A Hamburger Today
The Food Lab: Maximize Flavor by Ultra-Smashing Your Burger
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By now we all know that the old piece of burger wisdom, "never press on your burger!," is either patently false or, at the very least, wildly inaccurate. Heck, there's an entire successful burger chain devoted to using the technique. While a more traditional griddled burger might be cooked with the goals of a loose, tender texture in mind, a smashed burger goes for one thing only: maximum crust.
See, by placing a ball of meat on a hot, un-oiled griddle and smashing it down firmly into a flat, thin disk, you greatly increase the contact points between the meat and the griddle, which in turn increases the Maillard reaction. That's the series of chemical reactions that creates the rich brown crust that makes our steaks and burgers taste so freaking good. Maximum crust = maximum flavor = maximum craving.
I've already discussed the basic ins and outs of smashed burgers in the past, but after writing that article, I found myself wondering, what if I were to take this to the extreme? Is there a way I can pack even more flavor into a burger?
Spoiler alert: the answer is a big fat (or should I say short smashed?) yes.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I'm a writer by accident and a cook by design. In fact, for many years, while I was still living in Boston, I had the goal of returning to the world of restaurant kitchens by opening up my own burger joint. I even went as far as to get a partner, do market research, write up a business plan (truly the most mind-numbing experience of my life), check out spaces, design a menu and logo, and get asked in no uncertain terms* by a number of potential investors you want that much money in this economy?!
*insofar as it is possible to ask with no uncertainty, that is.
Needless to say, that burger joint never came to fruition and it's probably all for the best—I can't imagine a better way to live life than to get paid to do what you love doing, all while still having weekends and holidays to be with friends and family (that's something you don't get with a restaurant life). But still, that little voice in my head was still there. What if you'd done it?
I finally got the chance to live out that dream—and answer the ultra-smashed burger questions—about a year ago when some friends of mine who live in the neighborhood told me they were opening up a new burger joint down the block. Struggling to come up with a clear menu concept, they asked if I'd help them out. You mean I get to live out my dream of opening up a burger joint and help out my neighborhood, all with no actual financial responsibility? I thought to myself. Count me in!**
**For the record, in order to avoid any conflict of interest with my work here, I have no continuing financial stake in the restaurant, and my consulting and training payments were directly donated to local charities.
It's not that the up-and-coming area of Harlem around Lenox and 125th Street was completely lacking in burgers—both Red Rooster and Chez Lucienne serve great ones—but what it was missing was a strong competitor in the fast-casual department. A burger that uses high quality ingredients, but is aimed at quicker dining with less fuss. A burger that's a reasonable enough size that you can eat one for lunch without feeling weighed down the rest of the day, all without compromising on flavor. Thus Harlem Shake was born.***
***And before you even ask, it was named before that song!
The question is, with so many competitors in that space, how do you differentiate yourself? Can you really do something different with a burger that's not just a novelty?
From the get-go, I knew that smashing would be part of it. The technique is not anything particularly new, but credit goes to the Shake Shack for perfecting it by incorporating the use of a low-emissivity Miraclean griddle, and a stiff scraper for picking up more crust than had ever been possible before. It's a fantastic technique for a fast-casual burger joint because it not only produces great flavor, but it also cuts burger cooking time down significantly, meaning less waiting for the customer after they place an order.
The idea with the Harlem Shake burger was to take it one step further. Rather than a single 4-ounce patty, what would happen if we split that beef in half, producing two 2-ounce patties and effectively doubling the amount of crust?
It took several months of finagling—finding the right tools for the job, hitting the right heat level, tasting various burger blends, nailing down a repeatable procedure—but in the end it was a success. A smashing success, you might say.
Here's how it's done at the restaurant.
Step 1: Place the Patties
You start by placing two 2-ounce patties on the surface of a hot (and I mean hot) griddle. These are relatively high-fat patties (around 25%), made from a combination of short rib, brisket, and sirloin from Pat LaFrieda.
Step 2: Smash the Patties
We tried a whole host of instruments for smashing our patties before settling on a standard plastering trowel, which is essentially a steel plate attached to a wooden handle. It gives you good leverage, which is important—remember, we're smashing petite 2-ounce patties down to a size that's wide enough to fit on a standard burger bun.
One of the real keys here is to use an un-greased surface. You want the meat to stick, so as to maximize contact points for browning.
Step 3: Season
Next up, the patties get seasoned with salt and pepper. When you've got great beef, it's the only additional flavoring it needs. Think of it as a suit and tie for your patties.
Step 4: Scrape the Patties
After just about 30 seconds, the burgers are ready to scrape. One of the great things about the Miraclean griddle is that it heats almost completely through conduction. That is, you have to come into direct contact with it to feel its heat—you can hold your hand inches away from its surface and not feel a thing. This means that while your crust is developing, the upper portions of the patty don't cook as fast as they would on a standard griddle.
