It's time for another round of The Burger Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
It's 7:30 pm and I'm sitting nervously at a Lower East Side bar, waiting for my wife to show up so we can head to dinner. I'm gulping my IPA, hoping the bitter hops will cover up the salty aroma of deceit and disloyalty that lingers on my breath. Of course, I have no appetite, but I'll order my food and eat with relish to throw her off the trail.
She arrives and I quickly push a pre-ordered beer towards her, hoping it'll obfuscate her powers of detection, which—to her credit and my frustration—are formidable. What did I do today, she asks.
"Nothing much. The usual. Writing, bath, writing while bathing, the occasional cat stroke. You know."
Her eyes darken with a flash of suspicion.
Does she know?
I hold my breath as she leans in to give me a quick kiss, knowing full well that it's just a test. A quick biological breathalyzer hidden within a loving gesture. The slightest exhale will give me away.
Too late. She's caught a whiff of that unmistakable perfume—she knows. The gig is up. I look towards the ground, prepared to take full responsibility for what I've done, for my repeated indiscretions.
"Were you cooking burgers again?"
I love my wife, but burgers are my mistress.
Life Under Ground
I've calculated it, and in the past two-and-a-half years, I've cooked well over 1,100 burgers. That's an average of 1.2 burgers a day. Fat burgers, thin burgers. Burgers stuffed with burger juice. Smashed burgers. Sliders. Fancy-pants burgers. Cheese-stuffed burgers. Burgers that rip off other burgers.
It got to the point where my wife forced us to move apartments because the smell of burgers permeated the walls, the sofa, the furniture (OK, more space and lower rent probably also factored into our move). She simply can't stomach them anymore.
I've promised repeatedly not to cook them until she's gone for at least a day. I've promised to brush my teeth and shower before meeting her to get rid of the lingering odor of sizzling ground meat. For a little while I was doing well. Until I discovered her. The one burger that I can't resist.
I'm a sucker for crisp, brown, salty crust, and up until recently, I thought the burger at the Shake Shack was about as crispety-crunchety as they come— but then I discovered this one. It wasn't an organized discovery like most of my recipes are. It was a happy coincidence of inspiration, circumstance, and sizzling beef fat. It was instant, powerful, and unshakable infatuation at first bite.
Today, I'm going to share the recipe and technique with you. This is the ultimate burger for single men.
It's not a big, fat backyard behemoth whose real goal is to prove your manhood to fellow backyard grillers. It's more like a thin, small (four ounces), classic diner-style burger on crack. Don't cook it for company (the recipe only works for one burger at a time anyway). Don't cook it unless you are prepared to have your apartment smelling like a burger joint for days. Don't cook it if you want anything less than the crispiest, beefiest, saltiest, greasiest, gooiest burger experience you've ever had. This is a burger can make you, like me, break your vows.
Like most of my favorite burgers, the grind here is of utmost importance. For the ultimate experience, go with the oxtail and brisket-enhanced Blue Label Burger Blend. When feeling lazy, I sometimes use 100% short rib or 100% well-marbled ground chuck, but having at least 25% fat content is essential, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
Forming the patties is the most crucial step in the whole process. Using a thoroughly-chilled meat grinder or food processor and cubes of beef that have been placed in the freezer for 15 minutes prior to grinding, grind the meat directly onto a parchment paper or foil-lined baking sheet. Then—and this is key—form the beef into four-ounce patties without picking it up. That's right. Just push the beef together until it forms ragged piles that barely cling together.
Why would you want to do a thing like that? Well, it's got to do with the structure of meat. When ground, beef proteins are very sticky—particularly to each other. Given the chance, they'll cling to each other like Japanese school girls to Hello Kitty bento boxes, and the more you work them, the tighter they cling. Take a look at the photo below:
The burger on the left was formed by gently coaxing the meat into a pile. The patty on the right was formed by lifting the meat in my hands and gently shaping it into a patty. As gently as I could, really. Despite the gentle touch, the difference is readily apparent. The goal here is to keep the meat as loose as possible. This offers a myriad of benefits, which will make themselves clearer as we work our way through the technique.
