The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Sous Vide Burgers

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Why sous-vide a burger? Because the results can be great. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The timing and temperature charts in this guide, as well as all the FAQs and basic instructions, are part of our brand-new partnership with Anova, the makers of our favorite sous-vide circulator, the Anova Precision Cooker. You can download the Anova Precision Cooker App (it's free) to grab all this information right off your phone or tablet while you're cooking. And, if you've got an Anova Precision Cooker, you can even control it directly from the app via Bluetooth.

You might ask, why sous-vide a hamburger? It's one of the simplest foods to make using traditional methods, so does precision cooking really have anything to bring to the table? Well, yes and no. For smaller burgers—five ounces or less—I don't recommend sous-vide cooking. Simply grilling or cooking the burger on a griddle will get you excellent results.

But for larger burgers, of the six- to eight-ounce range, sous-vide precision cooking is a wonderful method of ensuring that your burgers come out with an unparalleled level of juiciness every single time. Just like a steak or pork chop, a precision-cooked hamburger goes through a two-phase cooking process: a stay in a water bath, followed by searing in a pan or on a grill.


Forming Patties

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Weigh your beef.

For consistent results, I recommend using a scale to measure out the ground beef for each burger. As noted above, thinner burgers do not benefit much from sous-vide cooking techniques; you want thicker burgers of six to eight ounces apiece in order to get the most benefit from cooking them sous vide.

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Slightly bigger than the bun.

When forming your burger, use a very gentle touch so as not to overcompress the meat. I aim for patties that are just slightly wider than the width of my buns, knowing that they'll shrink a little as they cook. For a traditionally cooked thick burger, I generally put a small indentation in the top surface (like a red blood cell) to compensate for bulging, but bulging is so minimal with sous-vide cooking that you can skip that step and simply form a perfect disk.

How to Seal Burgers

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Cooking sous vide starts by placing the food in a plastic bag. Normally the goal is to remove as much air as possible from the bag, which requires the use of a vacuum pump. But with burgers, using a pump can lead to problems like this:

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Vacuum-sealed burgers are compact.

This burger was sealed using a FoodSaver-brand vacuum sealer, which sucks air out of the bag with a pump before sealing it. That little bit of extra compression may not seem like a big deal, but it can end up overly compressing your meat, giving you a burger that is dense and heavy rather than juicy with a nice, loose texture.

A much better approach is the water-displacement method, an ingeniously simple trick I first learned from Dave Arnold. Essentially, you place your food in a plastic zipper-lock bag, close up all but the very edge of the seal, then slowly dip it into water, pressing the air out as you go and keeping the open corner out of the water for as long as possible. Once your food is almost fully submerged, you zip up the last bit just before it reaches the water level. You're left with food in a nearly airless bag, but with very little compression.

Sous-Vide Burgers Should Rest Before Searing!

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Unlike a steak or a pork chop, which can be seared immediately after being removed from the water bath, a hamburger should be rested prior to searing. There are a few reasons for this.

The first is that burgers are relatively thin, which means that heat travels to their centers quite rapidly. The second is that burgers are less dense than solid meat, which, again, means faster internal heat transfer. Both of these factors contribute to overcooking during the searing phase.

Finally, burgers contain many open air spaces where juices temporarily collect. This is a good thing, since it makes for juicy burgers down the line. However, the juices that have collected in the layers near the surface can very easily leak out when the patty is hot out of the bag. That's bad news for searing, since excess juices in the pan or on the grill mean that energy is spent evaporating that liquid instead of browning the beef.

I find that for the best results, it's a good idea to remove the burger from its bag after it comes out of the water bath, then lay it on a plate covered in a few layers of paper towels in order to wick away excess moisture. By the time the burger has cooled to room temperature, it will also have a relatively dry surface, allowing for much more efficient searing.

Searing Method

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Looking good...

I've played around with a few different methods for searing burgers, including in a skillet, deep frying, on a grill, and with a torch.

  • Deep frying is fun and dramatic and will deliver a really crispy crust, but it'll also overcook a thick layer of the exterior of the burger. It's a good method if crispness is what you value most.
  • The grill is wonderful, provided you preheat it properly. You want it ripping hot before adding your burger to give it color and crispness before it has a chance to overcook.
  • A cast iron skillet is my favorite method for searing a burger. It allows you to get a rich, deep char without overcooking by much at all. A burger seared in cast iron also comes out juicier than a burger on the grill, as it gets to baste in its own drippings.
  • A torch is not a great tool for searing burgers on its own—you end up with a singed burger that doesn't have much texture. But it's useful in conjunction with a skillet to add extra charring—you can torch the top surface of the burger while the bottom sears in the skillet. The Searzall can help even out the heat of a torch and produce better combustion.

