Skip to main content

Seasons by the Sea: A Perfect Smash Burger

Mon, 10/16/2023 - 15:25
Smash burgers should be cooked in a cast-iron pan for the heat required for their characteristic browning.
Angus Dykman

Smash burgers! They're a thing! You may have had some variation of this phenomenon, perhaps at a Shake Shack, Five Guys, In-N-Out Burger, or a genuine SmasHBURGER. Yes, that is how SmasHBURGER's name is lettered, with the second three letters in lower case because they've been smashed.

Thin burger patties have been a staple of fast food restaurants for many years, possibly beginning with the gross White Castle steamed burgers in 1921. But a real crispy, thin smash burger only exists at SmasHBURGER, and perhaps after drooling over this story, your own kitchen. 

Did the folks at SmasHBURGER invent this method in 2007 in Denver? No, the first version was accidentally devised in the 1950s at the Dairy Cheer in Kentucky. The owner Bill Culvertson noticed one of his cooks smashing the burgers with a large can of beans to cook them faster. The happy accident was that by so doing, the cook enabled the Maillard reaction to take place. This is a chemical process that occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars when heated, thus producing browned food with enticing aromas and flavors. It occurs with French fries, coffee, toast, and numerous other browned foods but should not be confused with caramelization. 

When researching smash burger recipes, I came across a lot of hooey, such as putting butter in the pan first. I can guaran-damn-tee that you will have burnt butter and your fire alarm going off well before the patty reaches the pan if you do this.

Here are the most important rules for making smash burgers at home. Use an 80/20 mixture of beef; you need that fat to make it flavorful and crusty. Use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, as you are going to crank up the heat on your stove. Have all of your toppings ready; the cooking process will be no more than three minutes. Be prepared to make a mess.

The bun is important, it should be a potato roll or brioche. I used Dave's Bread brand buns, which weren't pretty but had the perfect squish and sweetness. Use good ol' Kraft American cheese slices for topping; they melt rapidly and do a little Maillard dance of their own when they drip off the burger. From there, toppings are up to you: Shredded iceberg lettuce adds crunch, a slice of tomato is good, pickle chips if you like, onions, raw or caramelized, and maybe bacon, but this might overwhelm the whole situation. Lastly, since you are kind of duplicating a fast food burger, make a mayo-based sauce. I made several sauces to compare: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's version of Shake Shack sauce on Serious Eats and Pinch of Yum's imitation of SmasHBURGER's sauce. You can also find faux versions of In-N-Out Burger's and McDonald's "special sauce" online if that's your jam.

I was very lucky to have an expert millennial cooking companion for this experiment, Angus Dykman. His first and most valuable piece of advice: "The important thing is to not be afraid." True dat.

Our mise en place was complete. We cranked up the heat on medium for five minutes as per Angus's favorite guidelines from "America's Test Kitchen." A.T.K. also recommends putting a thin slick of high-smoking-point oil in the pan.

We gently rolled golf-ball-sized rounds of beef and placed them in the pans. We then smashed them down with a foil-wrapped skillet and a heavy casserole with parchment paper to prevent sticking. Neither method was necessary; just use a spatula. After smashing, add salt and pepper to taste, then cook on high until most of the pink has disappeared. The edges of the burgers will also look a bit lacy and crunchy. Flip, scraping at the bottom of the burger with a thin spatula to get all of it, and cook for about 20 more seconds. 

Alas, our golf balls shrank too much so our next batch of smash burgers were more like two to three ounces of meat. (Be sure to leave three inches of space between burger balls to allow for room after smashing. You want these to be about a half to three-quarters of an inch thick. Also, I found oiling the skillet unnecessary on my third try the next day.

Angus made his a double smash burger with two patties, cheese, pickles, lettuce, caramelized onions, and my Shake Shack sauce, which he declared better than the imitation SmasHBURGER sauce. "It speaks to my palate," he said. We agreed that the SmasHBURGER sauce was a bit fussy with the additions of sriracha, shallots, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and the kitchen sink.

I do not eat a lot of meat so when I do, I want it to be of the highest quality, a.k.a. safer and better tasting. I got my 80/20 grass-fed beef blend at Red Horse Market in East Hampton. I enjoyed making smash burgers because they are minimal meat, maximal toppings. I imagine that sauteed mushrooms and other types of cheeses could be a good riff on this basic recipe. It could be a Cuban frita burger with Manchego cheese and a bit of chorizo mixed in, or a Vermont burger with a sharp aged cheddar and pungent horseradish sauce. The possibilities are endless.

Since I already outlined the basics for smash burgers at home (two to three ounces 80/20 blend beef, hot cast iron skillet, etc.) I am just sharing some faux fast food burger sauces for you to try and choose from.

Happy smashing!

Here are some smash burger sauces for you to try at home. While our favorite was the faux Shake Shack sauce, the imitation SmasHBURGER sauce improved the next day. I'm also including In-N-Out Burger's imitation sauce from the Fork to Spoon website. If you want to try a version of McDonald's special sauce, look up Todd Wilbur's "Top Secret Recipes" books or online; they are super junky, ergo authentic.

Shake Shack Sauce
This version is from recipe by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's Serious Eats website, 
1/2 cup mayo
1 Tbsp. ketchup
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
4 slices kosher dill pickle, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. paprika
Pinch cayenne

Mix all ingredients together and serve on your favorite burger.

This is from the Pinch of Yum website.
1/2 cup mayo
2 Tbsp. ketchup 
1 tsp. horseradish
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Squeeze of sriracha
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 minced shallot
Salt to taste

Mix all ingredients together, a day ahead if possible; this sauce is better the next day.

In-N-Out Burger Sauce
This is from the Fork to Spoon website.

1/2 cup mayo 
3 Tbsp. ketchup
2 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. white vinegar

Mix all ingredients together.

Thank you for reading . . . 
...Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.