Cooking Tips · Techniques

Burgers – to smash or not to smash?

Image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay

My husband and I went out for a burger the other night as I had a coupon for a free burger. (Don’t you just love free?) This place did regular burgers but my husband also likes to go to a place that does smashed burgers. What is the difference and is one better than another? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

If you want to learn to make a great burger at home, you may want to review two prior Cooking Tips. One was on what type of beef to use and the second was on burger cooking advice.

Even though some date the origin of smashed burgers back to 2007 when the Smashburger chain opened its first restaurant, the method actually goes back much further. According to Blue MauMau, “The story is that the original Dairy Cheer hamburger shop owner Bill Culvertson, created the “smashed burger” when a worker discovered that smashing the meat with a No. 10 bean can while grilling was a great way to get the best flavor into a burger.”

What makes a smashed burger different than a regular/thick burger is the cooking method. To put it simply, the meat patty is put in a very hot pan and then smashed down into a thin burger. But, isn’t this counterintuitive to the recommendations for cooking burgers? Weren’t we taught that you should never squash your beef patty as all the juices would leak out, leading to a dry burger? It turns out that piece of advice is not necessarily true. (For other culinary myths, see these Cooking Tips – Part 1 & Part 2.)

The goal of a great smashed burger is creating a crispy outer crust and juicy interior. Let’s look at the method to create a smashed burger and the science behind it.

Start with good quality cold meat and form balls of about 2-3 ounces. Some recommend forming the balls and placing them back in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes. Each serving will be two patties. This gives you maximal crust and flavor. Heat a heavy skillet until very hot. Do not use a nonstick skillet. Not only will the nonstick surface inhibit the crust formation, but also the high heat can ruin your pan. Finally, the nonstick coating can vaporize and possibly be bad for your health.

Both Cooks Illustrated & Serious Eats recommend putting a small amount of oil in the skillet and rubbing it in with a paper towel. Then, proceed to heat the skillet over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. You can either season your meat just before placing it in the hot skillet or immediately afterwards. When the skillet is very hot, place your balls of meat in the skillet. Only place two balls in a 12-inch skillet. Now, immediately (within 30 seconds) firmly press down to form flat patties of about 4 to 4½ inches in diameter. One method is to wrap the bottom of another small skillet with foil and use this to press down on the patties. Others will use a firm metal spatula. You can even purchase a burger press.

Cook, without moving, until at least ¾ of each patty is no longer pink on top, about 1½ to 2 minutes. You want the patties to stick to the skillet. Use a thin metal spatula to loosen the patties from the skillet being sure to scrape up all the brown bits adhered to the skillet. Flip patties and cook until done, about another 15 to 30 seconds.

Now, to the science. It has to do with what is called the Maillard reaction. This is a type of browning that occurs due to a reaction between a sugar and an amino acid in the presence of heat. (This is different than caramelization, which only involves sugar.) Since the meat patties are pressed down for maximal contact, you get more of the Maillard reaction happening and thus, more browning and more delicious flavor. For this browning reaction to occur, the foods need to be heated to at least 300°F and are accelerated at temperatures higher than that.

There is a reason why you can do this pressing without losing moisture but you must do it early in the cooking phase. According to Serious Eats,

“When ground beef is cold, its fat is still solid and its juices are still held firmly in place inside small, chopped up segments of muscle fibers. That’s the reason why you can push and press on ground meat without squeezing out too much liquid, and the reason why you can smash a burger during the initial phases of cooking without fear of losing moisture.”

If you try to smash after a minute, you lose much more moisture and end up with a dry burger. According to Serious Eats, “a good 50% more moisture is lost in a burger smashed after 1 minute versus one smashed within 30 seconds.”

That is all there is to cooking a great smashed burger. Not only is cooking a smashed burger much quicker, it is also more fail-proof than cooking thicker burgers. And, in my opinion, even more tasty. Do you smash? If not, give it a try and let me know what you think.