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Want to cook the perfect burger? There are plenty of people eager to tell you how. A Google search for “best burger recipe” yields a staggering 6.9 million results. When all you want is some guidance on how to create a patty that’s tender and juicy inside with a crisp outer crust, it can all seem a little overwhelming. It’s just a pile of ground meat on a bun with some toppings, after all. How hard can it be to figure out the ultimate hamburger recipe?
Well, it turns out that making the best burger ever is a lot easier than you imagined. Though some burger aficionados like to make it seem like cooking a good burger is an art on par with mastering a perfect soufflé or paella, the basic principles of making a tasty hamburger aren’t too complicated. All you need are a handful of ingredients (meat, buns, toppings) and a few basic tools, and you have the makings of a to-die-for sandwich.
In fact, the problem people have when making burgers is doing too much. You should resist the temptation to mix a bunch of extras, like raw onions, egg, or breadcrumbs into the meat. Instead, just season with fresh-ground pepper and some salt after you form the patties. Handling the beef too much before cooking is also a no-no.
“Think gentle when forming your burgers; now is definitely not the time to be heavy-handed. Really packing them in will make for a dense, heavy, hockey puck of a burger,” Rochelle Bilow of Bon Appétit advised.
Then there’s the grill vs. pan debate. Outdoor cooking enthusiasts will tell you the grill is the only way to go, but cooking in a cast-iron pan has many advocates. Personally, I’m a fan of the latter. For one, it produces a more uniform brown crust on the patty. Plus, as an apartment-dweller, I don’t have easy access to a grill, and stovetop burgers can be enjoyed year-round, no matter the weather. The best size for a burger can be a contentious issue as well. While big, pub-style burgers have their place, thinner patties are easier to manage and less messy. Those are all reasons why I think this diner-style hamburger recipe from the New York Times’ Sam Sifton — which is more like a burger you’d get at Shake Shack or In-n-Out than your neighborhood bar — may just be the best burger recipe ever.
Diner-Style Hamburger Recipe
If you love massive, half-pound burgers, stop reading now. This recipe produces thin, perfectly browned patties like those you’d find at a classic American diner. The cooking technique is simple: Handle the beef as little as possible, season in the pan, cook quickly, and then serve.
- ½ teaspoon neutral oil, like canola, or a pat of unsalted butter
- 2 pounds ground chuck, at least 20% fat
- Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
- 8 slices cheese (optional)
- 8 soft hamburger buns, lightly toasted
- Lettuce leaves, sliced tomatoes and condiments, as desired
Directions: Add oil or butter to a large cast-iron or stainless steel skillet and place over medium heat. Gently divide ground beef into 8 small piles of around 4 ounces each, and even more gently gather them together into orbs that are about 2 inches in height. Do not form patties.
Increase heat under skillet to high. Put half the orbs into the skillet with plenty of distance between them and using a stiff metal spatula, press down on each one to form a burger that is around 4 inches in diameter and about ½ inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.
Cook without moving until patties have achieved a deep, burnished crust, a little less than 2 minutes. Use the spatula to scrape free and carefully turn burgers over. If using cheese, lay slices on meat.
Continue to cook until meat is cooked through, approximately a minute or so longer. Remove burgers from skillet, place on buns and top as desired. Repeat process with remaining burgers.
Hamburger recipe tips
To make the best burger, you need to start with the right meat. Don’t feel you need to reach for the most expensive beef you can buy, though. Instead, focus on fat content. No more than 80% lean is ideal. Ground chuck, rather than sirloin, is a good bet.
Many people will say it’s best to grind your own beef if possible. I confess to being too lazy to take this extra step. Instead, I used ground beef from Trader Joe’s. But the meat was tightly packed, resulting in a patty that was just a bit too dense. I would have achieved better results with looser meat that I either ground myself or got from a butcher. (There are health and food safety reasons to choose fresh-ground beef as well.)
I did follow Sifton’s instructions as far as handling the meat as little as possible and seasoning after the burgers landed in the pan. Pressing down with the spatula created a flat, uniform patty and avoided the dreaded “burger bulge,” where your burger ends up looking something like a giant meatball and ends up dwarfed by the bun.
Cooking the burgers in a cast-iron pan with a little butter produced a patty with a nice crust. Sifton’s recommended cooking time is for a rare burger. I prefer my burgers closer to medium, so I cooked the patties for an extra couple of minutes; if you prefer a well-done patty, you will need to cook for even longer.
As far as toppings, I kept it simple to better replicate the diner experience: cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and a little ketchup. The best bun is a matter of personal preference, but you should pay attention to size. These burgers are about 4 inches in diameter, and the buns I bought were just a bit too big for the patties. Plan accordingly.
Finally, if you do try this recipe at home, be prepared for a lot of splatter. My stovetop was covered with a fine spray of grease by the time I finished, but the final result was well worth the extra clean up required.