The Perfect Hamburger

In the Greek classic, The Odyssey, Homer probes the meaning of life. Me? I’m simply in search of a hamburger that tastes as good as the ones I enjoyed with my Dad at Main Street cafes of small Nebraska towns when I’d accompany him on a sales trip.

Imagine my delight when I spotted an article in the NYTimes explaining how to cook the perfect hamburger! Like Homer’s Odysseus I’ve followed more than my share of dead ends and made some pretty serious mistakes.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

First, forget the grill. Use a cast-iron skillet or griddle. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook. The beef fat collected in a hot skillet acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent. Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself.

Great hamburgers fall into two distinct categories. There is the traditional griddled hamburger of Main Street diners like the ones I enjoyed with my Dad. The other is the pub- or tavern-style hamburger, plump and juicy, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat within. Dad never took me into any pubs or taverns so you know the one I’m looking for!

The diner hamburger has a precooked weight of 3 to 4 ounces, roughly an ice-cream-scoop’s worth of meat. Pay close attention to the cuts of beef used in the grind. Home cooks should experiment with blends that contain from 20 to 25 percent fat.

The grind most stores sell is “fine,” which means the fat globules in it are small. That can lead to the dreaded mushy mouth feel of a substandard hamburger. Better to have a butcher grind your meat, asking for a coarse grind so that the ratio of meat to fat is clear to the eye.

Whatever the blend, it is wise to keep the meat in the refrigerator, untouched, until you are ready to cook. Hamburgers are one of the few meats you want to cook cold. You want the fat solid when the patty goes onto the skillet.

Forming the patties is an art. Simply use a spoon or an ice-cream scoop to extract a loose golf ball of meat from the pile, and get it onto the skillet in one swift movement accompanied (for the first burger) with a pat of melted butter to get the process started.

Then, a heresy to many home cooks: the smash. Use a heavy spatula to press down on the meat, producing a thin patty about the size of a hamburger bun. Everyone freaks out about that, explain the experts, but it’s the only time you should be “working” the meat, essential to creating a great crusty exterior in doing so.

Roughly 90 seconds later, after seasoning your burger, slide your spatula under the patty, flip it over, add cheese if you want, and cook the hamburger through.

The hamburger of my dreams has no cheese. But I concede some gild the lily. If you must, the experts say most people don’t melt the cheese enough. Put it on the moment the patty is flipped and let it drape the burger. Which cheese you use is a matter of preference. American cheese is designed to melt and it has 50 percent more sodium than Cheddar or Swiss, so it adds a lot of flavor.

In choosing buns the bun-to-burger ratio is incredibly important. You want a soft bun, like a challah or potato, but whichever you use it shouldn’t overwhelm the burger. They should be as one.

Finally, choose your condiments. You know the ususals… they are a matter of preference. But again according to the experts, do not overdress — people really over complicate hamburgers. We substitute complication for simplicity, sharing and loving those we are with.

Sounds a lot like spirituality. What I wouldn’t give for just one more burger with my Dad in a cafe on Main Street in a small Nebraska town.


You may find the entire June 24 NYTimes article on which my reflection is base at: http//  —  It contains a great explanation (and recipe) for Pub or Tavern burgers for those who prefer these over my favorite diner burger.

One thought on “The Perfect Hamburger

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s