Confession time: I genuinely enjoy turkey burgers. If you’ve encountered a truly bad version (plenty exist) or consider it a punishment to eat a burger made from anything but beef, hear me out: There’s a lot to like about a well‑made turkey burger. Think a light, juicy texture; savory meat; and a tender, well‑browned crust.
For turkey burger success, you must first make peace with the obvious: Ground turkey isn’t ground beef. It’s very wet—71 percent water versus 66 percent for beef—which makes it hard to work with, yet it can easily cook up dry. That’s because ground turkey must be cooked to 160 degrees. At that temperature, nearly all the turkey’s abundant moisture will have been squeezed out by contracting proteins. Thorough mixing also causes the myosin (a sticky protein) in the ground turkey to link up tightly, so the burger turns dense.
Many recipes mitigate dry, compact patties by adding mix-ins such as vegetables, beans, and grains that either contribute or trap moisture or break up the texture of the patty. Unfortunately, with too many additions, the result often resembles a veggie burger, perpetuating the idea that ground turkey makes a laughable meal for a meat lover. It’s true that to make an extraordinary burger, ground turkey needs a little help. The key is to choose the right mix-ins and use as little of them as you can get away with.
Pulsing a whole cut of turkey in the food processor would have allowed me to produce a coarse grind for a loose-textured patty, but that was too much trouble for an everyday recipe, so I set my sights on improving the preground stuff. Just like packaged ground beef, packaged ground turkey is blended to have a range of fat contents. I knew that the 99 percent lean type was a nonstarter; the greater amount of fat in 93 percent lean turkey (more widely available than 85 percent lean) would provide more flavor and moisture.
To address the dense consistency that the sticky myosin produces, I added panko bread crumbs, which physically disrupted the proteins and made the meat feel coarse and light (rather than tough and dense) on the tongue. For 1 pound of turkey, 3 tablespoons of panko did the job without making the burgers taste bready.
But panko wasn’t a panacea. Kneading and squeezing the turkey to evenly incorporate the bread crumbs created too sturdy a myosin gel, resulting in a springy, sausage-like consistency. To get around this, I broke the slab of ground turkey into ½-inch pieces prior to adding the panko. This exposed more surface area for even dispersal of the crumbs, reduced the amount of mixing required, and kept the meat loose.
Now the turkey had a pleasant texture, but after reaching 160 degrees, it still wasn’t juicy. A couple of test kitchen tricks took care of that. First, I bathed the meat in a solution of baking soda dissolved in a teaspoon of water. The baking soda solution raised the pH, changing the protein structure and enabling the meat to better retain moisture. (It also sped up the Maillard reaction, providing better browning.) Second, I added a bit of unflavored gelatin to hold moisture, creating a juicy mouthfeel.
A satisfying burger needs some richness, so next I added a bit of melted butter. A single tablespoon solidified when it hit the cold meat, creating tiny particles of fat throughout the patties that remelted during cooking to produce a rich taste and texture.
To augment the meat’s savoriness, I experimented with glutamate-rich soy sauce, Parmesan, and ground shiitake mushrooms separately and in combination. The mushrooms overwhelmed the meat, but 1½ tablespoons of soy sauce together with 3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan packed a solid umami punch without being overpowering. When shaping the patties, I used a gentle hand to keep the burger mix coarse and loose.
We often cook burgers by searing the patties in a sizzling-hot skillet. The outside of the meat quickly browns while the interior stays cooler. But the interior of a turkey burger needs to be cooked thoroughly, and in a hot skillet the exterior is likely to overcook and turn leathery by the time the interior is done. Unless I wanted to negate all the advances I had already made, I needed to come up with a new method.
I made a couple of bold decisions. First, I would start the patties in a cold oiled skillet. Once they were in place, I turned the heat to medium, and then, when I started to hear sizzling, I covered the pan. The lid trapped the moisture that escaped from the turkey, enveloping the burgers in steam so they cooked quickly and evenly. After about 2½ minutes, I flipped the patties (which were nicely browned on the bottom), covered them, and continued to cook them until they reached 160 degrees and the second side was golden brown. These burgers hit all the right notes: deep browning; a tender crust; a pleasantly coarse and juicy texture; and rich, savory flavor.
I melted cheese onto the burgers and then sandwiched them between soft buns with the works: lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and mayonnaise. And for those times when I wanted to go all out, I created a recipe for my new favorite burger topping: quick‑pickled avocado slices. Almost any fruit or vegetable can be pickled, including fatty avocados. The result is both creamy and tangy—the ideal crown for a turkey burger worth bragging about.