What Temperature Should I Use to Cook Burgers?

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With traditionally cooked burgers, it is very difficult to gauge doneness. Low density means rapid overcooking, and a relatively thin profile makes it difficult to judge where to stick a thermometer.

Meanwhile, with sous-vide cooking, you set the temperature of your water bath to the desired final temperature of your meat, making it nearly impossible to over- or undercook your burgers. Not only that, but the window of time you have in which to achieve perfectly cooked meat is quite large—on the order of hours. A burger cooked for 45 minutes at 130°F will be nearly indistinguishable from one cooked for three hours.

The color and juiciness of a burger are directly related to the temperature to which they're cooked. The temperatures represented below may seem a little low to you. That's because as a burger sears, it gains a good 10° over the temperature to which you set your device, so a burger cooked to 120°F will actually be at around 130°F by the time it hits the bun.

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Rare burger.

With the precision cooker set to 120°F, your burger will come out a nice red rare, with a very tender and juicy texture. For some folks, rare burgers can be off-putting because of their softness.

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Medium burger.

At 130°F, a burger comes out in the medium range. The texture is fully firm to the center, with no mushy meat, and still plenty juicy. Medium burgers do have a tendency to dry out as you get to the last few bites, as moisture is pressed from them during eating.

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Medium-well burger.

At 140°F and above, your burger starts to see some major losses in both moisture content and tenderness. However, a burger cooked sous vide will always be moister than one cooked using a traditional method.

All of the timings below are given for burgers of six to eight ounces. I do not recommend cooking burgers in sizes outside this range. Burger meat, as a rule, gets far more exposure to oxygen before and during cooking than a solid piece of meat, which can have an effect on color. A burger cooked to a given temperature will be more pink than a solid steak cooked to the same temperature. Don't be alarmed when you bite into that medium-well burger and it's still pink inside!

Besides that, it's more difficult to get a burger to retain juices than a steak, so burger cooking times are relatively low compared to times for solid cuts of beef.

Temperature and Timing Chart for Burgers

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Sous-Vide Hamburger Temperature and Timing Chart

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Doneness Temperature Timing Range
Very Rare to Rare 115°F (46°C) to 123°F (51°C) 40 minutes to 2 1/2 hours
Medium-Rare 124°F (51°C) to 129°F (54°C) 40 minutes to 2 1/2 hours
Medium 130°F (54°C) to 137°F (58°C) 40 minutes to 4 hours (2 1/2 hours max if under 130°F/54°C)
Medium-Well 138°F (59°C) to 144°F (62°C) 40 minutes to 4 hours
Well Done 145°F (63°C) to 155°F (68°C) 40 minutes to 3 1/2 hours


How to Cook a Burger Sous Vide, Step by Step

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Step 1: Preheat Precision Cooker

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Set temp.

Preheat your sous-vide cooker to the desired final temperature according to the chart above. Allow the water bath to come to temperature before adding your burgers.

Step 2: Weigh Burgers

Weigh out your ground beef into even piles of six to eight ounces apiece.

Step 3: Shape Burgers

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Form gently.

Shape your burgers by gently tossing the meat between your hands until it barely sticks together. Place it on a flat, clean surface, and gently press the burger into shape using your fingertips. Do not overwork the meat—press just until it sticks together.

Step 4: Adjust Size

Check the size of your burger by comparing it to the bun. (Make sure to wash your hands before picking up the bun, and do not let it come in direct contact with the raw ground meat.) The patties should be half an inch wider than the bun on all sides.

Step 5: Season Burgers

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Season generously.

Season the burgers generously on both sides with salt and pepper.

Step 6: Place in Zipper-Lock Bags

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Bag the burger.

Place the burgers in individual zipper-lock bags and seal, leaving a one-inch opening in each bag.

Step 7: Seal Bags and Cook

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Seal using the displacement method.

Seal the bags using the water displacement method: Remove as much air as possible by hand, then slowly lower each bag into the water bath, letting the force of the water press any excess air out through the one-inch opening. Seal the bag just before it's fully submerged.

Cook the burgers according to the timing chart above.

Step 8: Remove Burgers and Rest

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Unbagging the burgers.

Remove the burgers from the bags and place them on a paper towel–lined plate. Pat them dry very carefully on both sides and season with additional salt and pepper. Let the burgers rest for at least 10 minutes and up to half an hour.

Make a note of which side of the burgers is facing up during resting—let's call this Side A. Side A will be dryer than Side B and should be seared first for maximum browning and superior appearance.

To Finish on the Stovetop

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Step 9: Preheat Skillet and Add Rested Burgers

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Sear it hot with butter.

