Smash away! How to make a better hamburger on a grill or in a pan


Every good burger has a healthy amount of fat, a hint of sweet and something surprising hidden between those buns.

That might be a windshield wiper’s worth of mustard or a crunchy raw onion. Maybe it’s an extra-thick slice of tomato or crumble of blue cheese. The “good-old-fashioned hamburger” craving is something that hits just about everyone who eats meat, including my grandmother, for whom hamburgers in summer are merely a means of transport for her friend’s homegrown tomatoes.

In Austin, if you want a good-old-fashioned hamburger, you head to Nau’s — and if you want something fancy, head across the street to Jeffrey’s. (You can read more about Austin’s best restaurant burgers in Friday’s Austin360.)

But at home, hamburgers are just as likely to wow if you follow some tricks of the trade and improvements we’ve learned since the days when a bag of store-bought seasoning mix was about as fancy as we got.

Just to check, I had a hamburger made with one of those mixes last week. Sure enough, with sugar, molasses and copious amounts of onion salt, the mix made for too sweet and salty of a burger.

In general, however, underseasoning and overmixing meat are two of the biggest mistakes we make when cooking burgers at home. Ground beef — or, if you’re really upping your burger game, a mix of ground meats — needs spices, including some salt, distributed throughout. But if you mix too much, you end up with pate.

To avoid this, combine your seasonings together in a small bowl first, sprinkle some in a larger bowl, add the meat to the bowl, sprinkle the rest of the spice mixture on top and then mush together five or six times with your hands. Then, you’ll be ready to start forming patties.

Although many of us use onion or garlic salt as part of our burger seasoning, finely chopped onions and garlic can add a pleasant texture and freshness of flavor to the meat. Try one or both of these aromatics if you haven’t. If you don’t like the crunch of onions in your burger, consider sauteing them first, which will mellow their flavor and reduce the bite.

Meat quality matters if you’re trying to make a better burger. Chefs have become obsessive over what cuts of beef they grind for hamburger, throwing in a combination of brisket, short rib and sirloin — nice cuts of meat that butchers at the grocery store might actually dissuade you from using in a hamburger you’re making at home.

Sirloin is a leaner meat than chuck, round, brisket and short rib, which is what led cooks in Wisconsin to develop the state’s signature butter burger. Butter, like an egg, adds the imperative element of fat to what otherwise might be too lean — and dry — of a burger.

But fat isn’t the only way to keep a burger moist. Fine Cooking magazine recommends adding two or three tablespoons of cold water to your ground beef mixture to compensate for some of the water inherent to meat protein that seeps out once the meat has been ground.

Use gloves if you don’t want to make contact with the meat with your bare hands — but don’t try to stir the mixture with a utensil. As you form the patties, press them thinner than you think you need to. Don’t worry too much about making them perfectly round. A $10 burger press can come in handy if you are keen on making a bunch of uniform medium-rare burgers for a party, but if you’re only making one or two, you might as well use your hands.

Some cooks like to press a small dent in the middle of the patty to keep it from swelling in the middle as it cooks. You could also make two really thin patties and stuff cheese between them for what might be one of the original stuffed burgers — what some folks in the Upper Midwest call a Juicy Lucy.

When it’s time to cook burgers, there’s no doubt that these patties of meat are a match made in heaven for a charcoal grill. The briquettes, and soaked wood chips if you have them, will add a smokiness to the meat — but you could also accomplish that with a few dashes of liquid smoke or Worcestershire sauce.

Propane grills are certainly faster than charcoal, but they are also expensive. If you find yourself without a grill, don’t let the fear of pan-frying a burger stop you from making one. In fact, there’s a perfectly good reason to fry burgers in a skillet or on a griddle: You can take a page straight out of the Shake Shack handbook and smash them as soon as they hit the hot surface. By pressing the raw meat into the heat, you create more surface area for the Maillard reaction to take place, and that’s what gives meat its meaty flavor. (Just try not to rub it in to your friends who insist that the only decent way to cook a burger is over a flame.)

However, if you’re using properly fatty meat in a skillet or on a griddle, you will have to drain off fat as you sear the burgers. Otherwise, you’ll end up simmering the patties in grease, which will test the limits of even the most fat-celebrating foodie.

If you are grilling those patties, you shouldn’t press them with a spatula because the raw meat will fall through the grate. Once they have already started to brown, smashing the patty will only squeeze out the juiciness that you’ve been trying so hard to maintain.

No matter which cooking method you use, start with high heat and then transition to lower heat after the first few minutes.

Like many meats, you can determine the doneness of a burger by gently pressing the middle of the burger to feel how soft it is. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the side of the patty is the most reliable way to determine if your burger is rare (120 degrees) or well-done (160 degrees) or somewhere in between. Food safety experts recommend eating burgers that have been cooked to 145 to 150 degrees.

After you’ve cooked them, now you get to decide how to serve them. The recipes we’ve included here are definitely on the fancy side. You can easily spiff up a “regular” hamburger with upscale mayonnaise or aioli, homemade or store-bought pickles (or pickled vegetables), nice salad greens or an onion kaiser roll.

