With so many of you having to stay home and cook for the first time — ever or more than you have in a long time — we get that it can be overwhelming to have to cook all your meals from scratch. So, we’re here to get you started.
Each day we’re going to post a new skill here and go in detail about how to do it — a resource for cooking basics so you can get food on the table and get through this.
Lesson 5: Smashburgers
Is making hamburgers an essential skill for home cooks? Before the quarantine, I would’ve said no, as I fell firmly into the “burgers are best eaten out” camp. But three weeks into cooking at home each day, with many of my favorite burger joints closed or not doing takeout/delivery, it looks like if I want my ritual meal for the beginning of the weekend, I need to start making it for myself.
Any avid connoisseur of hamburgers knows that the meat patty is but one-third of the greatness of a hamburger; the majority is in the bun selection, toppings and condiments. But that doesn’t mean the meat should be overlooked. Even though the supplies of ground beef at some grocery stores may be scarce right now, try to find the best you can if you’re going to the trouble of making your own hamburgers. Local butcher shops usually carry higher-quality beef, so look there first before heading to the more crowded grocery chains, if you can (or order from an online butcher shop if you’ve planned far enough in advance).
Once you have your ground beef (one pound is perfect to make four double-patty beauties; I prefer an 80-20 mix of lean to fat), let’s talk seasoning. I firmly believe in not messing with good ground beef. No mixing in eggs, breadcrumbs or Worcestershire sauce ... we’re not making meatloaf. Salt and pepper and that’s it.
The Maillard reaction loves to see it.
To make the burgers: Place a large plate or a baking sheet on your work surface. Open the packaging of your ground beef but keep the beef in it (no need to dirty extra dishes). Divide the beef into 8 equal portions by pressing your fingers into the beef, creating deep dividing-line divots. Don’t be obsessive; just eyeball it.
Pinch off each portion with your hands (that’s two ounces per patty, for those of you who are still getting the hang of math), loosely shape it into a ball then flatten it between your palms; it should be between three and four inches in diameter and about 1/4-inch in thickness. Set the patty on your plate or baking sheet and repeat making the other patties. At this stage, you can stack the patties, with squares of parchment paper or foil between them, and chill until you’re ready to cook.
Once the patties are formed, now’s the time to get the rest of your hamburger ingredients set up. Ideally, you have store bought squishy buns made precisely for burgers. Their pliable softness is perfect — keep the focaccia squares, ciabatta cubes and brioche balls out of here. I’m as snobby about food as they come and even I can’t recommend those breads for burgers. Remember, we’re in the middle of a quarantine and this burger is meant to make you happy. Chill out and get the soft buns you know are actually perfect for this.
The rest of the toppings are your preference. Here are mine: iceberg or romaine lettuce leaves (I do not shred the lettuce but recognize others do), a quarter-inch-thick slice of tomato and a thin slice of onion, white or red, but preferably one whole disk, not separated into rings. The pickles are just about as important to a burger as the patty and bun. Don’t even get me started on sweet or bread-and-butter abominations. The pickles must be of the sharp dill variety, exclusively chips and, preferably, ridged to maximize their crunch.
I use a little ketchup on my burger, in addition to mayonnaise and bright yellow mustard. I did it this way as a kid and it stuck and, again, these burgers are vessels delivering happiness in these dark times so let me have my ketchup and you do you, bro!
Now that you’re all set up with your other ingredients, cook the patties. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat for 5 minutes. Cast iron is best but any heavy metal skillet will work; just don’t use nonstick because the skillet needs to be HOT-hot and that smell of burning chemicals that nonstick skillets emit when heated like that is not appetizing. While it heats, season four of your patties liberally with salt and pepper. We’re cooking the patties in batches, so only season what you’re about to cook or else the salt will draw out moisture on the other patties while they sit, causing the burgers to get wet and stick to the pan.
Once the pan is hot (you should see small wisps of smoke swirling up off the bottom), turn your stove’s hood on full blast and add a small spoonful of vegetable oil, butter, whatever cooking fat you have. Once it instantly melts, swirl the skillet to coat it with the fat, then arrange the four patties evenly over the bottom, seasoned side down. Set a timer for two minutes and don’t touch them. Take this time to season the patty sides facing up with salt and pepper. After two minutes, flip the patties, set a timer for two minutes again, and cook, using your flipping implement to press firmly onto the patties, smashing them into the skillet to flatten.
Now, I know what you’re thinking because you’ve been told for years by every cooking show and chef to not press on your burger patties to keep them juicy. And while that’s true for thick, pub-style burgers, we’re making diner-style smashburgers here, and their whole brilliance is in their pressed thinness, which creates lots of surface area on the patties, which get caramelized and crisp. The Maillard reaction loves to see it.
If you’re a cheeseburger person, press for the first minute of cooking on this second side, then quickly top each patty with a slice of cheese (American is the correct choice; sorry, I don’t make the rules!) and cover the skillet with a lid to help melt the cheese on the patties.
Transfer your patties to a clean plate and tent with foil to keep them warm while they rest for 5 minutes, which is enough time to repeat seasoning, cooking and smashing the remaining four patties. While the patties rest, toast the cut sides of your bun by placing them in the meat fat in the skillet — kill the flame and let the residual heat from the skillet do the work — until golden brown and crusty.
Smear a small bit of mayo on the bottom bun and double that on the inside of the top bun. Stack two patties together and place them on the bottom bun, followed by a spiral of ketchup to help hold the toppings in place. Next on are the dill pickle chips, followed by the tomato slice, onion slice and finishing with the lettuce leaf. Squirt a spiral of yellow mustard on the top bun, then sandwich everything, pressing gently but firmly to compact. You know the next step.
Want more burger inspiration?