives on pasture. And it supports family farms, not factory farms.

Maybe for you it’s the composition of good fats and the overall nutritional profile of grassfed over conventional beef. Whatever your reasons, grassfed beef is a completely different “animal” when it comes to grilling.

Here’s why.

A grassfed burger with caramelized onions and an Oregon beer at
A perfectly formed and grilled grassfed burger with caramelized onions on a whole wheat bun.

The lean factor

Every cut of grass-fed beef is more susceptible to overcooking simply because it is extra-lean. Ground beef from pasture-raised animals is typically 85 percent to 90 percent lean, far less fatty than the 70 percent lean meat many burger connoisseurs recommend.

Less fat means that there’s less insulation to protect the proteins and baste the meat internally. So how do you grill a juicy grassfed burger?

Some home cooks blend egg, milk and bread crumbs into their ground grass-fed beef as insurance against dryness. Shredded or diced cheese, sautéed vegetables and minced pancetta are other mix-ins that can help protect the burgers from heat and keep them juicy.

Since I prefer my hamburgers to be 100 percent grass-fed beef, I do nothing but season them well with kosher salt just before cooking.

And I cook them over high heat, but more on that in a moment.

How to Form Hamburger Patties

Many recipes caution that over-handling ground beef will make hamburgers tough. This warning can cause cooks to barely form patties at all, resulting in scraggly, lumpy burgers that don’t fit the buns.

Topping options for a grilled grassfed burger at
Lettuce underneath the burger keeps the bottom bun from getting soggy.

The truth is that the grinding process forces beef through a die cutter and minces every strand of connective tissue, making the meat tender enough to eat raw à la steak tartare.

The key is to handle the ground beef just enough to shape it without compressing it like a meatball, and without melting the fat with the heat of your hands. If you prefer, you can use a jar lid or one of the burger molds on the market.

I like to form the patties a few hours before cooking (but I do not salt them until I’m ready to cook because the salt will draw out the moisture.).

My ideal hamburger is 1/3 pound of meat (about 5 ounces) shaped into a uniform disk about 1 inch thick. I make it wide enough to fit within the bun, roughly 5 inches.

Now, the one sure way to make your burger dry is by pressing on them with a spatula while grilling and squeezing out all the juices. But again, I get ahead of myself.

A grilled grassfed burger with all the toppings, a how to at
Classic toppings on a grilled grassfed burger that fits the bun.

Over-handling versus under-handling

Keeping that fat intact is key to a tender and juicy burger. So if you handle the ground beef for too long and it starts sticking to your hands, then your burger will be compromised.

I’ve realized that shaping hamburgers is a lot like making pie dough. People have been warned for so long about not overhandling the dough that they tend to underhandle it. So they end up with dry, raggy-edged pie crust.

Same is true with the burgers. Try this:

  1. Shape nicely uniform discs of ground beef while keeping contact to a minimum. I use a scale to portion the ground beef. But if you have a one-pound package of ground beef, it’s easy to eyeball it into thirds–for 1/3-pound burgers–or fourths–for 1/4-pound burgers.
  2. Then take each piece in your hands and press it while spinning it around like you’re making mini-pizza about 5 inches wide and 1-inch thick {okay, a very thick mini-pizza}.
  3. Put it on a plate and use your thumb to make an indentation in the center so that when the patty expands during grilling, it won’t blow up into a burger ball. I have witnessed too many burger balls at backyard barbecues, and it’s a sad sight.
raw burger in a cast iron pan ready to cook
A one-third pount (5.3 ounce) grassfed patty about 4 inches wide and 1 inch thick.

Now, how long did that take? If it was less than one minute, you’re safe from over-handling but still have an actual hamburger patty, not a blob of ground beef. {Have you also witnessed too many burger balls at backyard barbecues. Indeed, it’s a sad sight.}


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How to Cook Grassfed Burgers

Have you ever heard the advice, “Don’t cook grassfed beef over high heat”? Well, ignore it!

You can grill that perfectly formed and well-seasoned grassfed ground beef patty over a screaming hot grill–just don’t cook it for very long.

Get the grill very hot

Always start with a pre-heated grill no matter if it’s gas, charcoal, live fire or something else. {I own a Traeger wood pellet grill-smoker, and I use it for burgers when I don’t have time to pre-heat the Weber.}

The only key is to allow ample time for whatever apparatus you are using to reach at least 425º F, though 475º F is better. You’ll know you’ve reached that temperature range when you can hold an outstretched palm about 4 inches above the grate for no more than five seconds.

Once the grill is hot, be sure to use a wire brush to scrape the grate clean. Oil the grate lightly you have not used your grill in a while. Heating and scraping are the two routines I follow religiously and never worry about sticking.

Once the grill is prepped, it’s time to season those burgers with a generous sprinkling of kosher salt on both sides. You can use black pepper if you like, too.

