How to Make Safe Burgers

How to Make Safe Burgers

By:

Meathead

Undercooked ground meat and sausage can kill. It can happen to you or someone you love. It usually happens at home, but it can happen at restaurants. In 1993 four children died from hamburgers contaminated by the virulent bacteria pathogen Escherichia coli O157:H7 purchased at Jack in the Box restaurants. According to health officials as many as 70,000 Americans fall ill from E-coli O157:H7 each year, most of them as a result of tainted hamburger meat. According to USDA, “the very young, the very old, and those with immune systems that have been weakened by cancer, kidney disease, and other illnesses are most at risk and vulnerable to illnesses associated with contaminated food.” If someone shows symptoms of illness, do not hesitate, get to the emergency room in a hurry.

We’ll call this common bug E-coli for short from now on, although there are many other strains of E-coli that are harmless. In addition to E-coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, and Staphylococcus aureus, can be found in ground beef and can cause illness. They cannot be seen or smelled. There are also spoilage bacteria that are harmless to humans, but deteriorate the meat’s quality.

In meat, E-coli comes from fecal matter in the intestines of the cow. It gets on the surface of the meat during butchering from

(1) fecal matter that is on the hide because feed lots are crowded with cattle and their waste,

(2) fecal matter in the intestines if they are accidentally sliced open during butchering, a common occurrence

(3) fecal matter that spilled from intestines onto the floor of the slaughterhouse or packing shop, or

(4) from knives, grinders, tables other equipment, from other meat, or hands that have come in contact with fecal matter.

Contaminated meat then is transported across several state lines in refrigerated trucks that are not always at the proper temp, unloaded into butcher shops and can often sit on the dock or the warehouse for too long, and then moved to cool rooms that may not be cold enough because people don’t like it too cold when they work.

E-coli O157:H7 is primarily a problem in ground meats, not steaks. It is found only on the surface of the steaks. They do not work their way into the muscle or fat far beyond the surface. They die rapidly when you cook a steak’s surface past 160°F, even if the interior is bloody rare. If your grill is even at a low 225°F, the exterior of a steak will hit 160°F fairly quickly and be safe. The problem arises when meat is ground. Then the outside gets inside and rare burgers or medium rare burgers carry risk with them because they are not cooked to 160°F. Because grinding is how the bug gets into the meat, E-coli is a problem for all ground meats and sausages unless they have been pre-cooked like hot dogs or treated with preservatives.

If the butcher’s grinder is not in a cool room, contamination on it can grow rapidly (e-coli doubles in 20 minutes). Then we have to hope that the butcher’s grinder is kept clean. They are usually old and the older models are hard to clean properly, with lots of nooks and crannies for contamination to hide in. Then it goes into an open top display case and can sit there for hours, and the trays on the bottom may be there for days. They then sit in uncalibrated home refrigerators for days sometimes.

Industry and government inspection for E-coli is not very thorough. The detection process is expensive, there are not enough inspectors, and USDA inspects only meat headed for interstate commerce. Some meat is inspected by state inspectors, and most is not inspected at all. If your trusted grocer is sold contaminated meat and grinds it, it can contaminate the grinder and all the meat ground that day. Knowing your butcher is not a guarantee of safety.

It is important to remember that “sell by” dates are no guarantee of safety. USDA recommends that you store ground meat at 40°F or lower and that you cook or freeze it within two days after purchase. E-coli does not reproduce at cold temps.

Now here’s an interesting question: Some fast food joints promote the fact that their burgers are never frozen. So which would you rather eat, a burger that is frozen right after grinding and shipped to a franchise three states away, or a burger that is not frozen and shipped three states away?

You can read more about E-coli, how it gets into hamburgers, and the nature of the problem in an excellent article in the New York Times. Click here to read the USDA article on ground beef safety.

If you must have medium rare burgers, there are three ways

If you want rare burgers, there are some options:

(1) Buy irradiated beef. My research tells me irradiated beef is perfectly safe and healthy. But it is hard to find because a lot of people are scared of radiation in all forms (except when they get their teeth and bones X-rayed, and that’s a LOT higher dosage). Click this link for more information on irradiation from Omaha Steaks.

(2) Sous vide. You can also have rare burgers by using the sous vide method of slow cooking the patties in a bag in an immersion bath of 131°F water for two hours.

(3) Pasteurize the meat. Food scientists say that if you dip a steak in boiling water (212°F) for 20 seconds before grinding it yourself, it is made safe. I have tried it, and although the exterior turns gray, it grinds well and makes fine flavorful rare patties. I use the method in this video. And for those of you with really sharp eyes, the bacon had been dipped off camera and before I chopped it, so it was safe, and after I pasteurized the steak I cleaned the cutting board before I put it down. That’s my story and I’m stickin to it.

Video: Making Medium Rare Burgers

Meathead shows you how to safely cook burgers medium rare.

