Secrets to a perfect hamburger: The 'Nancy Burger' revisited

Secrets to a perfect hamburger: The 'Nancy Burger' revisited
Nancy Silverton's famous hamburgers -- on the grill, for gurus only. (Beatrice de Gea / Los Angeles Times)

Being of a relatively advanced age, I eat hamburgers only every once in a while. And I usually go out for them. But those couple times a year I cook hamburgers myself, I follow only the recipe of my ground meat guru Nancy Silverton.

I know I'm not alone in that. Since we first ran an article on Silverton's burgers back in 2005, the recipe has been a mainstay in many Southern California homes. So many, in fact, that some butcher shops and fancy groceries sell her favorite meat blend by name. At Huntington Meats in the Original Farmers Market, "Nancy's Blend" is a solid 25% fat, coarsely ground from prime chuck and sirloin fat.


Freshness of grind is critical. Beef fat oxidizes quickly. In the best of all possible worlds, buy chunks of meat and grind them at home. You'll definitely notice the difference in flavor. Short of that, ask the butcher to grind fresh for you.

It's a splurge-y burger, for sure, but it's about the best I've ever tasted. And let's make no mistake – hamburgers are all about the beef (and even more specifically, about the beef fat, which carries the flavor). Get the very best you can afford. If you need to pinch pennies, buy cheaper beer.

Once you've got the beef blend right, the rules are few (most of these are Nancy's, a few are mine):

Don't overwork the meat -- It has to be handled lightly to maintain the little air spaces that will fill up with fat (or, as we call it, "flavor").

Season generously – Salt and pepper when you're mixing the meat, enough to taste good raw (yes, raw: Bought good meat, didn't you?).

Fat patties – Leave the thin wafer-style burgers for In 'N' Out. When you're cooking at home, you want the burger to about six to seven ounces, no more than three burgers to a pound of meat.

Dimple – Press your thumb into the very center of the patty; the meat will expand as it cooks and this will keep the surface even. This is particularly important if you're grilling the burgers.

Griddle, not grill -- Though I have cooked these burgers over live fire on a grill, and I know that's how Silverton cooks them, I really prefer a cast-iron pan or griddle. Because the fat content is so high, if you're going to cook them on the grill you need to be extremely vigilant when it comes to flare-ups. On a griddle, the burgers cook in the rendered fat, improving the flavor.

Don't press – Forget what you might have seen at the drive-in (or read elsewhere), pressing the burger against the griddle with your spatula is a crime against meat. Remember that with hamburgers, fat equals flavor. Pressing the burger will indeed give you a marginally better crust, but at the expense of squeezing out fat, er, flavor.

Mind the bun – A tender roll, such as challah or egg roll, is perfect, but make sure to crisp it on the cut side (texture is everything).

Don't overdress – A hamburger is about the hamburger. Any condiments should contribute to and not obscure the flavor of the meat.

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