Salt and pepper the patties generously on one side, then carefully flip with a wide spatula (remember, don't ever pick up the patties with your bare hands!), and season the second side before slipping it (via a spatula) into a ripping-hot small skillet.
N.B. This is the main reason that this recipe absolutely cannot be made with store-bought ground beef. Store-bought ground beef is ground too finely and already pressed together before you take it out of the package. You've shot yourself in the foot before you've even started.
Burgers and Fractals
Have you ever seen that neat trick with Mandelbrot fractals? The one where you look at a coastline from far away and measure it, which gives you a certain perimeter. As you zoom closer and closer, you realize there are tiny inlets or curves in the beach that weren't visible from far away. When measured again, these bumps actually add length to the total perimeter. This is a phenomenon known as the Richardson Effect, and basically states that the more precisely you measure a coastline, the longer the measurement gets. And the more bumpy or irregular the surface is, the more this effect is pronounced.
Well, the same applies to hamburgers. While at first it may seem the two burgers above have the exact same mass, pretty much the same volume, and must therefore have the same surface area, because of the highly bumpy and irregular surface of the loose-packed patty, it's surface area is actually much much greater than the hand-formed patty.
But there's a problem! In order to brown and crisp properly, those raged bits need to be exposed to temperatures well in excess of 400°F. And what's more, they need to be evenly exposed to that heat, lest the outermost raged edges burn before the rest can follow suit.
On a normal griddle or large saute pan, this is an impossible task. The rendering beef fat leaks out of the patties and drains away. Only the bits in direct contact with the surface will crisp up properly. That's why smashed-style burger joints like the Shake Shack do what they do: Even though smashing the bottom of the patty into a flat plane reduces surface area for crisping, they need to do it in order maximize griddle contact.
At home, we fortunately have more options. One of the side effects of cooking burgers for myself is that I often want to cook just one, so I whip out the small, eight-inch skillet. It was a happy discovery one day when I noticed that when cooking a burger with a high fat content, a good 1/8th to 1/4 inch of rendered beef fat collects at the bottom of the pan, essentially deep-frying the entire lower half of the patty in its own fat.
Couple this with the super-loosely-packed ground beef, and you've got prime breeding grounds for crispy, crunchy, deep brown beef bits—the best parts of the burger.
The Cheese and the Bun
Classic yellow American is the way to go here. It's custom-made for dripping and oozing into the nooks and crannies formed by this patty. Even before the burger comes out of the pan, you can see the magic of the cheese at work:
Like liquid hot magma, it finds every possible crack and crevice in the burger's surface, coating it in a layer of gooey, salty cheesiness.
As for the bun, you can go with a Martin's potato roll, but in this case I actually prefer the innocuous squishiness of a regular soft white burger bun from Arnold. Pickles and onions are fine but completely unnecessary. Skip the ketchup, mustard, or mayo entirely. With beef this crispy and beefy, you don't need anything to get in the way of the flavor.
Just to drive home the point about loosely packing the meat, take a look at this cross-section comparison:
The burger on the bottom was hand-pattied before cooking, and is by no means bad. The meat is cooked well with a little hint of pink, has plenty of fat and flavor (the meat blend ensures that), and the balance of meat-to-bun-to-bread is good. The only problem? The meat has a smooth surface. It's brown, all right, but there's not too much of it. You can tell by the way the cheese forms a single solid sheet, even though it's fully melted.
This burger on the top was formed and cooked by the surely-patentable method outlined in this article, and has subsequently reaped the benefits. Its loose texture retains juices better (even at medium-well to well done it's insanely, chin-drippingly juicy), it's got far more surface area for browning, and as you can tell, it's got plenty of nooks and crannies brimming with melted cheese and juices. Here's a closeup of that action:
Surely, kind readers, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you can understand and even forgive my disloyalty when faced with such a siren song of irresistible beauty?
I'd like to apologize once again to my lovely wife. There will never be another woman in my life (unless you invite her in yourself), but I will always have a mistress. A mistress named burger. What man could withstand her hypnotic wiles?
Continue here for The Crispiest Burger Recipe »
About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and co-writes the blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.