Let’s talk burgers — big (but not too big), juicy and perfectly turned, with or without cheese, tucked inside a fancy bakery brioche or a basic potato bun, dressed to the nines or served neat. It’s nearly impossible to discuss the finer points of burgers without working up an appetite. But there’s no nibbling around the fact that some burgers are better than others. The question, then: What’s the key to making sure your burgers rank among the best?
According to The New York Times, a lot of it comes down to what you cook the burger on, and those known for the most-perfect patties insist on “heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles.” Yes, even if you’re cooking outside on a grill. Heat the meat in a pan over the fire. Don’t place your patties directly on the grill. “The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit,” Times Senior Editor Sam Sifton explains as he strives to deconstruct “the perfect burger.”
Documentary filmmaker (2005’s Hamburger America) and burger expert George Motz contends that using a skillet allows the grease to function not only as a cooking agent, but also as a “condiment that is as natural as the beef itself.” George compares a “great burger” to “a baked potato, or sashimi,” telling Sam, “It should taste completely of itself.”
What about the meat? Bobby Flay’s Perfect Burger recipe (pictured above) seconds Sam’s suggestion and calls for ground chuck that is 80 percent lean.
The size of your patties matters: Bobby says burgers should be about 6 ounces each, formed loosely into 3/4-inch-thick patties. Make a deep indentation into the center of each burger, season with salt and pepper, and cook over high heat after the oil in your pan starts to shimmer. Once the first side is “golden brown and slightly charred” (figure about three minutes), flip your beef burger over and cook it until the other side matches it (a medium-rare burger will take about four minutes). If you’re using cheese, add it about one minute before reaching your “desired degree of doneness” and cover or tent it to facilitate melting.
Bobby tweaks his recipe a bit if you’re using ground turkey (90 percent lean) instead of ground chuck. And if you’re looking for more variations on your burger theme, you’ll find them here: Giada’s Beef Burgers with Mushrooms and Aioli adds an interesting topping twist. Or add curry flavor with Jenss Chang’s Malaysian Indian Curry-Spiced Beef Burgers; she shows Bobby how to make them here.
There are lots of ways you can get creative. And while Sam cautions against overdressing your patties — noting that fancy extras are no substitute for proper cooking technique — marrying burger basics and innovative ideas is bound to produce not just a better burger, but one that can take its place among the very best.