NEW YORK – How to make a great hamburger is a question that has bedeviled the nation for generations, for as long as Americans have had griddles and broilers, for as long as summertime shorts-wearing cooks have gone into the yard to grill.
But the answer is simple, according to many of those who make and sell the nation’s best hamburgers: Cook on heavy, cast-iron pans and griddles. Cook outside if you like, heating the pan over the fire of a grill, but never on the grill itself. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook, like a primitive high-heat confit.
“That is the best way to do it,” said George Motz, the documentary filmmaker who released “Hamburger America” in 2005 and has since become a leading authority on hamburgers. The beef fat collected in a hot skillet, Motz said, acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent. “Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself,” he said. “A great burger should be like a baked potato, or sashimi. It should taste completely of itself.”
Michael Symon, the ebullient television Iron Chef, a host of ABC’s “The Chew” and a proprietor of a small chain of Midwestern hamburger restaurants called B Spot, agreed. Symon’s restaurants each serve more than 1,000 hamburgers a night, he said, all of them finished on a flat-top griddle coated in beef fat.
“Use a skillet,” he said. He was emphatic about the subject. “A grill is too difficult,” he said.”
Great hamburgers fall into two distinct categories. There is the traditional griddled hamburger of diners and takeaway spots, smashed thin and cooked crisp on its edges. And there is the pub- or tavern-style hamburger, plump and juicy, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat within.
The diner hamburger has a precooked weight of 3 to 4 ounces, roughly an ice-cream-scoop’s worth of meat. The pub-style one is heavier, but not a great deal heavier. Its precooked weight ought to fall, experts say, between 7 and 8 ounces.
“Most of the time, 7 ounces is more than enough,” said Geoffrey Zakarian, the chef and owner of the National Bar and Dining Rooms, in New York, which serves a fine hamburger of roughly that size. Zakarian cautioned against hamburgers of more than a half-pound in weight. “You want to get some heat to the inside of the burger,” he said. “You don’t want some giant, underdone meatloaf.”
Whichever style you cook, pay close attention to the cuts of beef used in the grind. The traditional hamburger is made of ground chuck steak, rich in both fat and flavor, in a ratio that ideally runs about 80 percent meat, 20 percent fat. Less fat leads to a drier hamburger. Avoid, the experts say, supermarket blends advertised with words like “lean.”
Restaurateurs, sometimes driven by the marketing efforts of celebrity butchers, tout hamburger blends of chuck and brisket, hanger and strip steak, short rib and clod. But home cooks and those who speak for them most often advocate the use of chuck steak for hamburgers. Michael Ruhlman, the erudite Cleveland writer and cook, gives short shrift to fancy blends of meat. “I believe the only critical ratio is the meat to fat,” he said.
Finally, there are condiments. You pull your burgers off the skillet, place them on the buns and then offer them to guests to dress. Ripe tomatoes and cold lettuce should be offered (“Only bibb lettuce,” Zakarian said, “for its crispness and ability to hold the juices of the meat”) along with ketchup, mustard and, for a hardy few, mayonnaise or mayonnaise mixtures. Onions excite some. Pickles, others.
But do not overdress.