Genius Recipes

The Genius, Rule-Breaking Secret to Better Burgers

May 29, 2017

Of course the most genius burger I've ever made would come from The Food Lab (and the brilliant dude behind it). Of course I won't be able to make cheeseburgers another way.

These burgers are perilously juicy, with the crispiest, meatiest, most umami-fied crust you can get in a burger. They also take under a minute to make, without any special ingredients—just the normal stuff: beef, salt, pepper, melty cheese. (In fact, I usually prefer to eat them just like this, with nothing else coming between them and a butter-toasted bun.)

In other words, they're a pretty straight-up, classic cheeseburger—except that they defy one of the most notorious myths of burger-making. You know the one, where we're told to always handle the meat gingerly, and never smash the patties down while they're cooking, or the juices will run out and they'll go dry and tough. (I remember well the vitriol of a certain corner of the internet, the first time we featured a burger press in our Shop.)

But, as Kenji points out in his cookbook opus The Food Lab, if you smash your burger once, decisively, as soon as it hits the hot skillet—while the meat and fat are still cold—there won't be any juices (yet) to lose. You'll maximize the points of contact with the raging hot pan, which is effectively like singeing a layer of caramelization and Maillard reaction goodness onto every last bit of surface area, so it all sears into a salty, beefy crust.

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In The Food Lab, Kenji explores the technique of burger-smashing, and why it's the secret weapon of fast food chains like Shake Shack and Smashburger. But it wasn't until he was developing his own burger for a new fast food joint called Harlem Shake that he tried doubling down on the crispy, flavorful crust by dividing one 4-ounce patty into two 2-ounce ones, before smashing the dickens out of both of them. He called this the Ultra-Smashed Burger. (Take that, burger press haters!)

Once the bottoms are browned aggressively, it's flip, cheese, stack, and serve. Though the burgers are mostly cooked through to medium, the juices haven't had time to go anywhere (and the melty—ideally American—cheese doesn't hurt, either).

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Top Comment:
“When edges of burger are caramelized, flip burger, smash down with spatula, top with cheese, and continue cooking until done (about another minute). Serve on a toasted bun with ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and dill pickle chips. So simple and so yummy. Also leaves a lot of grease spatter to clean up, but totally worth it! ”
— cyndilurks

I love this variation because it's very much my kind of burger, for all the reasons I've been describing (did you see when I said "most umami-fied" up there?)—I've never been drawn to burgers that are taller than my mouth.

Psst, you actually want to scrape up all that browned amazingness on the pan when you flip. Who cooked this thing, anyway?

(If you're looking for a hefty, rarer prize of a burger, you'll need to modify the technique. In the cookbook, Kenji's guidelines for the original Smash Burger can help you.)

But even more than the noted benefits of smashing, I love this burger because it takes out pretty much all guesswork. As long as you have an extremely hot pan and you follow the protocol, this all happens so fast that you don't need to test anything for doneness, or worry much about under or overcooking—you just need to move.

And then eat. And then tell me if this isn't the best damn cheeseburger you've ever made.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

This article originally ran in May of 2016.

Photos by Mark Weinberg

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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Barbara May 10, 2018
I, too, am in love with these burgers. I make them on a cast iron griddle on a charcoal grill—

