Two nights ago, I finally got to taste the burger from Rough Draft Burger Shop, one of the popup restaurants I wrote about last week. (Rough Draft is opening up their lower Queen Anne shop next month and is selling burgers until then on an irregular schedule that’s announced on Instagram.) The burger was everything I had anticipated it would be – well-seasoned beef on a soft bun with gooey American cheese, pickles, onions, and a tangy sauce. But what stood out to me most were the crispy edges that added a textural contrast and a ton of extra flavor.
I almost couldn’t fall asleep last night, thinking about how I can get those edges on my own burgers. So as with yesterday’s post about crispy potatoes, I turned to Kenji Lopez-Alt’s indispensable book The Food Lab for the answer.
Lopez-Alt explains that the crispy crust on a burger, just like the brown color on a seared steak, is an example of the Maillard reaction. That’s a chemical process that rapidly takes place between amino acids and sugars, starting at temperatures between 280 and 330 degrees. The Maillard reaction creates the crispy edges on a burger and produces a number of flavor compounds that makes food taste good.
You’ll get some browning on almost any burger that’s cooked at the right temperature (too high, and the edges will burn before the middle is cooked through; too low, and the burger may overcook in the middle before the browning happens). But smashing the burger increases its surface area, resulting in more browning.
Through extensive testing, Lopez-Alt shows that a quarter-pound burger that’s smashed to a half-inch thickness will retain nearly as much moisture as a burger that isn’t smashed at all – provided the smashing happens within the first 30 seconds of cooking. But the smashed burger, because of the Maillard reaction, will have better flavor. If you wait too long to smash, the juices will flow out into your skillet instead of staying inside the burger. And of course, you want your burger to be as juicy as possible when you bite into it.
To increase the chances you’ll get those crispy edges, make sure to use a heavy stainless steel or cast-iron skillet, which produces steady heat. And smash your burger firmly with a sturdy metal spatula, which will also help ensure that when it’s time to flip the patty over, you can scrape the entire crust without breaking it.
If your skillet is hot, it should take only about 90 seconds to cook the first side, after you smash the burger down. Flip it over, top with cheese, and let it cook another 30 seconds on the second side. Lopez-Alt says this technique is nearly foolproof and even works well with store-bought ground beef, though he’d prefer a burger with meat he’s ground by hand.
I haven’t tried this technique out yet, but it’s something I’m going to experiment with soon – especially considering how long it took me to finally taste the Rough Draft burger. Until I do, I won’t be surprised if those crispy edges start haunting my dreams.
What I Ate: Rough Draft’s cheeseburger with crispy edges