Grassfed burgers on the grill in a how-to at
Grassfed burgers on a hot grill take 3 to 3 1/2 minutes per side for medium-rare.

Treat grass-fed hamburger like steak

The average griller is pretty cavalier about cooking hamburgers, throwing them on the grill, then walking away to sip a cocktail, slice onions or toss the ball with the kids.

That works okay with conventional grain-fed ground beef. But what if it was filet mignon? You wouldn’t dare slap a medallion on the grill and walk away.

Do this instead:

  1. Place the patties on your well-scraped grate and preheated (425º F to 475º F degrees) over the hottest part of the grill.
  2. Stand by for 3 1/2 minutes. (If you need to multitask, set a timer.) Do not touch, probe or press the burgers with the back of the spatula.
  3. Flip the burgers cook another 3 (for rare) to 3 1/2 minutes (for medium-rare).
  4. Transfer them to a clean plate or platter to rest for a few minutes {just like a steak}, which gives you just enough time to toast the buns.

Never–ever–press a burger cooking on the grill. It only expels all of those precious juices.

Beyond medium-rare

If anyone likes their burger beyond medium-rare, I slide it to the coolest part of the grill–indirect heat–close the cover, and wait 3 {for medium to medium-well} to 5 minutes {for well} more. A nice and slow finish will preserve those juices even when cooked longer.

Bear in mind {and tell your guests} that grassfed ground beef stays pinker longer than grain-fed. This is because it contains more myoglobin from the more active lifesyle of grassfed cattle.

If anyone objects, simply cook the burger a few minutes longer over indirect heat until the center reaches a high enough temperature to turn from red/pink to brown/gray.

A pimento cheeseburger in a post on how to grill grassfed burgers at
Celebrate the burger by keeping toppings simple and using a good melting cheese. Photo by David Reamer 2012.

This is also the time when I add and melt the cheese for cheeseburgers, which brings us to our fun, final topic

Burger Topping Options

I have to agree with Anthony Bourdain that a grilled burger in and of itself is perfect. It does not need reinvention or deconstruction.

Lettuce, red onion, tomato with just enough {but not too much} ketchup is never the wrong way to go. I personally like mayonnaise spread thinly on the bottom bun.

That said, there are some toppings beyond the basic that I love:

And of course, you need a good bun that is the right size and texture for your burger. That means no ciabatta rolls or anything too chewy. More store-bought buns are forgettable, which is why I created this homemade whole wheat hamburger bun recipe.

Going Without the Bun

A hamburger is defined as “a sandwich…” But I often love to eat a hamburger without a bun. There are thousands of paleo people eating burgers between slices of sweet potato.

For me, if it’s not going to be a sandwich, I eat it over a pile of greens, like baby kale, arugula or, in season, local salad mix. {A side of sweet potato oven fries never hurts.}

a bite of burger, salad and sweet potato fries
A burger over a bed of fresh greens and topped with pesto–plus a side of fries–does not miss the bun.

Taking the burger from the bun releases it from the hegemony of Heinz. I feel more free in my choice of toppings, I favor herby toppings, like garlic scape pesto and chimichurri.

Time to Eat

So, there you have it: great ground beef, good handling, attentive cooking and simple accompaniments that highlight the burger.

You’ve got this.

Here’s a detailed recipe for the principles outlined in this post.

And if you want more, I’m happy to report that my grassfed beef manifesto, Pure Beef, is being released on June 9th now available for sale through your favorite bookseller. The very first recipe in the book is for a burger.


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  1. ap269

    I can recommend a good hamburger bun recipe. You find it in Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" on page 266 (White Bread, Variation I).

  2. Rural Eating

    Oh I love that book! What I didn't say was that we're looking for a good bun we don't have to bake ourselves. But after I read that you're doing a ton of baking with three little kids and I only have two, then I have no excuses!
    I'm going to get right on it, make a double batch and put some in the freezer to have handy. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. kathdedon

    Thanks for this great post on grass-fed beef burgers. I have been intimidated by the warnings about cooking grass-fed beef; your tips are very reassuring!

  4. eric

    I’m a strong fan of underhandling the hamburger meat. I do my best to just handle it enough to form a thick and rough patty. I want to keep the density of the hamburger down, not maximize it. The resulting hamburgers have been the best I have ever eaten. I have never eaten a restaurant hamburger that was in the same class.

    You have a good point about overhandling to the point that you start to separate the muscle from the fat, but I think that it more important to keep from compressing it into a hockey puck. Keeping it loose works best for me — just enough to keep it the patty from breaking apart when flipping it with a spatula.

    Leaving the hamburger out for 20 minutes is not going to warm it up much unless you live in a hot oven. Maybe an hour or two, but not 20 minutes.

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