Now I can’t make any other kind of burger. In my post I also link to Kenji’s discussion of why American cheese is indeed cheese.
SuperWittySmitty May 10, 2018
In spite of Kenji's failed attempts to convince most of us that Pasteurized Process Cheese, Cheese Food, Cheese Spread, or Process American Slices is real cheese, the consensus among cooks and gourmands is that they're not, they're fake cheese, made out of oil and milk protein concentrate. It has it's place in cooking, just like cheese whiz if you want to make a cheesesteak sandwich but don't try to pretend it's closely related to Jarlsberg, Gould, Edam, Mozzerella, or Cheddar.
Barbara May 10, 2018
I’m sorry if I offended you.
SuperWittySmitty May 10, 2018
Don't be silly.
Ellen G. July 30, 2017
American cheese isn't cheese. Yuck!
SoupLady May 31, 2017
My husband made this over the holiday weekend with turkey and it was delicious. Glad to see he was on the genius wavelength ;-)
Burton D. May 24, 2017
I tried this, but I didn't have any spatulas that were big and/or strong enough to smash 2 oz of meat uniformly. The next time, I smashed them between layers of wax paper with a rolling pin to get them nice and evenly flat before I started cooking. This worked GREAT and they cooked perfectly - crusty, yet not over-cooked. They only tricky part was trying to keep the layers from sliding around on the cheese :-)
LD M. May 24, 2017
When you smash a burger, flavor is pressed out with the juices, sorry, not a fan. I usually make a burger from ground turkey but, I fold in diced onion to keep it moist. For a real juicy burger I make a 1/2 pounder in my crockpot with a device to keep it out of the schmaltz, put on high 45-60 mins. Bon Appetito, Ciao !
SuperWittySmitty June 1, 2017
When you read the article, you'll see a prominent of the that the smashing takes place immediately after you put the raw chopped beef into the pan, BEFORE any juices have formed, so the smashing doesn't "press out any flavor." Ground turkey cooked in a crockpot? Ugh. Sounds like some kind of weird meatloaf and not a burger. Burgers are quick-cooked; waiting around for an hour seems ponderous.
LD M. June 1, 2017
Well Smitty don't knock the crockpot burger until you try it, good things come to those who wait, beside who likes a paper thin burger, NOT me ! To put a twist on flavor smear the top of the burger with mustard, any kind, you can use a pat of butter too, when you start to grill or fry your burger.
SuperWittySmitty June 1, 2017
Crockpot meatloaf.
nancy E. May 6, 2018
perhaps you should read the article. It addresses why this does not lose juices
Claudine (. May 24, 2017
Definitely have to give this a go. The Food Lab never disappoints (although now that our weather is finally gorgeous not sure I will be able to step away from the bbq!!!)
kevin M. May 24, 2017
American Cheese IS real cheese with other things; like meatloaf is not only meat, but still called MEAT. here's a good little article for those who care to read it.
SuperWittySmitty June 1, 2017
Yes, like those fruit drinks I see in the market: 10% real juice and a lot of other stuff from a laboratory. Real cheese is 100% cheese, without other weird/fake (non-cheese) stuff added. Many of the items you'll see are made with gelatin, oil, artificial color and other non-dairy ingredients. Many people do not care but people who love real food know better:
Maria T. May 24, 2017
Call this a Genius Better burger?
Sorry guys but to me it looks like a shoe sole sandwhich!
Picholine May 24, 2017
Why not smash the burger before you put it in the pan?
ron G. September 6, 2016
What is the item in the bottom of the pan that locks like cheesecloth. It's the picture with the burger in the spatula.
Kristen M. September 6, 2016
That is actually the melted cheese! (It's American.)
renman June 2, 2016
HEY Steak-n-Shake has been using this method since it's inception way back in 1934!!!!

That's LONG, LONG before Shake Shack and Smashburger did -- oh like 70+ years!!!!!
SuperWittySmitty June 2, 2016
Never heard of Steak n Shake. Where are they?
renman June 2, 2016
all over
SuperWittySmitty June 2, 2016
The one in NYC only opened in 2012 and it's in Times Square for the tourists, apparently. That's why I'd never heard of it. Looks like a decent place to grab a burger.
Just_Ed June 2, 2016
..and while I'm here;
Omaha Steaks are Select, Choice at best. Your local Costco has better beef.
American actually is a a REAL type of cheese. Look it up.
Kenji Rocks!
SuperWittySmitty June 2, 2016
We ALL looked it up and all we could find was that American "cheese" is fake. I'm wondering of you know anything about beef, either.
kevin M. May 24, 2017
First off SuperWittySmitty, don't speak for ALL of us. American cheese is not fake Mr. Knowitall. American cheese is a product made by blending real cheese with texture and flavor-altering ingredients. Perfected and patented by James Kraft in 1916.
Just_Ed June 2, 2016
"perilously juicy"
What a great term! I love it.
Robert H. June 1, 2016
You had me until you said American cheese. One of the few things that make me not proud to be an American (a little behind W). There are so many REAL cheeses worthy of adorning a tasty burger. Why stoop to using processed cheese food? On that alone Wisconsin should secede so as not to be associated with that imposter calling itself "cheese".
SuperWittySmitty June 1, 2016
It's amazing how many people insist on using American "cheese" as if it's a) legitimate, and b) their only option. I've been arguing with readers over on who insist that's it's "real" cheese.
Mike June 2, 2016
American cheese is just traditional. The smash burger originated in diners, where American cheese was pretty much the only cheese available. I prefer a sharp cheddar personally, but I do appreciate the lure of nostalgia.
Cliff R. June 3, 2016
American is used by many for burgers due to its melting point, which is a lot lower than some "real" cheeses....bottom line, it's more melty
rhmanatee June 8, 2016
It can't even legally be called cheese--it's "cheese food." Basically like confusing dog food with an actual dog.
SuperWittySmitty May 30, 2016
I would think it would be more accurate if you said, "A good melting cheese OR American "cheese" if there's nothing else available.
Ed May 29, 2016
I agree that smashing the burger flat to create a crust works great.
I live in southeastern Wisconsin and there is a fast food chain called Culver's that advertizes there butter burgers by smashing the meat patty down to create that crust and flavor
cyndilurks May 29, 2016
I am a huge fan of Freddy's burgers, so I went online to research how to make them. I used this method with success: take a ball of ground chuck (full fat content) and press it with a large, heavy spatula between 2 pieces of parchment paper until very thin. Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in a skillet or on a griddle set to high to medium-high heat. Peel of one piece of parchment and place smashed burger on top of butter. Remove remaining piece of parchment. When edges of burger are caramelized, flip burger, smash down with spatula, top with cheese, and continue cooking until done (about another minute). Serve on a toasted bun with ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and dill pickle chips. So simple and so yummy. Also leaves a lot of grease spatter to clean up, but totally worth it!
SuperWittySmitty June 1, 2016
No caramelization takes place, that is the oxidation of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color . You're seeing the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring the addition of heat.that makes the meat get brown. Don't confuse the two, as they're very different.
cyndilurks June 1, 2016
Oh, that's interesting. Thanks.
SuperWittySmitty June 1, 2016
(Sorry if I sounded like I was lecturing you. I made the same mistake!)
cyndilurks June 1, 2016
Haha, I'm not much for technical terminology, but now I feel enlightened :)
Marvin G. May 29, 2016
The "smashing" sound totally logical. but before that it is the receipe for the burger that it is important, a 70/30 formaula, there must be fat fat for flavour. There our many different formaula as to what may be added but don't leave out the fat!. Some a a little celery, onion and even a little ground potato. Never too much, including salt,pepper and garlic to individual preference. If its too lean you're leaving the flavour out!

