Friday, May 29, 2020

the smash-burger cheat

Last night was the second time for me to make smash burgers.

A quick review: smash burgers have become popular in recent years, with the chain Shake Shack making the burgers a known quantity nationwide. The idea behind a smash burger is simple: much of the flavor in a hamburger patty comes from the surface char which, when combined with the patty's juices, produces an incredibly delicious, almost smoky flavor without the need for actual grilling. Essentially, smash burgers are a cheat, allowing you to avoid the grill while retaining most of the burger's wholesomeness. Making a smash burger requires literally smashing the burger patty flat against a very hot cooking surface—a cast-iron pan, a heavy griddle, or whatever. You get the surface ripping hot, as if you were about to cook a steak, but instead of a steak, you lay down these modest little patties that immediately sizzle upon contact with the hot surface. You then take your spatula (or flat implement of choice) and smash the patties flat. Depending on how "non-sticky" your cooking surface is, you may need to use a special scraper to peel the meat off the hot surface so you can flip the patty. Once smashed, your patty will be painfully thin, but that's the point: what gives the smash burger its charm is the fact that the act of smashing it creates an enormous surface area, allowing more of the burger to be charred. Because smash-burger patties are so small, they tend to be served as double burgers, and in terms of actual weight, two smashed patties weigh about the same as a single standard patty. A standard patty has X amount of surface area; a smashed patty has about 2X, which means way more flavor per bite.

Once you've had a smash burger, you may find it hard to go back to regular burgers. (I sure do.) Smash burgers, like properly done steaks, produce a ton of smoke during the cooking process, but almost everyone agrees they're worth the effort.

This is where my cheat comes in. I live in a studio, and I can't afford to trip the fire alarm for fear that the alarm might trigger the sprinkler system and ruin thousands of dollars' worth of my and my neighbors' possessions, including people's electronics. Upshot: if I'm going to make anything like a smash burger, I can't afford to produce too much smoke. The method I've used—twice, now—is super-simple but requires a bit of extra help in the form of pork fat.

The object of the game is to be able to produce a plausible char, and I've discovered that by mixing barbecue sauce into my burgers and frying them in bacon fat, I can achieve a result that, while not a true-true smash burger, is pretty damn close, and pretty damn delicious. I've enjoyed these burgers both times that I made them. My patties are a bit thicker than actual smash-burger patties, so I use only one patty per burger, but the amount of flavor in each patty is more than enough to make up for a modest amount of meat.

I don't have a formal recipe for what I'm doing, but commonsense eyeballing is enough to get me through the process. Assuming about 250 grams (a bit more than 0.5 lbs.) of raw ground beef to make two burgers, add maybe 3-4 tablespoons of your favorite barbecue sauce, plus some kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste. And that's it! Form your burger meat into two equal-sized spheres of potential deliciousness, then set aside. Put a thin layer of bacon grease down in your favorite skillet—one that is wide enough to accommodate two modest-sized burger patties. If you're like me, the unprofessional thing to do now is to crank your stove up to maximum to accelerate the pan-heating process. The sheen of the bacon fat will tell you when everything is hot enough, but if you need another method to verify your cooking temp, fling a drop of water off your fingertip and into the pan. If you get loud, obnoxious spattering, you're ready. Put your burger spheres directly onto the hot, greased surface of your pan, then smash the spheres down as flat as you can, but don't worry if your patties aren't super-duper flat. Immediately turn your stove's heat down to medium. If you forget and keep the stove's temp at high, you'll end up with way too much smoke. (Don't ask me how I know this.) Watch the sides of your patties to see how the brown color of cooked meat is crawling upward; once you're a bit past the halfway point, flip the patties. My method uses bacon grease, so you shouldn't have to scrape the patties off your cooking surface. If your patties are so thin that they're crumbly and prone to breakage, don't worry: this is how smash burgers are supposed to be. If you want to put cheese on your burgers, now's the time. Cheffy people will put cheese on their burgers, pour a bit of water into the pan, then immediately cover the pan with a wide lid to trap the steam. This accelerates the melting of the cheese. The entire smash-burgering process, if done right, shouldn't be much more than two minutes total. For thicker patties, like the ones I made last night, 4-5 minutes total is reasonable.

Flavoring my burgers with BBQ sauce and frying them in bacon fat is the short route to a good, smoke-minimal char: the sugars in the BBQ sauce caramelize quickly, and the bacon grease has a low smoke point, i.e., it burns easily. So you do need to exercise mindful control over the process I've described above, but it's a simple prep and a simple cook, so this shouldn't be too hard, even for someone with little skill in the kitchen. Timing is important, but if your first burgers come out too burned, well... live and learn. And try again! If smash burgers are already a cheat, my method is a cheat piggybacking on the original cheat—a metacheat, if you will. I really think you'll enjoy these little chunks of beefy heaven.

ADDENDUM: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt shows the classic approach to smash burgers (he calls them "smashed burgers," but there's room for all sorts of different designations):


John Mac said...

Damn, I am impressed. Great workaround.

Kevin Kim said...

Danke, danke. You're lucky you've got a grill, so it's easy for you to get a decent char on your burgers without cheating.