Forget the Grill: Five Tips for the Perfect Burger
A grilled burger can be fantastic. The high heat of the flames caramelize the outside of the patty, lending it a lovely charred texture. Meanwhile, the smoke from the fire bastes the burger, creating layers of flavor. It's an experience as central to outdoor cookouts as cold beer and Slip 'N' Slide.
Yet for serious burger aficionados -- the kind who pine for thick, juicy burgers for the ages -- the grill just can't compare to another cooking method: the stove.
The reason cooking on a flat surface makes for a better burger than the grill has to do with a little bit of food science. But you can't just use any old burner or any old pan. Read on to find out how, by using a little ingenuity, you can make a stove-top hamburger that will stomp whatever is put out on the grill.
1. Buy Sirloin
Contentious, I know, but the first step to making a great burger is using flavorful meat. And chuck -- while sporting the proper burger ratio of 20 percent fat to 80 percent meat -- simply cannot hang with sirloin in the flavor department. Sirloin has that meaty, rich, delicious flavor that people think of when they think beef. The problem people have with sirloin is its meat-to-fat ratio of 90:10 means less rendered lipids, which translates into a drier burger. That may be the case on the grill, since fat that renders off the meat drips down through the grates below. Not so on the stove top, where a pan captures rendered liquid and "marinates" the burger in it while it cooks. This flavor/fat compromise can be further enhanced by blending sirloin with other ground cuts -- my favorites are short rib and brisket. Starting to understand? Good. Read on.
2. Form Loosely Packed Patties
Ground meat is a deceptively delicate thing. Too much manhandling and you'll ruin the amazing, robust texture that a good burger should have. So resist the urge to mix the meat or add any fillers that require intense sculpting (read: onions, garlic, bread crumbs, Worcestershire sauce). Instead, carefully portion your ground meat into roughly even sizes. I highly suggest you go with eight-ounce burgers. Yes, they're big, but (sorry, guys) it's the size that matters in this case. Next, carefully dab each portion with about a teaspoon of olive oil, then gently pat the portions into a one-inch-thick patty that's just slightly less wide in diameter than a DVD. Don't push too hard or slap it around. Once you've got it into roughly the shape you want, set it down and stop touching it.
3. Season Well on Both Sides
I can't stress this enough: Food needs seasoning. It's a fact of life. Too many burger joints out there go through all the right steps, then leave their meat underseasoned to try to please the salt-phobic. Well, here's a secret: Flavorless food doesn't please anyone. Seasoning is vital to flavor, but that's not all. A good layer of salt will also aid in creating a charred crust as your burger cooks. And that's what we're looking for in the perfect stove-top burger: a charred crust.
So here's how you correctly season a burger: Find a nice, rough-grained kosher salt or sea salt. I prefer Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt, because the grains are neither too big and crunchy nor too small. Now season the entire side of your patty with it. Don't scrimp -- you want even coverage, about half of a teaspoon per side. Crack some fresh ground black pepper over the burger, give it a gentle pat, then flip and repeat on the other side.