There are many schools of thought when it comes to the best way to make a burger.
Some people are fans of thick and juicy patties that extend beyond toasted crusty buns. Others are devotees of thin, seared burgers served on pillowy white bread buns.
For some folks, it’s all about how rare or how well done the burger is cooked. For others, it’s all about the toppings. Some favor the classic lineup of lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard; others insist everything goes, from mushrooms and bacon to lobster and foie gras.
“Hamburgers are so personal; it’s worse than pizza,” said George Ash, owner of Buns of Chapel Hill, which caters to those who favor thick and juicy.
To help you make a better burger, be it thick or thin, we turned to a burger-master who applies his MIT-trained mind to cooking: J. Kenji López-Alt, culinary director at Serious Eats website. López-Alt brings his scientific mind to better understand and explain what happens in the kitchen. He writes a series of blog posts called The Food Lab and has a two-book set of cookbooks, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” coming out next year.
“For several years, I was extremely obsessed with burgers,” he said, explaining that his obsession was fueled by a taste of a Shake Shack burger, which made him realize “a burger doesn’t have to taste like every other burger out there.”
Just in time for Memorial Day weekend grilling, he shares his expertise on making two styles of burgers: a thick, juicy burger and the thin, crusty smashed burger, popularized by such chains as Five Guys, Smashburger and Shake Shack.
The smashed burger
“Smashed burgers are all about crust development,” López-Alt explains. “The more you brown a burger, the more meaty it tastes.”
To achieve that crusty burger, here are instructions based on López-Alt’s advice. My recipe testing notes are in parentheses:
• Open the kitchen windows or an outside door. Heat a cast-iron skillet, a stainless steel skillet or use the flattop griddle of a stove top over high heat. (For best results, heat surface for at least 10 minutes.) Consider using a skillet outside on your gas grill.
• Take 5 ounces of freshly ground chuck roast and form into a meatball. (Use a kitchen scale to weigh the meat or aim for a meatball about the size of a baseball. The sweet spot for me to smash correctly was about 3 1/2 ounces of ground meat.) Handle the meat as little as possible, just until it pulls together. Refrigerate until ready to cook. You can also create two 2-ounce meatballs to make what López-Alt describes as an ultra-smashed burger. (Read more: goo.gl/s8NkR1.)
• Place meatball in the skillet or on the griddle. Immediately smash with a metal spatula or even a trowel. (I bought a Dexter-brand 6-by-3-inch hamburger turner with beveled edges at a local restaurant supply store.) López-Alt explains that if you smash the burger while the fat is still cold, the juices won’t be lost. Season with salt and pepper. Let cook through on one side, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.
• Use sharp edge of a metal spatula to flip burger once. Season again. Add cheese, if desired. Continue to cook, about 30 to 45 more seconds. Serve on bun with choice of condiments.
The thick burger
For a thick burger, López-Alt said, freshly ground meat is a must. Here are his instructions, with my testing notes in parentheses:
• Ask the butcher to freshly grind meat for hamburgers. The easiest thing to do is to choose chuck roast to be ground. Or ask for a mixture of 50 percent chuck roast, 25 percent brisket and 25 percent short ribs. This also can be done at home with a meat grinder or a meat grinder attachment for a standing mixer. (Disclaimer: The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not recommend grinding meat at home or even asking a butcher to grind primal cuts, such as steaks or roasts, due to the risk of E. coli and other pathogens. To read up on those issues and make your own decisions about the risks, go to goo.gl/w61gXU.)
• Do not season the meat beforehand. Salt can draw moisture out of the meat, which is not ideal for a juicy burger.
• Gently form 5- to 8-ounce patties. Make an indentation in the center of each patty; this prevents the burger from buckling while it cooks. (Refrigerate patties until ready to cook.)
• To cook, start cool and finish hot. On a gas grill, turn one burner on high and keep the others off; on a charcoal grill, place hot coals on one side. Start the burger on the cooler side of the grill. (On a gas grill, I placed the burgers on the outer edge of the lit burner.) Once the burger is 20 degrees from the target temperature (120 degrees for rare, 130 degrees for medium rare, 150 degrees for medium well, 160 for well done), move it to the hot side of the grill to sear and finish.
• Flip the burger only once. Season that side as well. Finish cooking, checking internal temperature with a meat thermometer. Add slice of cheese if desired. Serve on bun with choice of condiments.
Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl