A perfectly charred, juicy burger cloaked in a melty layer of cheese is a cookout classic for good reason. Aside from the obvious joy of cooking outdoors, grilling your cheeseburgers over charcoal, atop a wood fire, or in a smoker adds an extra dimension of flavor that’s hard to achieve in your typical kitchen. But cooking over hot coals and open flames can prove challenging, and no one wants to end up with an overdone puck of a patty, runny cheese, a raw interior, or cheese slices that haven’t melted at all. To help you avoid these grievous fates, we consulted a group of professional BBQ chefs and competitive pit cooks to get their top tips for the best possible cheeseburger.

How to make a cheeseburger like a pitmaster, according to the experts:

  • A quality beef blend
  • Nailing the patty thickness
  • Adding hickory chips
  • Patience
  • A reverse sear
  • A half-perforated griddle pan
  • Using the “hot” and “cool” sections of your grill
  • The grill lid or a fireproof mixing bowl to melt the (American) cheese

“Not all ground beef is created equal! I like an 80/20 grind — 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat — over a live fire because it has enough fat to keep the patty moist, but not so much that it flares up a lot or breaks apart.” —Nick Fine, partner and culinary consultant, Wild Oats, Houston

“For cooking over open fire or charcoal, don’t make the patties too big, and make the patties no thicker than 1.25 inches. Sear for two minutes on one side, then one minute on the other side, then move the patties so that they’re not directly over the fire.” —Pat Martin, pitmaster and restaurateur, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, Nashville and Hugh-Baby’s BBQ & Burger Shop, Charleston, S.C.

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“When cooking cheeseburgers over charcoal, start by making sure your coals are fully lit. If you want a little smokiness, add a handful of hickory wood chips onto the coals just before adding your burgers.” —Christie Vanover, championship BBQ chef and founder, Girls Can Grill, Henderson, Nev.

“Take your time with your fire. I think having patience for your wood or coals to get to that right level of heat — where they are glowing with heat, but not smoking too much — is important. It’s a hard one to explain, but when you see it, you’ll know.” —Bob Bennett, head chef, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor, Mich.

“My best tip here is to reverse-sear your burger. Open-flame grilled burgers can flare up and burn really quickly. Slow cooking a thick patty in the oven or smoker to medium or medium rare will allow the grill master to char the exterior of the burger without burning it. It will be mostly cooked by the time it hits the grill, and it will only take a minute or so per side to get that flame-grilled crust and flavor.” —Evan LeRoy, co-owner and pitmaster, LeRoy and Lewis, Austin, Texas

“There is nothing better in the world than a burger cooked over a bed of coals. [I love] the flavor that’s created by fat hitting hot coals, [and] then the smoke from that permeating through the burger. The trick that I use is a carbon-steel griddle pan. The specific one [that I like] is half-perforated, and the other is not. I like to smash the burger on the non-perforated side over a charcoal grill grate, and then slide the burgers over to the perforated side to let that fat drop and season the burger even more!” —Andy Knudson, executive chef, Tillie’s at Camp Lucy, Dripping Springs, Texas

“The best suggestion I could make for wood or charcoal [grilled] burgers would be to start a thicker, good-sized patty on the coolest part of the grill to pick up as much smoke as possible, then finish it over the hottest spot to get a good, quick crust while still keeping the interior all nice and rosy. [Ideally], you’re cooking on an offset grill [smoker], and you can smoke the burgers, then finish them on a grate in the firebox directly over the embers. The technique also works just fine on a standard charcoal grill. As for the cheese, add it right after searing, and be sure to use a mild one that isn’t going to compete with or overpower the smoked flavor that you worked hard to get.” —Shannon Bingham, executive chef, Devil Moon Barbecue, New Orleans

“If your grill doesn’t have a lid, a great hack for a picture-perfect cheese melt is to use a stainless- steel mixing bowl inverted over the burger. This steams and melts the cheese really quickly so the burger doesn’t overcook. Be careful when you remove it, because the metal will be hot. But the best advice for a killer cheeseburger is to use American cheese from the deli, which is sliced a little thicker than the stuff from the packages! It has the perfect ‘meltability’ and unmistakable ‘cheeseburger’ flavor.” —Jess Pryles, pitmaster, competition BBQ judge, and cookbook author, Austin, Texas