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How to Make the Ultimate Smashed Burger

By Lan Lam Published

The best burgers usually revolve around bespoke blends that cook up ultrajuicy, but this diner staple trades on one simple truth: Crust is king.

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.

Getting Stuck

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.”)

Ingredient Spotlight: When Preground Is Preferable

Most burgers are best made from meat you grind yourself, but there are two reasons (in addition to speed and ease) you should make smashed burgers with commercially ground beef. First, the commercial stuff is ground finer and thus contains more free myosin, a sticky meat protein that helps the patties hold together when they’re smashed. (A food processor can’t produce an evenly fine grind.) Second, there’s no need to be choosy about the cut of beef since the large surface area of deeply browned crust delivers plenty of savory, beefy flavor.

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”).

Pressing Issues

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.”)

Press Credentials

Flattening a ball of ground beef into a thin disk is as simple as it sounds, but the tool you use affects the force you exert on the meat and, consequently, how uniformly flat the patties will be. Avoid a spatula; its offset handle makes it difficult to press the meat evenly. Instead, choose an object that allows you to press the meat from the top down, such as a small saucepan (grip the sides of the pan), burger press, or 28-ounce can. And don’t worry about oversmashing the meat: Even if you press really hard, the small amount of meat won’t spread much beyond the diameter of the bun.

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.

Instead of a single 4-ounce patty, we make two 2-ounce patties for each burger, exposing more surface area for crisping and allowing us to melt the cheese between the patties.

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?

Recipe Smashed Burgers

The best burgers usually revolve around bespoke blends that cook up ultrajuicy, but this diner staple trades on one simple truth: Crust is king.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.