Ask yourself this first

If you use a high fat blend and patty and season it properly, if you add condiments, onion, lettuce, tomato, and a buttered bun, most people cannot tell the diff between a 135°F burger and a 160°F burger if they are blindfolded.

If you do not have sterile meat, and you are healthy and not too young or old or immune compromised, you can take the risk of eating a rare burger. Go ahead and roll the dice. Probably safer than riding in a NY cab. But if your kids or granny can’t tell the diff, why risk it?

Related articles

Published On: 4/1/2013 Last Modified: 4/29/2021

  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.


If you help us, we’ll pay you back bigtime with an ad-free experience and much more!

Millions come to AmazingRibs.com every month for quality tested recipes, tips on technique, science, mythbusting, product reviews, and inspiration. But it is expensive to run a website with more than 4,000 pages and we don’t have a big corporate partner like TV network or a magazine publisher to subsidize us.

Our most important source of sustenance is people who join our Pitmaster Club, but please don’t think of it as a donation. Members get 21 great benefits. We block all third-party ads, we give members free ebooks, magazines, interviews, webinars, more recipes, a monthly sweepstakes with prizes worth up to $2,000, discounts on products, and best of all a community of like-minded cooks free of flame wars. Click below to see all the benefits, take a free 30 day trial membership, and help keep this site alive.


Post comments and questions below

grouchy?

1) Please try the search box at the top of every page before you ask for help.

2) Try to post your question to the appropriate page.

3) Tell us everything we need to know to help such as the type of cooker and thermometer. Dial thermometers are often off by as much as 50°F so if you are not using a good digital thermometer we probably can’t help you with time and temp questions. Please read this article about thermometers.

4) If you are a member of the Pitmaster Club, your comments login is probably different.

5) Posts with links in them may not appear immediately.

Moderators

  Max

Spotlight

These are not ads or paid placements. These are some of our favorite tools and toys.

These are products we have tested, won our top awards, and are highly recommend. Click here to read how we test, about our medals, and what they mean.

Use Our Links To Help Keep Us Alive

A big part of this site is our unbiased equipment and product reviews. We love playing with toys and we have no problem calling them the way we see them. Some companies pay a finder’s fee if a reader clicks a link on AmazingRibs.com and buys a product. It has zero impact on our reviews, zero impact on the price you pay, and the sites never tell us what you bought, but it has a major impact on our ability to keep this site alive! So before you buy, please click our links. Here’s a link that takes you to a page on Amazon that has some of our favorite tools and toys: https://tinyurl.com/amazingribs


Our Favorite Backyard Smoker

The amazing Karubecue is the most innovative smoker in the world. The quality of meat from this machine is astonishing. At its crux is a patented firebox that burns logs above the cooking chamber and sucks heat and extremely clean blue smoke into the thermostat controlled oven. It is our favorite smoker, period.
Click here for our review of this superb smoker

Heat Resistant Gloves With Extra Long Sleeves Hold The Hot Stuff

If you’re using oven mitts at the grill, it’s time to trade up. Say hello to these suede welder’s gloves. They’re heat resistant enough to handle hot grill grates, and flexible enough to handle tongs. The extra long sleeves even let you reach deep into the firebox to move hot logs without getting burned. Our Fave.

Click here to read our detailed review

Click here to order from Amazon

Griddle And Deep Fryer In One


The flat top does the burgers and the fryer does the fries. Use the griddle for bacon, eggs, and home fries. Or pancakes, fajitas, grilled cheese, you name it. Why stink up the house deep frying and spatter all over? Do your fried chicken and calamari outside. Blackstone’s Rangetop Combo With Deep Fryer does it all!

Click here to read our detailed review and to order


Surely you know somebody who loves outdoor cooking who deserves a gift for the holidays, birthday, anniversary, or just for being wonderful. There he is, right in the mirror! Here are our selections of best ideas, all Platinum or Gold Medalists, listed by price.

Click here to see our list of Gold Medal Gifts

Is This Superb Charcoal Grill A Kamado Killer?


The PK-360, with 360 square inches of cooking space, this rust free, cast aluminum charcoal grill is durable and easy to use. Four-way venting means it’s easy to set up for two zone cooking with more control than single vent Kamado grills. It is beautifully designed, completely portable, and much easier to set up for 2-zone cooking than any round kamado.

Click here to read our detailed review of the PK 360

Click here to order directly and get an exclusive AmazingRibs.com deal

Digital Thermometers Are Your Most Valuable Tool And Here’s A Great Buy!

A good digital thermometer keeps you from serving dry overcooked food or dangerously undercooked food. They are much faster and much more accurate than dial thermometers. YOU NEED ONE!
Click here to read our complete review

The Good-One Is A Superb Grill And A Superb Smoker All In One


The Good-One Open Range is dramatically different from a traditional offset smoker. By placing the heat source behind and under the smokebox instead of off to the side, Open Range produces even temperature from left to right, something almost impossible to achieve with a standard barrel shaped offset.

Click here to read our complete review