To scrape up the browned bits in the burgers, we use a heavy-duty scraper with a 4-inch razor blade, pressing down on it firmly and working around the patty to make sure every last bit of flavor is lifted from that griddle.
Step 5: Flip and Cheese
After flipping the burger, a slice of american (or cheddar) cheese is added to one of the patties and the second patty is placed directly on top. This way, the cheese gets heated from both sides simultaneously and rapidly melts, helping the patties stay together on their trip to the sandwich.
Step 6: Stack and Go
Here's the thing with ultra-smashed burgers. As with all decisions you make in life, this one comes with a tradeoff. You're never gonna achieve the trued medium-rare center that you can get with a bigger, fatter burger. The patties are simply too thin. This means yes, your burgers come out a little bit dryer, but there are ways to minimize that effect.
For one thing, the patties are cooked almost 100% unilaterally. That is, they spend most of their time with one side down, developing that massive crust. Once you flip them, you've got to work as quickly as possible—that second side should cook for no more than a few seconds.
That center layer of cheese is also of vital importance, providing fat and moisture to each bite.
From start to finish—from the time the meat gets laid down to the time the burger hits the window—the process takes less than a minute.
The basic cheeseburger at Harlem Shake comes on a Martin's potato roll toasted in butter, along with some homemade pickled cucumbers and onions, and a squirt of a salty-sweet special sauce made with plenty of black pepper.
That's not to say you can't get other things on your burger like, oh, this Jerk Fry Burger. (Pardon a brief moment or two of shameless plugging):
Pickles, onions, tomato, shredded lettuce, smoked jerk mayonnaise, and french fries (cooked in real beef tallow!) tossed in jerk seasoning piled on top of the patty. There are a few other topping options on the menu (like a pickled cherry pepper-bacon relish and a version piled with fried pork rinds), along with homemade veggie or turkey versions of every burger, natural casing hot dogs (bacon-wrapped and deep-fried, if you'd like), a real patty melt, a couple fried chicken sandwiches, some salads, and of course shakes.****
****And yes, that's a Big Red you see there. Part of my stipulations for helping out were to have a fridge stocked with all my favorite sodas: Big Red, Cheerwine, Vernor's Ginger Ale, Foxon Park Birch Beer, Boylan's Grape Soda, Ting, and Mexican Coke, to name a few.
Bringing it Home
So that's how you can do it in a restaurant space. What about at home?
The process really isn't that different; you just need a slightly different set of tools. Like the restaurant version, it starts with good beef. You can grind your own, or just buy fresh-ground beef from a good butcher or supermarket. The key is making sure it contains enough fat to get the whole thing sizzling without having to grease your pan. Fresh-ground chuck will do, and use a scale if you want to be precise (and why wouldn't you want to be?).
Unlike with regular burgers, you actually want to work this meat a little bit and help it bind together. Some gentle massaging, followed by packing it into 2-ounce balls. is all it takes.
For cooking, I use either a stainless steel or cast iron pan, with my preference leaning towards the former. A wide, straight-sided sauté pan or slope-sided skillet does the trick and cuts down a bit on the inevitable fat spatters. You want to preheat the pan over high heat for several minutes—600 to 700°F is what you're going for here. Whatever you do, stay away from non-stick. Not only will it prevent proper crust development, but it's also unsafe to heat non-stick surfaces to temperatures above 450°F or so—the coating vaporizes.
To smash the burgers, I use my favorite Due Buoi wide spatula, using a second spatula to apply pressure to the top.
Just as they do at the restaurant, the burgers should take under a minute to develop a good crust, which means that even before it hits the pan, you should have a buttered-and-toasted bun, complete with toppings, ready to go. And, of course, that slice of cheese.
Scraping the patties can be done with the same stiff spatula, but a sharp bench scraper does the job even better, provided you're not afraid of the pan. Don't be. I'm pretty sure hot fat can sense fear. Some heavy duty protective gloves can help.
As soon as the patties are flipped, and I mean as soon as they're flipped, add cheese to one patty and stack the other on top. I'd recommend either using a store-bought American cheese (see our taste test here), or homemade melty cheese slices. You need a good melter to help bind the patties together.
And onto the prepared bun they go. You can mix it up with the toppings, but try and keep it simple. This is a burger that's all about the beef. I like sliced onions, dill pickles, some shredded lettuce to help catch any dripping juice (and there will be dripping juice), and a mayo-based condiment (in this case, it's some basic homemade mayonnaise).
And there you've got it. It's a burger that packs in a crazy amount of flavor in a single, manageable, 4-ounce package. The textural contrasts you get from just the patty and cheese alone are mind-blowingly good. Juicy meat, gooey cheese, and crisp, lacy crust are just about everything I want in a burger. A burger that cooks in under a minute, no less.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.