What’s your definition of a great hamburger? Everyone has their own tastes, but responses to that question pretty much universally include “juicy”, “char marks”, and “smoky.” While the hamburger is considered a “simple” food, achieving ground beef perfection is anything but simple.
Grilling great hamburgers over a campfire is a challenge, but when you get it right … mmmmmmmmm … it’s the best hamburger you will ever eat! And you’ll be back again and again to try to outdo the last one.
If you want to make great hamburgers over a campfire, here’s what you need to know:
Use the Right Wood
Any time you’re going to grill anything directly over your campfire, it’s essential you use the right kind of wood. Soft woods like pine, spruce, cedar, etc. contain resin that will be carried in the smoke when they burn. It tastes bad and will make your food taste bad.
It should go without saying you don’t want to cook over coals of anything but wood. No plastics or synthetics, no unknown “binders” etc. You want any fuel for direct cooking to be natural and food grade.
The wood for the campfire you’ll be cooking over should be well-seasoned hardwood. That means oak, ash, hickory, hard maple, and others. You want some smoke, but not a lot of smoke—especially when it gets to the white coal stage that you should be cooking over anyway. You’ll never get there with green wood. That’ leads to the next tip …
Cook Over Hot Coals
When it comes to grilling over the campfire, there should be minimal to no flame. Instead you want an ample supply of hot coals. They should appear white on the outside when they are undisturbed. When you put your hand down about four inches above them, you shouldn’t be able to hold it there more than two seconds—less is better. If it’s dark out when you’re cooking, you should see that orange glow rippling through the coals, but no flames higher than an inch or so.
Building and curating a keyhole campfire is a great way build up this reserve of coals. You build the main fire in the center of the pit, then rake the hot coals down the chute to pile them up in the cooking area.
If you try to cook over flames, you’re guaranteed to end up with ruined burgers that are charred black on the outside and raw inside.
Use a Burger Basket
Obviously you need some kind of grate to support the meat while it’s held over the heat. A spit or stick isn’t going to work with ground meat! Many campsite fire rings have an adjustable grate system built into them, but you can’t be 100 percent sure until you’re standing there surveying what you have to work with. And even if the fire ring has a grate, it may not be very adjustable for height above the heat. Finally, you can’t be sure how the camper before you, or the one before, or the one before, or the one before … left the grate or what might have been cooked or burned on it.
By bringing your own burger basket you eliminate all of those unknowns. On top of that, hand holding the basket over the coals provides the ultimate in adjustability and control. You can check the charring as much as you want with just a twist of your wrist.
A good burger basket with an ample long handle that will hold four 1/3- to ½-pound burgers runs about $15-$20 on Amazon. Non-stick wires are nice, but if you keep them clean and use cooking spray, you shouldn’t have any problems with meat sticking. While you’re at it, order up a good pair of leather grilling gloves, too. They keep things far more comfortable working around those hot coals.
Like anything else, you get what you pay for. If you want the ultimate hamburger gourmet experience, you’d buy a dry-aged rib eye, grind it into burger, and cook it. Mostly, that’s not happening – especially on a family camping trip – so the place to start is with fresh ground chuck that’s 80/20, meaning 80 percent lean meat and 20 percent fat. (Don’t worry about the fat; a good bit of it will drip away while cooking. The rest will stay inside creating the wonderful juiciness you’re craving.)
The thing NOT TO DO is buy frozen (for heaven knows how long) machine-made, ½-inch thick patties. You will not be happy.
If you like your burgers juicy – anything but well done all the way through – hand pat patties at least one inch thick and dimple one side well with your thumb to prevent shrinkage. Season with salt, pepper, and your favorite seasons as you pat the meat. A touch of garlic powder is a great choice. You’re starting with great meat with flavorful fat, so you don’t have to go crazy with spices and herbs.
Cooking the best hamburger you’ve ever eaten is a pursuit worth your time and attention. You can’t just lay the basket down over the coals, walk away, and return when the timer on your phone goes off.
You need to be there, holding the basket, checking the sear and char frequently, making adjustments, being watchful to get it just right. It will be worth 10 minutes out of your life.
The traditional way to cook burgers is to put the sear on the outside first by putting the meat close to high heat for a short time or even against a searing surface like the bottom of a cast iron skillet; then backing off from the heat to bring the center temperature up to the doneness you prefer.
However, you may want to experiment with the reverse sear method. This begins with the burgers well away from the heat to bring them up to about 10 degrees shy of the doneness you want. When they hit that, you drop to near contact with the coals for about 30 seconds on each side to achieve the caramelization and charring.
In either case, a meat thermometer is a key tool. No campfire cook worth his or her salt ever leaves home without one. You shouldn’t either.
Live and Learn
The best things in life—including great hamburgers cooked over a campfire—are learned and earned. You probably won’t get “perfect” results on your first try, but as you learn and they get better and better – you’ll agree the investment is worth it.