EAT + DRINK
Cook a Perfect Burger
in your own backyard
Some like ‘em thin and crispy around the edges. Some like ‘em plump and juicy. No matter. Because for meat lovers, nothing beats a good burger.
How to make a great hamburger is a question that has bedeviled the nation for generations, for as long as Americans have had griddles and broilers, for as long as summertime shorts-wearing cooks have gone into the yard to grill.
But the answer is simple, according to many of those who make and sell the nation’s best hamburgers: Cook on heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles. Cook outside if you like, heating the pan over the fire of a grill, but never on the grill itself. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.
“That is the best way to do it,” says George Motz, the documentary filmmaker who released Hamburger America in 2005 and has since become a leading authority on hamburgers. “The beef fat collected in a hot skillet acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent,” Mr. Motz says. “Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself. A great burger should be like a baked potato or sashimi. It should taste completely of itself.”
Great hamburgers fall into two distinct categories. There is the traditional griddled hamburger of diners and takeaway spots, smashed thin and cooked crisp on its edges. And there is the pub- or tavern-style hamburger, plump and juicy, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat within.
The diner hamburger has a precooked weight of 3 to 4 ounces, roughly an ice-cream-scoop’s worth of meat. The pub-style one is heavier, but not a great deal heavier. Its precooked weight ought to fall, experts say, between 7 and 8 ounces.
Whichever style you cook, pay close attention to the cuts of beef used in the grind. The traditional hamburger is made of ground chuck steak, rich in both fat and flavor, in a ratio that ideally runs about 80 percent meat, 20 percent fat. Less fat leads to a drier hamburger. Avoid, the experts say, supermarket blends advertised with words like “lean.”
Too much fat, on the other hand, can lead to equally troubling issues, and a mess in both fact and flavor. “You get up around 30 percent fat,” Mr. Motz says, and there are risks. “Things happen,” he said. “Bad things. Shrinkage.” Home cooks should experiment, he said, with blends that contain from 20 to 25 percent fat.
There are pitfalls to buying pre-ground supermarket chuck steak, experts say. In addition to concerns about the health risks associated with pre-ground hamburger meat, there are culinary considerations as well. The grind most markets use is “fine,” which means the fat globules in it are small. That can lead to the dreaded mushy mouth feel of a substandard hamburger. Better (and safer) to have a butcher grind your meat, asking for a coarse grind so that the ratio of meat to fat is clear to the eye.
Whatever the blend, it is wise to keep the meat in the refrigerator, untouched, until you are ready to cook. “Hamburgers are one of the few meats you want to cook cold,” Mr. Motz said. “You want the fat solid when the patty goes onto the skillet. You don’t want any smearing.”
Forming the patties is a delicate art. For the thin, diner-style hamburger, Mr. Motz says, simply use a spoon or an ice-cream scoop to extract a loose golf ball of meat from the pile, and get it onto the skillet in one swift movement. “You don’t need to set the heat below it to stun,” he said. “A medium-hot pan will do it, accompanied for the first burger with a pat of melted butter to get the process started.”
Then, a heresy to many home cooks: the smash. Use a heavy spatula to press down on the meat, producing a thin patty about the size of a hamburger bun. “Everyone freaks out about that,” Mr. Motz says. “But it’s the only time you’re touching the meat, and you’re creating this great crust in doing it.” Roughly 90 seconds later, after seasoning the meat, you can slide your spatula under the patty, flip it over, add cheese if you’re using it, and cook the hamburger through.
“Most people don’t melt the cheese enough,” Mr. Motz says. He emphasizes the need to dress the hamburger with cheese as soon as the patty is flipped. “You want a curtain of cheese to enrobe the meat,” he says. “The rennet in it really adds a lot of flavor.”
In choosing buns, restaurateurs may offer hamburgers on special brioche from Balthazar, or fancy English muffins from Bays. But home cooks can do very well indeed with more commercial options, in particular potato buns, which offer a soft and sturdy platform for the meat.
The most important factor is, again, ratio. “The bun-to-burger ratio is incredibly important,” Mr. Motz says. “You want a soft bun, like a challah or potato, but whichever you use it shouldn’t overwhelm the burger. They should be as one.”
Finally, there are condiments. You pull your burgers off the skillet, place them on the buns and then offer them to guests to dress. Ripe tomatoes and cold lettuce should be offered (“Only bibb lettuce,” Mr. Motz says, “for its crispness and ability to hold the juices of the meat”) along with ketchup, mustard and, for a hardy few, mayonnaise or mayonnaise mixtures. Onions excite some. Pickles, others.
But do not overdress.