Malbec Burgers with Creole Mustard Tomato Jam

Red wine goes beautifully with beef. I like the fact that the wine not only breaks down the meat a little bit but also that it adds a nuanced flavor throughout the bite. I came up with this dish while filming in New Orleans — and that is where the notion of Creole mustard came in. I love its creaminess, the big seeds and that hit of vinegar and spice. I have often loved the use of things such as tomato jam or confit in the place of ketchup on burgers. Here, we just use a nice, dark fruit-berry jam, which echoes the seediness of the mustard and brings out the fruitiness of the wine and the tomato.

— Adam Richman

For the burgers:

1/2 lb. ground lamb

1/2 lb. ground pork

1/2 lb. ground beef (85 percent lean)

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup finely chopped roasted tomatoes

1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped roasted garlic

3 Tbsp. finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes

3 Tbsp. finely chopped roasted red peppers

2 Tbsp. finely chopped fire-roasted poblano chiles (packed in olive oil)

1 large egg

1/2 cup dry red wine, such as Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon

2 tsp. (packed) brown sugar

1 1/2 tsp. paprika

1 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. sea salt

Olive oil, for pan searing

5 kaiser rolls for entrée-size burgers or 10 small potato rolls for sliders, split, toasted and lightly buttered

For serving: Watercress leaves, sliced plum tomatoes, Creole Mustard Tomato Jam

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine all the burger ingredients except the kaiser rolls. Form the mixture into 5 large (or 10 small) patties.

Heat an oven-safe pan over high heat until drops of water skitter across the surface. Add a quarter inch of olive oil and heat for 30 seconds. Sear the patties, working in batches if necessary, until browned on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip the burgers and brown the other side. Arrange the seared burgers on a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.

Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and cook the burgers 5 to 7 minutes for medium doneness.

Place each burger on the bottom half of a toasted roll and top with watercress, sliced tomato, Creole Mustard Tomato Jam and the top half of the roll. Serve hot. Makes 5 entrée-size burgers or 10 sliders.

Creole Mustard Tomato Jam

1/3 cup fruity red wine, such as Merlot

1/3 cup crushed grape tomatoes

2 1/2 Tbsp. blackberry or raspberry jam

1 tsp. sea salt

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/3 cup Creole or stone-ground mustard

In a small saucepan set on medium-high heat, combine the wine, tomatoes, jam, salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder, stirring constantly, until thick and relatively uniform in consistency. Mash the tomato bits into the sauce. Transfer to a nonreactive bowl to cool. When cooled almost to room temperature, stir in the mustard. Makes about 1 cup.

— From “Straight Up Tasty: Meals, Memories, and Mouthfuls from My Travels” by Adam Richman (Clarkson Potter, $29.99)

Grilled Bison Burgers with Caramelized Onions and Crispy Shiitakes

I know it says bison here, but that lean meat is really just a great excuse to hold a mushroom-a-palooza while getting a load of brain-boosting B12. First, we mix the bison with chopped-up cremini mushrooms. Then on top go a few crispy shiitakes that have been tossed with smoked paprika and olive oil. In between? Caramelized onions. Put it all on a lily pad of butter lettuce and it tastes like a Tower of Umami! Store these patties tightly wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or, uncooked, tightly wrapped in the freezer for 1 month.

— Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson

8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and thinly sliced

4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp. sea salt

1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

1/2 large red onion, sliced

1 lb. ground bison

3 oz. cremini mushrooms, stemmed and finely processed in a food processor

3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped parsley

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 skinless, boneless anchovies

Sea salt

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 Tbsp. minced garlic

Pinch of red pepper flakes

4 butter lettuce leaves, washed and dried

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Place the shiitakes in a bowl and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the salt and paprika, tossing until evenly coated. Arrange the mushrooms in a single layer on the prepared sheet pan and roast until crisp and browned, about 20 minutes.

To caramelize the onions, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion and a generous pinch of salt. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until the onion is caramelized and very soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove onions from the pan.

To make the burgers, place the bison, cremini mushrooms, parsley and black pepper in a large bowl.

Rinse the anchovies and, in a small bowl or mortar and pestle, mash them to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Using the same skillet as the onions, heat the 1 teaspoon of oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes to the mashed anchovies, stirring to combine. Sauté for 1 minute, then transfer this mixture to the large bowl with the meat and mushroom mixture.

Using your hands, gently mix until everything is well combined. Shape into 4 equal-size patties. Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high heat and lightly coat with a neutral-flavored oil. Grill the patties, turning once, for 3 minutes per side. Serve each patty on a lettuce leaf topped with some caramelized onion and crispy shiitake mushrooms. Serves 4.

— From “The Healthy Mind Cookbook: Big-Flavor Recipes to Enhance Brain Function, Mood, Memory, and Mental Clarity” by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson (Ten Speed Press, $29.99)


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