A.J. May 29, 2016
I'm a BIG FAN of Kenji for various reasons. One of the reasons why I love this particular take on burgers is because, as you pointed out, "They also take under a minute to make." That's why I don't get the comments about cooking them on a charcoal grill or over an open fire. That's missing the point. If that's the ONLY way you'll cook a burger, more power to ya, but this is a genius recipe for those of us who work jobs, have to commute, but still want to have a tasty burger with our families on a busy week night. Thanks for posting this, Kristen!
I_Fortuna May 29, 2016
Not a fan of Kenji for various reasons.
There is no substitute for using good meat.
We always buy Omaha Steaks beef. For as little beef as we eat, it is worth a little more money.
For stove top, I get the skillet (any kind) super hot then add the burgers. I sear them on both sides.
I don't smash them down at any time. I let them get crisp on one side them I flip them to finish cooking. The skillet Must be super hot.
I even had complaints from hubby that his burger was *too* juicy even though he likes his really well done. LOL
Tim S. May 29, 2016
Anyone who want's beef of any kind really well done has no place judging any food. Period.
Andreas P. May 30, 2016
Go ahead and eat your oxtails medium rare but I'll take mine well done thank you very much,
Mike June 2, 2016
Omaha Steak is mediocre at best. It's basic mail-order choice beef. Try Allen Brothers or Smith & Wollensky if you want true high-quality beef.
I_Fortuna June 2, 2016
I appreciate the suggestions, however, both of those businesses you mentioned are a lot higher in price. For Smith and Wollensky, who ship their beef fresh not frozen, just the cost of shipping is prohibitive when added to the price of the meat.
These are very high end but Omaha is within many peoples budgets and the meat is much superior to any other we have tried and we live in Texas where beef is plentiful.
They also provide seafood, chicken, sausages, hamburgers and other foods making it a one stop shopping experiences. We love Omaha Steaks and are sticking to it.
Thanks again for the alternatives though. Others may find them useful. : )
I_Fortuna June 2, 2016
Tim sauces I agree with you about well done meat. I like mine bloody or nearly so. I am sure there is nowhere in my OP where I said I cooked my burgers well done.
My mom insisted on meat well done for she and myself. My dad, liked very rare meat and as I got older and was able to choose for myself, I turned to rare meats and I love them that way especially when one has good meat.
Hubby not so much, but even well done, I have served him a very juicy burger.
Everyone is different and I respect their choices even though I may disagree heartily LOL : )
Laura415 June 11, 2016
No cooks would make oxtails medium rare. They aren't well done either technically. Those designations don't work when braising which is the best technique for oxtails. I prefer grass fed beef to Omaha steaks beef.
I_Fortuna June 12, 2016
Omaha Steaks offers grass fed beef.