If the edge-versus-center debate were about burgers instead of brownies, my allegiances would fall squarely with Team Edge—or, in this case, Team Crust. Because as much as I appreciate the beefy, medium-rare middle of a plump, juicy burger, the savory depth of well-browned beef is simply unrivaled.
That’s why I love smashed burgers. These diner icons share the same thin, verging-on-well-done profile as typical fast-food burgers, as well as their all‑American array of fixings: gooey American cheese; creamy, tangy burger sauce; crisp lettuce; thinly sliced tomato; and a soft bun. But with a smashed burger, extra-special attention is paid to making the brownest, crispiest, most savory crust.
Maximizing that Maillard browning is where technique comes in, but as I discovered, there’s more to it than simply searing the patty hard on each side. Furthermore, you have to get the toppings just right, because smashed burgers—more than any other style of burger—rely on the condiments to deliver the moisture and tenderness that are sacrificed in pursuit of the ultimate crust. It’s a smart, sum-of-its-parts approach to burgers, and when the elements are pitch-perfect and properly assembled, each bite is absolute nirvana.
Smashed burgers are fast and easy to make. Since the patty is thoroughly cooked and the crust delivers so much flavor, there’s no need to be choosy about the cut of beef or grind your own meat. In fact, commercially ground beef (80 percent lean) makes better smashed burgers than home-ground chuck does because the former is more finely ground and thus stays more cohesive when it’s flattened. (Skeptical? See “When Preground Is Preferable.”)
The first step is to form the meat into balls no larger than 4 ounces each (any bigger and the flattened patty will comically overhang the edges of the bun). Then you place a ball in a smoking-hot cast-iron skillet and—literally, as the name suggests—smash it so that the meat spreads out as much as possible and creates loads of surface area for seasoning and browning. It takes only a minute or two for the crust to form, at which point you flip the patty, cook it just a few seconds longer so that the meat cooks through, slide it onto the bun, and top it with cheese. Since the whole operation goes fast, it’s easy to make more. Just scrape out the residual browned bits and repeat.
At least, that’s how it should work, but my results have always been inconsistent. Sometimes the burgers have stayed thin and flat against the metal, searing and crisping deeply; other times they’ve shriveled and cooked up with spotty, disappointing browning—and a smashed burger without its signature crust is just a disk of gray, overcooked meat.
The problem, I realized after closely observing a failed attempt, was sticking—or lack thereof. Meat contracts as it cooks, and unless the patties were uniformly stuck to the metal, they shrank as they seared, going from pancake-thin to too thick in seconds. I then understood why many recipes call for brushing no more than a few drops of oil onto the skillet’s surface and why the best burgers I’d made were the ones that I’d had to scrape loose from the pan (see “The Sticking Point”).
Clearly I needed to refine my smashing tactics so that the meat stuck more, and I started by reconsidering my smashing instrument. When I went at the beef with a metal spatula (the best tool for loosening and flipping the patties), its offset handle made it difficult to press with even force. I rummaged around the kitchen for a better device and eventually found an unlikely alternative: a small saucepan. By gripping the sides of the pan, I was well positioned to press straight down on the ball of meat so that it spread into a round that made stronger, more uniform contact with the skillet. The raw meat left a bit of a mess on the bottom of the saucepan, but I fixed that by wrapping the pan in a large piece of aluminum foil, which made cleanup a cinch. (A burger press and a 28-ounce can made fine substitutes for the saucepan; for more information, see “Press Credentials.”)
Knowing that the meat needed to be really anchored to the skillet, I also put even more mustard behind my pressing motion than I had been, which had the added benefit of maximizing the patty’s brownable surface area. The downside was that the burger now overhung the bun by a good inch or two, which looked silly and made the whole package awkward to eat. So I decided to divide and conquer: Instead of making two 4-ounce patties, I split the beef into four 2-ounce balls. Even when flattened as much as possible, two of these smaller patties fit in the skillet together, and each one extended just past the edge of the bun, accentuating the effect of their jagged, supercrispy edges in a way that I hadn’t even anticipated.
The other benefit of double-stacked patties was that they helped the cheese between them melt. By the time I topped the patties with lettuce and tomato and capped them with the buns (which I toasted and spread with a creamy mayonnaise, shallot, ketchup, and pickle sauce ahead of time to make assembly easy), the slice was starting to seep into the meat, acting almost like a rich, salty cheese sauce. It was precisely the right effect for this application, and to hammer it home, I made sure to use ultramelty Kraft Singles.
With that, I had ironed out every detail for my ultimate smashed burger and could get back to campaigning for Team Crust. Who’s with me?