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The Genius, Rule-Breaking Secret to Better Burgers

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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.)

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The Food Lab's Ultra-Smashed Cheeseburgers
The Food Lab's Ultra-Smashed Cheeseburgers

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.

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!)

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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).

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?
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.

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The Food Lab's Ultra-Smashed Cheeseburgers

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Makes 1
  • 1 soft hamburger roll, buttered and toasted
  • Condiments and toppings as desired, such as mayonnaise, mustard, shredded lettuce, onions, tomatoes, or pickles (or nothing—the burger's that good)
  • 4 ounces good quality, freshly ground beef chuck, divided into two 2-ounce balls
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 slice good melting cheese, such as American

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].

Photos by Mark Weinberg