I used to have a sociological hamburger theory.
Growing up in Philly and Michigan, I thought a hamburger was big and fat, the type my mom made, the kind (amped up in size and quality) made famous at the 21 Club in New York. My wife thought a hamburger was thin and crusty, the sort she ate at the Diamond Inn, a homey cafe in the small Central Texas town of Taylor, where she grew up.
My theory was this: The tall burger was emblematic of the verticality of New York (and urban America), while the flat burger represented the horizontalness of Texas (and rural America).
If there was anything to that theory, it has crumbled like a stale brioche bun by now. The thin, or smash, burger is everywhere, at In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys, Shake Shack and more. Its crispiness adds texture to the orb’s juiciness. When patties are stacked one atop another as a double-meat double-cheese, it becomes a transporting experience. Yet the thick, a.k.a. tavern, burger remains a mainstay in pubs, back yards and high-end restaurants. The brawny sphere exudes enormous beefy taste, and, unlike a smash burger, it can be cooked to medium-rare, giving it a deeply satisfying flavor profile.
Which is better, you ask? My answer: Why choose? When I recently gathered my wife and a couple of friends for burger taste tests, we liked both styles. The surprise is in the best method to produce them: a cast-iron skillet on a grill. This lets burgers of either variety cook in their own juices, leaving them fantastically moist, while allowing for some smoke to waft in.
But there’s more to it than that. Here, drawing on my recent tests and a little help from experts, are tips to help you create the best burger you can, whichever style you prefer:
Choose the right meat. The best burgers come from freshly ground meat. Either grind your own or ask a butcher to grind it for you. Whatever you do, don’t buy packages labeled hamburger or ground beef. They can contain meat from any of the primal cuts of the animal, which means you have no idea what you’re getting.
For a wow factor, go for a custom blend. Elias Taddesse, the former executive chef of the Michelin-starred Caviar Russe in New York, makes a great burger at Mélange at Wet Dog Tavern in Northwest D.C. from a combination of equal parts brisket, short rib and beef shank. I like a combination of brisket, chuck and sirloin.
But great burgers can also be made from all chuck, which comes from the shoulder; it’s widely available and flavorful, with a good balance of meat (80 percent) and fat (20 percent). Fat is flavor, so if you choose packaged ground chuck, make sure it has at least 20 percent.
Don’t overwork it. That creates a dense burger. To optimize the juiciness, handle the meat just enough to barely form a patty.
Season the outside only. This keeps you from kneading the meat to spread the seasoning around. Use only salt and pepper, after forming the patties, to showcase the full flavor of beef. And season aggressively.
Cook in a cast-iron skillet, even on the grill. It’s the same reason that Taddesse and other burger-meisters cook on a flat top: You can control the patty better, and the juices don’t drip through the grates. (Of course, you could also cook it on the stovetop. But it’s summer. Use the grill to cook the rest of the meal and avoid heating up the kitchen.)
Don’t squash the patty. Constantly pressing on a burger while it’s cooking releases too much of its juice. Don’t do it — unless you are making a smash burger. Smash those once and only once, when you set the ball of meat onto the cooking surface. And then stop.
Serve on a soft bun. To Michael McDearman, a judge for the World Burger Championship, the bun is the second-most important consideration after the choice of meat. “When you bite into the bun, you should not have to unhinge your jaw,” he says. “It should have enough substance to hold what you put on [the burger]. It should complement. When I bite into it, I want to get every flavor of that bite.” Shake Shack uses resilient, pillowy Martin’s potato rolls. Just sayin’.
Use whatever condiments you like. Take that, ketchup-haters. Also consider protecting your burger eating experience. Tommy Shive, the 2017 winner of the World Burger Championship, suggests placing lettuce on the bottom bun to keep it from getting soggy.
Go American. If you love blue or Gouda or Swiss or cheddar on a burger, go for it. But if you haven’t tried it, know that nothing melts all gooey onto and into the meat like American. No cheese is content to play a supporting role like American. No other cheese is called American, which means, by nomenclature alone, it is perfect for that most American of foods.
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