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. The beef fat collected in a hot skillet acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent. 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 have its own definite taste.
A grill is too difficult – a hot skillet is what you want.
We will return to the business of how to use that skillet — the surface on which you cook is only one component of hamburger excellence. There is also the size of the hamburger. There is the kind of meat used to create it. There is the bun. There is cheese or there is not. There are tomato debates, lettuce quarrels (on top or on the bottom?). There are questions of ketchup, of mustard, of pickles, of onions.
Some of these things are matters of personal taste, but for people who know burgers well, there is little disagreement about the best practices for making an exceptional one.
It is best to start at the beginning. 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 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 and there are risks. Things happen like bad things – Shrinkage. Home cooks should experiment with blends that contain from 20 to 25 percent fat.
Restaurateurs, sometimes driven by the marketing efforts of celebrity butchers, tout hamburger blends of chuck and brisket, hanger and strip steak, short rib and clod.
There are pitfalls to buying preground supermarket chuck steak, experts say. In addition to concerns about the health risks associated with preground 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. 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, 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. 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.
The pub-style burger is in some ways even easier to make. The key, is not to handle the meat too much. A lot of people make the mistake of packing the burger really tightly. But what you want is for it just to hold together, no more. Simply grab a handful of beef and form it into a burger shape, then get it into the pan, season it and cook for about three minutes. Then turn it over and, if using, add cheese. The burger is done three to four minutes later for medium-rare.
Most people don’t melt the cheese enough. Keep in mind it’s very important to dress the hamburger with cheese as soon as the patty is flipped. You want a curtain of cheese to enrobe the meat. The rennet in it really adds a lot of flavor.
Which cheese you use is a matter of preference but don’t sneeze at the highly processed slice that has covered the nation’s hamburgers since the early days of White Castle restaurants. American cheese is designed to melt, and it has 50 percent more sodium than Cheddar or Swiss, so it adds a lot of flavor while also helping to hold the smashed patty together.
In choosing buns, restaurateurs may offer hamburgers on special brioche, or fancy English muffins. 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. Symon said. 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, 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.
People really overcomplicate hamburgers. They substitute complication for proper cooking technique.
Source: NYtimes.com, 6-24-2014