Before searing the burgers, have your toasted buns and condiments ready. Preheat a cast iron or stainless steel skillet, coated with one tablespoon of oil, over high heat until the oil starts to lightly smoke. Add the burger patties, Side A facing down, and add one tablespoon of unsalted butter. Butter contains milk solids that will blacken and char, helping your burger achieve a dark crust much faster.

Cook the burger, swirling the butter in the pan to distribute it evenly, until it's well browned on the first side, 45 seconds to a minute.

Step 10: Flip and Add Cheese

Flip the burger and add a slice of cheese to the top surface (if desired). Cook until the second side is browned and the cheese is melted, 45 seconds to one minute longer.

Step 11: Serve

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Transfer the burgers to the prepared buns, top as desired, and serve immediately.

To Finish on the Grill

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Step 9: Preheat Grill

Before searing the burgers, have your toasted buns and condiments ready. Light one chimney full of charcoal (about five quarts of coals). When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set the cooking grate in place, cover the grill, and allow it to preheat for five minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Scrape the grill grates clean with a grill scraper, then oil the grates by holding an oil-dipped kitchen towel or paper towels in a set of tongs and rubbing them over the grates five or six times.

Step 10: Sear

Place the burger directly over the hot side of the grill and cook until a deep, rich crust has formed, about 45 seconds to one minute. Flip the burger and add cheese (if desired). Cook until the second side is browned and the cheese has melted, 45 seconds to one minute longer. If the fire threatens to flare up as the burger drips fat into it, suffocate the fire by closing the grill lid until the flames die out. Alternatively, using a long spatula, transfer the burger to the cooler side of the grill until the flames subside. Do not allow flames to engulf the burger.

Step 11: Serve

Transfer the burgers to the prepared buns, top as desired, and serve immediately.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sous-Vide Burgers

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Q: What kind of beef should I buy for sous-vide burgers? [top]

Pre-ground beef in Cryovac-sealed or shrink-wrapped trays comes heavily compressed and can lead to dense, tough burgers. For best flavor and texture, I recommend buying whole cuts of beef and asking the butcher to grind them for you fresh. One good combination is equal parts well-marbled boneless short rib, brisket, and sirloin. Straight 100% chuck will also be very flavorful.

Q: Is cooking burgers sous-vide safe? [top]

All meat should be handled and cooked carefully to avoid the risk of foodborne illness but ground beef in particular requires extra vigilance. With a large piece of beef, the surfaces of the meat may be contaminated with harmful bacteria, but the center is safe. Searing whole cuts of beef is a very effective way of eliminating those dangerous bugs. Ground beef, on the other hand, can potentially have harmful bacteria mixed throughout its volume so a simple external sear is not an effective method of destroying them.

With a burger cooked via traditional (non sous-vide) methods, I strongly suggest buying whole cuts of meat and grinding them yourself or having the butcher grind them fresh on a clean machine if you plan on serving them below medium-well.

With sous-vide methods, you have a bit more leeway as beef can be safely pasteurized at temperatures as low as 130°F if held for long enough. At 130°F, it takes 2 hours to safely pasteurize beef, while at 140°F, it takes only 12 minutes. Remember—these timeframes begin once the center of the burger reaches pasteurization temperature, so it's a good idea to add an extra half hour to those times for any burger you plan on pasteurizing.

Pasteurization cannot safely take place lower than 130°F, so for this reason, I strongly recommend freshly grinding beef for sous-vide burgers you plan on serving rare to medium-rare.

Q: Can I grind my own beef at home? [top]

Yes, and it's a good idea! Less time between grinding and cooking equals juicier, more tender burgers, so you may want to grind the beef yourself at home just before shaping and bagging the burgers. You can do this using a dedicated meat grinder or a meat grinder attachment for a stand mixer (make sure the beef stays very cold during the grinding process), or in a food processor. To chop beef in a food processor, trim off any excess connective tissue, cut the beef into one-inch cubes, place the cubes in a single layer on a plate, and place them in the freezer until they develop a thin, hard, icy crust, about 15 minutes. Working in half-pound batches, pulse the cubes in a food processor until finely ground.

Q: What's the best way to shape burgers when preparing them for my precision cooker? [top]

It's important not to manhandle or compress burger meat before cooking. The more loosely the burgers are formed, the more tender and juicy they'll be after cooking. I like to shape my burgers by gently picking up the meat and tossing it back and forth between my hands until the meat just clings together, then placing it on a flat surface and gently molding it into shape, making sure not to overly compress it. You want to handle the meat just enough so that it sticks together.

