The steps for making burgers seem simple enough: Take ground beef, form it into patties, and cook with your preferred method. Since you're not making meatloaf or meatballs with the ground meat, you don't need any special seasonings — just some good ol' salt and pepper.
But does it really matter when you season the meat? Can you do it ahead of time, or should you wait until the very last minute? Turns out that timing is actually very important!
The best time to salt your burger patties is as close to the actual cooking time as possible. Make sure your pan or grill is hot, then reach for your salt and season the outside of the patties right before you cook them.
Why should you wait? Chef Nancy Silverton claims, "the salt will draw the moisture out of the meat." Food scientist Harold McGee offers a conflicting opinion and says the small amount of salt used to season meat actually has a hydrating effect, and he likes the flavor of pre-seasoned meat more.
So who's right, and how does this affect when to salt? Turns out that salt really has a major influence on the texture of ground beef, which affects the texture of the final cooked burger. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats did a thorough study of salting ground beef and says if you salt too early, the salt breaks down the proteins in the meat. The result is "stickier" meat that forms longer strands, resulting in denser, tougher patties.
- The Burger Lab: Salting Ground Beef - Serious Eats
The other factor to consider is that mixing salt into the meat before you form patties means there's additional handling of the ground meat. This means it's more likely that the meat is further compressed and denser in texture before it's even formed into patties.
For me, the hallmark of a tasty burger is a tender, loosely formed patty — not a hockey puck-like object. Getting the right texture out of the patty means handling the meat as little and gently as possible, but also fighting my instincts that tell me to season early like I would other foods. I'll always gladly fight these instincts to make the perfect burger!