By Jessica Born / May 28, 2021

Hamburgers: Exploring the basics of burgers, grilling, and STEM

National Hamburger Day is May 28. National Today has some history and fun fast facts including that American cheese is the predictable favorite topper and that Kansas-based White Castle was the first major burger chain. You’ve also likely seen the stat that McDonald’s has served billions of burgers to date (estimates are hitting about 300 billion!!). Adding to their impact, apparently “worldwide, McDonald’s sells 75 hamburgers per second!” (Parade). We love trivia and history, but let’s just get to the meat of this subject – how STEM can help you make the best burger.

Burger Basics

Cooking is one of our favorite ways to demonstrate everyday, real-world STEM.

Food Network gives you the lowdown for the “perfect” burger in this video:

 

Simply Recipes outlines a similar process, and The Art of Manliness has an illustrated guide for reference.

In summary, your burger-making musts:

  • A clean grill that you’ll oil
  • Cold, 80/20 ground beef and desired seasonings
  • Caution in not overmixing the meat
  • Well-shaped patties with a dimple in the center
  • Choice of cooking time (4-9 minutes based on desired doneness)
  • Only one burger flip (and no pressing!)

Now, the bun, condiments, and toppings (and how they’re added) are entirely another layer in this conversation. And people are pretty opinionated too – because it’s highly subjective.

Real Simple says mustard, no ketchup. Bon Appetit says special sauce and definitely no mustard or tomato. Mashed says specifically, “Bottom bun, ketchup and mustard, pickles, patty, cheese (if that’s the way you roll, otherwise put it underneath the patty and keep your burger right side up), tomato, lettuce, onion, mayo, top bun.” The Kitchn has similar thoughts on the order and adds bacon between the meat and cheese.

But overall, we say you top it with what you enjoy best! Or, make it fun and experiment; Delish has 100 ideas to try!

Science of Grilling

You might have heard that grilling is an art. That might be true, but it’s also very much based on science. This video from Reactions, a YouTube channel from American Chemistry Society and PBS, gives you a quick yet detailed explanation behind the chemical reactions that lead to grilling success, includes information on the debate between gas and charcoal (spoiler: they say gas is the way to go).

 

If you’re not into videos, Popular Science basically summarizes the highlights:

Meat goes through a number of complex processes after it hits the grill. Raw beef gets its reddish hue from a protein called myoglobin. Cows have slow twitch muscles, which are used for a long period of time and require a lot of energy. Myoglobin proteins are especially high in these types of muscles because they can provide cows a consistent supply of oxygen. When the meat reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 Celsius), the myoglobin begins to oxidize and the beef will turn brown.

Another big transformation happens as the Maillard reactions start to occur. When you sear your meat, proteins and sugars within the meat break down, creating the Maillard reaction. About 3,000 to 4,000 new chemical compounds are formed during this process, giving the meat a more complex flavor.

Grilling Tech

From fire to wireless gadgets, technology is part of being a grill master. Bon Appetit has a great summary of American grilling technology, including the 1950s iteration of the grill many of us use today and the revolutionary Big Green Egg of the 1970s. And PCMag shares some of the latest tech that will up your expertise. For example, the Weber iGrill helps you know exactly when your meat is done, and a Traeger can be controlled wirelessly.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention fast-food hamburgers. Engineering, technology, and math have made a major impact on the processes and innovation of fast food, from the stores themselves to food packaging, supply chains, order processes, employee and customer interactions, and even the food.

The first hamburger chain, White Castle, was started in 1921, and the first McDonald’s was born in 1940. The McDonalds brothers revolutionized the way their restaurant worked by focusing on speed, volume, and cleanliness – they basically brought the engineering design process to life many times over until they had their best processes. Fast forward, now we have apps and kiosks to order our food, email marketing and social media to let us connect with brands and other fans, and even robots to flip burgers. And, this recent article talks about how the expanding future of fast food.   

Serving up Hands-On Fun

Our favorite activity idea is to get simply get hands on and create your best burger with what you’ve learned thus far. (We support repeated testing and iterations for good measure 😉.) In case you’re looking for other classroom applications and ideas, we’ve rounded up a few:

  • Build a Grill: We adore this grilling-season inspired activity from Naomi Meredith at The STEMTech Co., which has students build tongs, a grill grate, and even cook shish kebabs.

  • Design a Healthy Meal: Thinkport from the Maryland State Department of Education has a digital lesson where students can build a healthier fast-food meal, and it even calls out STEM career connections.

  • Supply Chain Logistics: Explore the processes it takes to get ingredients to a grocery store or restaurant and then to the consumer. Check out this Pitsco SySTEM Alert! issue for some supply chain highlights.
    • Take it further: Interview a local distribution company or logistics manager to find out more about the field, their daily work, and the education they needed to do the work.
  • How to Make a Hamburger: Have students create a step-by-step guide that explains how to make a hamburger. They’ll practice identifying processes as well as documenting and explaining them.
    • Bonus: Have students try to make the burgers based on their instructions using play food or construction paper burger elements.
  • Polling and Graphing: Have students conduct polls for favorite burger toppings and report the results using charts or graphs.

  • Measurement, Data, and Financial Literacy: Students can practice placing and taking orders and then paying and making change for the items.

  • Design Challenges:
    • Have students consider burger packaging at restaurants. Can they design their own version or redesign existing packaging to improve it and/or change its environmental impact?
    • Consider restaurant design. Have students design a complete restaurant or the back-of-house operations. Provide specific parameters to add to guide the challenge or enhance the task.

Have other burger-inspired activities? Please share in the comments.

And, now after all that burger talk, we’re hungry. Let’s make the most of grilling season! 🍔

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TOPICS: IDEAS & INSPIRATION, Science, STEM, Activities, Hands-on Learning

Jessica Born

Written by Jessica Born

Well, hey there! I’m the digital marketing manager for Pitsco Education. Marketing and special events have been my jam for about the last decade. I’m an alumna of Kansas State University and the University of Arkansas. I fill my Pitsco days with social media management and supporting video and web projects. My weekends are for time in the kitchen, real estate and home projects, and adventuring with my husband and our Dood, Garth. The best part of my role here is getting to bring creativity and organization to our efforts to connect with YOU!