The Quest for the Perfect Burger: Part I

I love a good hamburger.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but in some ways, I think I prefer a great burger to a great steak.  It might be the more casual air surrounding the burger: you just sort of sit back, relax, and take nice, big bite.  There’s the crunch as you sink your teeth in, and then the juicy combination of beef, cheese (because cheese makes darn near everything better) and toppings flood your senses, and your eyes roll back in your head as you forget about everything for a little bit.  Or maybe it’s just because you get to eat with your hands.  In any event, I can exactly pinpoint the three best burgers I have ever had, and they are:

  • Shake Shack – The original location in Madison Square Park.  Waited 45 minutes in line on a gray, drizzly, cold day.  Totally worth it.
  • The Four Seasons Lana’i Manele Bay – It might have been the fact that I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii, but this was one awesome burger.
  • The Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant – I smelled this one cooking as we walked in the restaurant, and ordered it before the server could ask us if we wanted to drink.  It was the right call.

Now I think that I make a pretty good burger, but I’ll be honest: nothing I’ve made would break into the top three.  So now I am on a quest to make the perfect burger at home.  More specifically, I am looking to make the perfect “basic” burger.  I enjoy the crazy burgers with toppings ranging from guacamole to chili to onion rings, but I am looking for something more classic.  And I thought I’d share it with all of you.

For now, I’m sort of on the healthy wagon, so I’ll be eating these burgers without a bun and without cheese.  So it’s not really a burger.  But as I’m sure it will need to evolve, this will let me focus on the burger itself, so that when I do bring it all together, I’ll have it perfect.

The Perfect Classic Burger: Attempt 1

  • 1 1/4 lbs 90/10 ground beef (yes, I know I should grind it myself, but that’s probably not going to happen too often)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbl worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp mustard powder
  1. Mix all the ingredients together gently until well combined.
  2. Shape into 4 equal pucks approximately 2 inches thick and refrigerate for at least one hour (you’ll want to take them out about 30 minutes before you plan on cooking them).
  3. Place a cast iron skillet on the grill (you can also do this on the range top if you have a setup where a little smoke doesn’t cause problems).  Start the grill and pre-heat to medium-high.
  4. When the skillet is hot, use a paper towel to lightly wipe the skillet with vegetable oil (watch your hands!  It’ll be pretty hot, but you should be OK if you move quickly).
  5. Sprinkle the pucks lightly with salt and pepper, and place as many as will fit on approximately 1/4 of the surface area.
  6. Place a sturdy, flat spatula on top of each puck.  Use another utensil (I’m using a dough knife) to push down decisively until the pucks are approximately 3/4″ thick.  Now is not the time to waffle (that’ll be another post).
    Here’s where I’m sure to get some arguments.  This is the “smash” method.  I know that there are those that say this makes for a dry burger, but I think that if done correctly (as it is done thousands of times a day at Shake Shack locations), it can result in s very juicy burger with the added deliciousness of more crust.
  7. Close the lid of the grill and stand back for 1:40.  Don’t touch the burger.  Don’t even look at it.
  8. Open the lid, and using your spatula, scrape along the skillet under the patty, making sure to get every last bit of crust.  When flipping, try to put it on a portion of the skillet that a patty did not just previously occupy.  If you followed step 5, you should have some unused real-estate.  Now is the time to add cheese.
  9. Close the lid, and handcuff yourself out of reach for another 1:40.
  10. Repeat the scrape method from before, and move to a pre-heated plate of platter (if you have something that won’t fracture from thermal shock, you can put it on top of the lid, but make sure you don’t forget and tip it off or let it get too hot).
  11. Top as you please, and enjoy!

This first attempt turned out well.  The burgers were nice and juicy, and had a good crust.  I think I might need a different spatula though.  The slots in my current one allow meat to push through during the smash.  The crust could be a little, well, crustier.  I might make the pucks a little smaller for faster heat transfer.  And I think I might push the seasonings up a bit.  I didn’t really taste them, although in a burger, the meat should really be the star, so maybe it’s fine the way it is.  It will take a few iterations, but I think I’m off to a good start.

I’d love to hear whatever thoughts you have on this, so please leave your advice in the comments.  Thanks!