The humble burger has evolved in more ways than we could ever imagine. From the toppings, sauces, blends of meat, to even the buns. Every aspect can change a burger’s profile immediately. You can go for a classic, tried and true cheeseburger or be a madman and make a breakfast donut burger with bacon and an egg. A custom burger sauce can bring whatever you want to the party, be it spice or tang. But before you start worrying about these extra elements, you need to concentrate on the main attraction. The burger itself.
There are two main ways to have a burger. Either thick (thicc) or smashed. Everyone has their preferences and each burger has it’s own pros and cons. There are burger restaurants that focus on one style or feature both side by side (Hopdoddy does this with aplomb). Despite both being beef patties (not gonna talk about turkey or veggie burgers by the way), each has its own recognizable taste profile, method of cooking, and most importantly, shape. Some people will go to war for their preferred burger, so let’s get into this battle of titans.
Over the years the smash burger has gained countless fans, including myself. Most burger lovers began this affair by having In-N-Out or at a local neighborhood diner, hence why this style is affectionately known as diner-style burgers. The kind of burger you get after a Little League baseball game, even if your team got absolutely mauled. Shake Shack made these even more famous by bringing in game-changing techniques and showing a more classy side to the fast-food burger.
The process of cooking these bad boys is simple but equally as easy to screw up. Start with your ground beef, this could range from good old fashioned ground chuck to a killer blend of meats, and form it into a meatball. The meatball can vary in size. A smaller patty can garner a crust to die for but many would like a bigger patty. Quarter pound meatballs are my preferred weight, so half a pound of ground beef is perfect for two patties. Make sure you have a cast-iron skillet or griddle piping hot, your stove fan set on to the max (there’s gonna be smoke), and a good tool for smashing. This can range from two large spatulas to a big ass trowel. Shake Shack actually uses a wallpaper scraper to ensure every burger has its highly recognizable crust.
Once you got the necessary stuff, season the meatballs with salt and pepper, and lay them on. The key for a juicy burger here is firmly smashing them immediately/within 30 seconds. You want that contact with the hot iron. The burgers won’t take long to cook, about a minute and 30 seconds to two minutes. Once you flip, lay the cheese on. Due to how short of a time you’re cooking them, you want a cheese that melts well. Many swear by American cheese, and for good reason. It’s melting capability is unmatched. But if you want a more flavorful cheese, there are other options. Cheddar and Gouda are brilliant options. Just ensure that they are young, as their aged versions don’t melt very well.
It's best to keep it simple when it comes to toppings. Grilled onions are synonymous with the smash burger. Grilled mushrooms and of course bacon are good options too. The best aspect of these burgers is the crust, sheer juiciness, and those irresistible crispy bits. The maillard reaction is responsible for all of this. It isn’t a mouthful and doesn’t take long nor a large amount of effort yet the taste of this burger is simply addicting.
Now for the exact opposite. The type of burger the whole world has grown all too familiar with. The thicc burger. Most people associate burgers with this type, as most restaurants serve it and supermarkets have them prepackaged, ready to go. These are the types of burgers you have on a hot summer day after swimming, right off the grill. Or the burgers you see on Food Network, stacked to the brim with toppings. So much so that you need a ladder to take a bite.
Despite being so readily available, thick burgers are actually harder to get right compared to the smash burger. Starting off, you want to get the shape right. Best tip to remember, form the patties wider than your bun. When formed, place a thumbed shaped divet with, well, your thumb in the center of the patty. This helps ensure the patty maintains its shape when it slightly shrinks during cooking. Thick burgers bring some different avenues of cooking to the table. While smash burgers require a flat surface, the thick burger loves the grill or you could be weirdo and steam it.
The part that stumps people the most, even those who think they’re an amateur Gordon Ramsay, is the flipping. Some say flip it often. Some say once. Well, per J. Kenji Lopez (who’ve I featured a ton of in this article), the best way is to flip fairly often at intervals but it wasn’t too much better than just once (so really it doesn’t matter). Rather, the best way is much like the reverse sear method for steaks. Cook it in the oven first then sear it on high heat, much like a smash burger. This ensures a rosy pink center throughout with no overcooked B.S. With or without the oven, the process will take longer than the smash burger.
Thick burgers welcome a wider variety of toppings thanks to the more pronounced beef flavor it brings. Cheeses that don’t need to melt that much are especially useful. Blue cheeseburgers are always thick and paired with, you guessed it, bacon. This is also why you see so many burgers that are absolute units, piled high with toppings. While delicious, perhaps even more so than a smash burger with few toppings, it is a chore to bite down. Your jaws will have a six-pack by the time you finish the burger.
As you can tell by my tone in the last section, I generally prefer smash burgers. They’re much less stressful to cook knowing how painful it is to get an evenly cooked thick burger. Their juiciness dominates here and those crispy bits are to die for. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love a nice, thicc burger every once in a while. Truth be told, my number one guilty pleasure is the David Lee Roth Burger in San Antonio, which is much like the Luther burger but taken to the next level. So in short, the world has enough room for both burgers, so take the time to learn both sides. No matter what, you’ll take your burger game to the next level and can flex on all your friends who think throwing a frozen patty on the grill is real cooking.