Hamburgers are such a commonplace food, it’s natural to assume they’re an easy dinner option—especially when you’re outdoors. Meat cooked over a fire in the summer is practically an American tradition. But if you’ve ever tried cooking burgers over a campfire, you know this: it’s harder than it looks.
Think about all the burgers you’ve eaten that have either had the taste and texture of charcoal or been disturbingly raw. How do you make a chargrilled burger that’s not overcooked? Especially when you’re cooking over a fire? Here’s our guide to grilling great hamburgers while camping—no portable grill required.
You Will Need:
- A fire that’s been burned down to coals
- Hamburger meat
- Hamburger grilling basket
- Grilling gloves
- Meat thermometer
First, the fire. Not all campfires will yield the same results. It’s important to build a fire with food-safe materials that won’t contribute dangerous fumes to your meal or infuse it with strange flavors. (This means no plastics or trash in your fire.)
Start your fire with a hardwood such as oak or ash. Woods such as pine or cherry can ruin the taste of the meat. (Once you’ve tasted cherry-flavored steak, you won’t forget it. Meat should never taste like cough drop.)
The best time to cook over a fire is after it has burned down to coals. Once you start a fire, this will likely take 30-45 minutes. As you build the fire, make sure to use pieces of firewood that are about the same size. This will help ensure they become coals around the same time. The fire is ready for cooking once the coals are white on the outside and there are no visible flames. (If it’s dark outside, you’ll see an orange glow.)
As you’re waiting for the fire to burn down, prep the hamburger meat. If possible, start with fresh ground beef that’s an 80/20 mix of lean and fat. Shape the meat into patties that are about 1-inch thick, season them with a decent amount of salt and pepper, and place them in a handheld hamburger grilling basket. (Most grilling baskets will hold up at least four patties.) This is the most reliable way to cook burgers over a campfire. Unlike built-in fire grates, you can ensure that it’s always clean, plus it’s easy to control the meat’s distance from the heat.
Once the coals are ready, use the handle to hold the burger basket about 5 inches above them. Holding the basket as the burger cooks gives you the most control. (This is also why its necessary to protect your hands with grilling gloves. You don’t want to grill your hands too!)
Cook the burgers for about 5 minutes, then turn over the grate to cook the other side for an additional 5-7 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to determine when the burgers are done. Here’s a quick reminder:
- Rare: 120°-125°
- Medium Rare: 130°-135°
- Medium: 140°-145°
- Medium Well: 150°-155°
- Well Done: 160°-165°
When the burgers are within 10 degrees of your desired temperature, it’s time to sear them. Searing will give them the charred flavor grilled burgers are known for. To sear, lower the basket so that the burgers are almost touching the hot coals and hold it steady for about 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Once the burgers reach the temp you want, they’re done! All that’s left is to put them on buns and load them up with your favorite fixings. And as long as you’ve got hot coals, follow them up with some s’mores!