With traditional cooking techniques, uneven cooking between the center and the edge of the patty can lead to the patty bulging out in the center. A typical fix for this issue is to form a slight dimple in the center of the burger before cooking. With precision cooking, the burger cooks evenly across its entire surface, which means that no bulging should occur. For that reason, burgers that will be precision-cooked should be shaped perfectly flat.

However, the burgers will shrink in diameter as they cook, so shape the patties so that they overhang the buns by half an inch on all sides. This will help ensure a cooked patty that fits perfectly inside the bun.

Q: What's the best way to season burgers? [top]

Burgers require more seasoning than solid meat because much of the salt and pepper on the surface of a burger will dissolve and wash away in the juices that are expressed during cooking. I season my burgers with salt and pepper once before bagging and a second time right before searing. I also recommend adding seasoning only on the surface of burgers, never mixed into the meat—salt mixed into the meat can dissolve proteins, causing them to cross-link and turn your burger tough.

Q: Should I mix seasoning into the beef? [top]

I strongly recommend against it. Seasoning the beef requires you to massage it, which in turn creates cross-linked proteins that can turn a burger from loose and juicy to dense and firm. Keep the seasoning for the exterior only to minimize beef handling.

Q: Can I add any flavorings to the sous-vide bag when cooking the burgers? [top]

Yes, you can, but spice rubs behave quite differently under sous-vide conditions than under standard cooking conditions. Normally, aromatic compounds will dissipate into the air in the kitchen or over your grill as a spiced burger cooks. At the same time, moisture dissipates, which means that what's left of your spices sticks firmly to your meat. With sous-vide cooking, there's no way for that flavor to escape the bag. Meanwhile, spices rubbed on the surface of the meat have a tendency to get rinsed off by any juices that are expressed during cooking.

The short answer is that it's very tough to predict exactly how spices are going to react in a sous-vide bag. To get spice flavor, I've found that it's better to rub the spices into the meat after the sous-vide cooking phase and before the final searing phase. You can, however, add sprigs of herbs, like rosemary or thyme, to the sous-vide bag to apply some flavor to the burger while cooking.

Q: Should I add butter, oil, or any other liquid or fat to the sous-vide bag? [top]

No. Intuitively, you may think that adding a flavorful fat, like butter or olive oil, will help create a more flavorful burger. In fact, it achieves the opposite goal—it dilutes flavor. Fat-soluble flavor compounds dissolve in the melted butter or oil and end up going down the drain later on. For best results, place your seasoned burger in a bag alone.

Q: Is searing a burger before bagging it a good idea? [top]

I've found very little discernible flavor difference between burgers that are pre-seared and burgers that are seared only after being removed from the bag. Pre-seared burgers also tend to be a little dryer. I do not recommend it.

Q: You recommend flipping steaks multiple times during cooking, but burgers only once. What gives? [top]

Burgers are more delicate than steaks, so repeated flipping increases your chance of breaking them or squeezing out juices. I also recommend flipping only once so that you have the opportunity to add a slice of cheese and let it melt before serving.

Q: What happens if I leave a burger in the sous-vide cooker for longer than the maximum time recommendations? [top]

So long as you're cooking at above 130°F, there are no real health risks associated with prolonged sous-vide cooking. Burgers, however, will very rapidly deteriorate in texture if they are overcooked. I strongly recommend following the prescribed minimum and maximum cooking times for the best results. For safety reasons, burgers cooked at temperatures lower than 130°F should not be cooked any longer than two and a half hours.

Q: Can I chill and reheat my burger after cooking it sous vide if I haven't opened the bag? [top]

It's true that when cooked at a high enough temperature (130°F or higher) for a long enough time period (several hours), the contents of a sealed sous-vide bag should be close to sterile. This means that rapid chilling via an ice bath, followed by rapid reheating, should pose no health risks, but it does make it difficult to gauge the final serving temperature accurately.

Word of warning: Never chill and reheat any food that has been cooked or held at a temperature lower than 130°F. Temperatures below that threshold are not hot enough to destroy dangerous bacteria. Burgers, in particular, are prone to bacterial growth.

Q: Do sous-vide burgers need to rest after searing? [top]

Traditionally cooked burgers need to rest; that is, they need to be placed aside for a few minutes before being served. This resting period allows time for the temperature gradient within the burger to even out. The cooler center is gently heated by the hotter outer edges, while they in turn lose some of their heat to the outside world.

Because a sous-vide burger cooks from edge to edge more or less perfectly evenly, there is no temperature gradient inside—only the very outer layers will be hotter after searing. For that reason, sous-vide burgers should be served immediately after searing.

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Cross-section.

This guide was produced in partnership with Anova Culinary, makers of the Anova Precision Cooker. Got an iOS device? Download the Anova app for built-in temperature and timing guides, along with full Bluetooth control over the Anova Precision Cooker.