This really good turkey burger recipe is more about technique than anything else. From here, you can take it and adapt it to suit your personal tastes.
TW: some discussion of diet culture
Back in 2013, the most exciting cooking Jimmy and I did involved trekking down to the slopped, grassy run behind our apartment building where we had a mini grill set up.
Cornish game hens, sausages, chicken thighs, veggies — you name it, we (okay, mostly Jimmy) were grilling it. Except for turkey burgers. Every time I suggested turkey burgers he told me he "just didn't like them." But he also couldn't remember the last time he'd tried one. So I set out to change his mind.
In exchange for teaching me how to grill, Jimmy promised he would try a turkey burger. Why was I so obsessed with turkey burgers? I liked them, of course, but also I was still learning to shake off the grips of diet culture and thought turkey burgers were a "good" food that was "healthier" than whatever else he was grilling.
I use air quotes not because turkey burgers aren't "good" or aren't "healthy" — but because now I know better than to ascribe moral values to food, and I know that healthy means different things to different people. But I digress.
Jimmy showed me how to start a charcoal fire and the importance of keeping half of the grill cool and the other hot. And I shaped ground turkey into patties (with some other seasonings too, I'm not a heathen) and we grilled them and they were good.
Not great, but good for our cooking skills at the time. Good enough that Jimmy conceded that turkey burgers were not the dry, tasteless patty he had anticipated. He was willing to give them another try.
Gary's towering turkey patties topped with BBQ sauce, thick slices of cheese, and sweet caramelized turkey bacon were everything you don't expect turkey burgers to be. Moist, tender, juicy, packed with lots of flavor. Lines for Gary's began as early as 7 a.m. You'd have to put your name down on a list, and return 30 minutes later to pick up your order. Waking up early to be there was worth it.
It was in that wait time that we learned some secrets of a quality turkey burger straight from the master himself. Things like adding curry powder to the meat mixture and brushing the patties with BBQ sauce while they sit on the grill. In the winter months, when the market was closed, we'd make our own versions of Gary's burgers.
Now, look, I can't tell you if eating these turkey burgers will make you a good person (though if you make them and post a photo on Instagram and tag me, I will think you're a good person). But I can tell you they are just really good turkey burgers.
They taste good and I like eating them because I like them. That's it. That's the whole story. But if you've been suffering through dry, crumbly turkey burgers because you feel like you should, I'm here to show you just how tasty they can be.
how to shape a burger patty that stays flat
This technique will help ensure your burgers are well seasoned and stay flat while cooking. These are turkey burgers, but this will work with any kind of burger!
- Divide mixture and shape into baseball sized rounds. Then flatten into discs.
- Season the outside of the burger with kosher salt and ground pepper. There's no salt in the burger mixture itself.
- Before placing the burger in the pan, flip the burger patty over and make an indentation on the unseasoned side. This side will be face up in the pan.
- Place the patties down in a hot pan with plenty of oil so they don’t stick. Then season top side with salt and pepper.
a few quick turkey burger cooking tips
The recipe I'm giving you today is more about technique than anything else. Flavor-wise, think of it as a solid foundation. From here, you can take it and adapt it to suit your personal tastes. That said, there are a few steps of the process that should not be skipped.
- Unlike beef burgers, turkey burgers must be cooked all the way through. No medium rare, pink centers here.
- Do not add salt to the turkey mixture. Salt removes moisture from the meat and can make burgers tough instead of tender. Add salt to the outside of the burger patty right before putting it on the pan.
- After you shape the patties, use your thumb to create an indentation on each of the flat sides. The meat expands while it cooks, and this will help the patties stay flat instead of bowing outward.
- To make any seasoning adjustments to your turkey burger before shaping the mixture into patties, cook a teaspoon of it in a skillet (salt the outsides) and taste it.
- If you want to add BBQ sauce, use a silicone basting brush to apply it in the last minute of cooking, after each side of the patty has cooked. This works best if you're cooking them on a grill. It does work on a cast iron, but can get a bit messy.
other Baltimore-inspired recipes:
- Southwestern Egg Rolls (Mustang Alley's)
- Papermoon Cheesesteaks (Papermoon Diner)
- Orange-cardamom ice cream with hot fudge swirl (Pitango Gelato)
- Lemon Cauliflower Soup (The Charleston)
really good turkey burgers
- ½ medium onion, small dice
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 sprigs rosemary, minced
- 1½ teaspoon curry powder
- 1 lb ground turkey
- 2 teaspoon salt, divided (for the outside of the burger patties)
- ¼ cup BBQ sauce for basting (see notes)
- ¼ cup thinly sliced red onions
- 4 slices cheese of your choosing
- 4 slices bacon
- Combine onion, garlic, rosemary, pepper, and curry powder together in a large bowl. Add the turkey last and mix with your hands just until evenly combined. Do not overmix.
- Divide turkey mixture into quarters (use a kitchen scale if you want to be precise) and shape into balls.
- Flatten each ball into a patty ¾"-1" thick, approximately 4" wide.
- Use your thumb to make indentations on the flat sides of each patties to help them stay flat while cooking.
- Heat 1-2 tablespoon oil in a cast iron pan over medium heat. You'll know it's ready when a droplet of water flicked into the pan sizzles and evaporates immediately.
- Generously salt the outside of each patty before placing it in the pan. Holding the patty in the palm of your hand, sprinkle salt over the side facing up, then place the patty salt-side down in the skillet. Repeat for each patty. Cook 5 minutes.
- Just before flipping the patties, salt the tops. Then flip and cook an additional 4-5 minutes on the second side.
- Serve on your favorite burger buns with your favorite burger toppings.
- If you want to add BBQ sauce, use a silicone basting brush to apply it in the last minute of cooking, after each side of the patty has cooked. This works best if you’re cooking them on a grill. It does work on a cast iron, but can get a bit messy.
- If adding cheese, place it over the top of each patty in the last 30-60 seconds of cooking and cover the skillet.
- If adding onions, soften them in the pan after flipping the burgers, then place them on top of the cheese while it melts to secure them in place.
- To make any seasoning adjustments to your turkey burger before shaping the mixture into patties, cook a teaspoon of it in a skillet and taste it.