Perfect burgers start with the meat

Stacy Zarin Goldberg/For The Washington PressPerfect Tavern Cheeseburgers, the kind we associate with backyard cookouts, are thick and allow for the complex flavors that come with a charred exterior and a pink-red medium-rare interior.

I used to have a sociological hamburger theory.

Growing up in Philly and Michigan, I thought a hamburger was big and fat, the type my mom made, the kind (amped up in size and quality) made famous at the 21 Club in New York. My wife thought a hamburger was thin and crusty, the sort she ate at the Diamond Inn, a homey cafe in the small Central Texas town of Taylor, where she grew up.

My theory was this: The tall burger was emblematic of the verticality of New York (and urban America), while the flat burger represented the horizontalness of Texas (and rural America).

If there was anything to that theory, it has crumbled like a stale brioche bun by now.

The thin, or smash, burger is everywhere, at In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys, Shake Shack and more. Its crispiness adds texture to the orb’s juiciness. When patties are stacked one atop another as a double-meat double-cheese, it becomes a transporting experience. Yet the thick, a.k.a. tavern, burger remains a mainstay in pubs, back yards and high-end restaurants. The brawny sphere exudes enormous beefy taste and, unlike a smash burger, it can be cooked to medium-rare, giving it a deeply satisfying flavor profile.

Which is better, you ask? My answer: Why choose?

Here, drawing on my recent tests and a little help from experts, are tips to help you create the best burger you can, whichever style you prefer:

CHOOSE THE RIGHT MEAT. The best burgers come from freshly ground meat. Either grind your own or ask a butcher to grind it for you. Whatever you do, don’t buy packages labeled hamburger or ground beef. They can contain meat from any of the primal cuts of the animal, which means you have no idea what you’re getting.

Great burgers can be made from all chuck, which comes from the shoulder; it’s widely available and flavorful, with a good balance of meat (80 percent) and fat (20 percent). Fat is flavor, so if you choose packaged ground chuck, make sure it has at least 20 percent.

DON’T OVERWORK IT. That creates a dense burger. To optimize the juiciness, handle the meat just enough to barely form a patty.

Season the outside only. This keeps you from kneading the meat to spread the seasoning around. Use only salt and pepper, after forming the patties, to showcase the full flavor of beef. And season aggressively.

COOK IN A CAST-IRON SKILLET, EVEN ON THE GRILL. You can control the patty better, and the juices don’t drip through the grates. (Of course, you could

also cook it on the stovetop. But it’s summer. Use the grill to cook the rest of the meal and avoid heating up the kitchen.)

DON’T SQUASH THE PATTY. Constantly pressing on a burger while it’s cooking releases too much of its juice. Don’t do it – unless you are making a smash burger. Smash those once and only once, when you set the ball of meat onto the cooking surface. And then stop.

SERVE ON A SOFT BUN. To Michael McDearman, a judge for the World Burger Championship, the bun is the second-most important consideration after the choice of meat. “When you bite into the bun, you should not have to unhinge your jaw,” he says. “It should have enough substance to hold what you put on [the burger]. It should complement. When I bite into it, I want to get every flavor of that bite.”

USE WHATEVER CONDIMENTS YOU LIKE. Take that, ketchup-haters.

GO AMERICAN. If you love blue or Gouda or Swiss or cheddar on a burger, go for it. But if you haven’t tried it, know that nothing melts all gooey onto and into the meat like American. No cheese is content to play a supporting role like American. No other cheese is called American, which means, by nomenclature alone, it is perfect for that most American of foods.

PERFECT TAVERN CHEESEBURGERS

4 servings

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

4 hamburger buns, preferably potato buns

1½ pounds ground chuck (80-20)

Condiments of your choice

Coarse ground kosher salt (total of about 1 tablespoon)

Freshly ground black pepper (total of about 1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon neutrally flavored oil, such as canola oil or grapeseed

4 slices white or yellow American cheese

Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 3 or 4 seconds. Have a spray water bottle ready for taming any flames.

Place a large cast-iron skillet on the grates directly over the fire. Brush a little melted butter on the inside of the buns. Place them, buttered sides down, in the skillet or on the cooking grates to toast for 2 to 3 minutes total. (Turn them over and lightly brown the exteriors, if desired.) There’s no need to clean the skillet before adding the oil to cook the burgers. Transfer the buns to a plate.

Divide the meat into 4 equal portions, then shape into patties that are 1 inch tall and 3½ inches in diameter (between 5 and 6 ounces each).

Generously season the patties with the salt and pepper on both sides. Use your thumb to make an indentation at the center of the burger (the resulting dimple will help prevent burger shrinkage).

Add the oil to the skillet; once the oil shimmers, place the patties in the pan. Cook, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the bottom of the meat caramelizes and becomes a little charred. Turn them over; cook for 3 to 4 minutes.

Place a slice of cheese on each burger. Close the grill lid and cook for 1 to 2 minutes; once the cheese is gooey, transfer each burger to a bottom bun.

Place the top buns on each burger; serve right away.

PER SERVING: 560 calories; 33 g total fat; 14 g saturated fat; 160 mg cholesterol; 1390 mg sodium; 28 g total carbohydrates; 3 g dietary fiber; 8 g sugars; 40 g protein.

PERFECT SMASH CHEESEBURGERS

2 double-patty portions or 4 single servings

Condiments of your choice

12 ounces ground chuck (80-20)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 or 4 hamburger buns, preferably potato buns

1 teaspoon neutrally flavored oil, such as canola oil or grapeseed

Coarse ground kosher salt (about 1 tablespoon)

Freshly ground black pepper (about 1 tablespoon)

4 slices white or yellow American cheese

Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (500 degrees). If you are using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; once the

briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 3 or 4 seconds. Have a spray water bottle ready for taming any flames.

Set out your favorite condiments so you’ll be ready to dress your burgers as soon as they come off the grill. Divide the meat into 4 equal portions; shape into balls.

Place a large cast-iron skillet on the grates directly over the fire. Brush a little melted butter on the inside of the buns. Place them, buttered sides down, in the skillet or on the cooking grates to toast for 2 to 3 minutes total. (Turn them over and lightly brown the exteriors, if desired.) There’s no need to clean the skillet before adding the oil to cook the burgers. Transfer the buns to a plate.

Add the oil to the skillet; once the oil shimmers, place the balls of meat in the pan and immediately mash them down with a heatproof spatula. Use half the salt and pepper to season the meat. Cook, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the burgers crisp a little on the bottom, then turn them over and season with the remaining salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, for 1 to 2 minutes, then lay a slice of cheese on each burger. Close the grill lid; cook for about 1 minute, then, once the cheese is gooey, stack two cheese-topped burgers on each of 2 bottom buns (for double-meat portions) or place 1 burger on each of 4 bottom buns (for singles), then finish with the top buns.

Serve right away.

PER SERVING (based on a single-patty cheeseburger, with bun): 410 calories; 23 g total fat; 10 g saturated fat; 110 mg cholesterol; 1330 sodium; 28 g total carbohydrates; 3 g dietary fiber; 8 g sugars; 25 g protein.

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