Forget the Grill: Five Tips for the Perfect Burger

It's June, which means people all over will be firing up the grill for backyard cookouts. And what goes better at one of those cookouts than that most American of sandwiches, the hamburger?

A grilled burger can be fantastic. The high heat of the flames caramelize the outside of the patty, lending it a lovely charred texture. Meanwhile, the smoke from the fire bastes the burger, creating layers of flavor. It's an experience as central to outdoor cookouts as cold beer and Slip 'N' Slide.

Yet for serious burger aficionados — the kind who pine for thick, juicy burgers for the ages — the grill just can't compare to another cooking method: the stove.

The reason cooking on a flat surface makes for a better burger than the grill has to do with a little bit of food science. But you can't just use any old burner or any old pan. Read on to find out how, by using a little ingenuity, you can make a stove-top hamburger that will stomp whatever is put out on the grill.

1. Buy sirloin. Contentious, I know, but the first step to making a great burger is using flavorful meat. And chuck — while sporting the proper burger ratio of 20 percent fat to 80 percent meat — simply cannot hang with sirloin in the flavor department. Sirloin has that meaty, rich, delicious flavor that people think of when they think beef. The problem people have with sirloin is its meat-to-fat ratio of 90:10 means less rendered lipids, which translates into a drier burger. That may be the case on the grill, since fat that renders off the meat drips down through the grates below. Not so on the stove top, where a pan captures rendered liquid and "marinates" the burger in it while it cooks. This flavor/fat compromise can be further enhanced by blending sirloin with other ground cuts — my favorites are short rib and brisket. Starting to understand? Good. Read on.

2. Form loosely packed patties. Ground meat is a deceptively delicate thing. Too much manhandling and you'll ruin the amazing, robust texture that a good burger should have. So resist the urge to mix the meat or add any fillers that require intense sculpting (read: onions, garlic, bread crumbs, Worcestershire sauce). Instead, carefully portion your ground meat into roughly even sizes. I highly suggest you go with eight-ounce burgers. Yes, they're big, but (sorry, guys) it's the size that matters in this case. Next, carefully dab each portion with about a teaspoon of olive oil, then gently pat the portions into a one-inch-thick patty that's just slightly less wide in diameter than a DVD. Don't push too hard or slap it around. Once you've got it into roughly the shape you want, set it down and stop touching it.

3. Season well on both sides. I can't stress this enough: Food needs seasoning. It's a fact of life. Too many burger joints out there go through all the right steps, then leave their meat underseasoned to try to please the salt-phobic. Well, here's a secret: Flavorless food doesn't please anyone. Seasoning is vital to flavor, but that's not all. A good layer of salt will also aid in creating a charred crust as your burger cooks. And that's what we're looking for in the perfect stove-top burger: a charred crust.

So here's how you correctly season a burger: Find a nice, rough-grained kosher salt or sea salt. I prefer Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt, because the grains are neither too big and crunchy nor too small. Now season the entire side of your patty with it. Don't scrimp — you want even coverage, about half of a teaspoon per side. Crack some fresh ground black pepper over the burger, give it a gentle pat, then flip and repeat on the other side.

4. Use a preheated cast-iron skillet. This, my friends, is the absolute key to the perfect burger: cast iron. If you follow one step to a T (and you should follow them all, damn it), this is the one you have to get right. Cast iron is the best method for cooking a burger, a steak, shoot... anything you want to sear the bejesus out of. Why? It has to do with the material properties of iron, plus the thickness of the pan.

Iron is not as reactive as, say, copper or aluminum. Its relatively poor conduction makes it ill-suited for electrical work, but it makes it great to cook with. Because of its poor conductivity, once iron is heated, it holds its heat extraordinarily well. That means iron is the perfect tool for intensely hot searing, because the heat will not dissipate and thus will cook your food more evenly.

Those properties also mean that iron takes longer to heat than other pans. So what I do is, while I'm busy preparing the meat, I pop my iron skillet into a 350-degree oven. I let it warm thoroughly for about 30 minutes, then, when I'm ready to cook, I move it over a medium-high burner. I must warn you: Be ultra careful when handling a hot iron skillet. Use oven mitts or the like to pick up your pan, and make sure not to touch the handle without using them. I like to turn the handle away from me on the stove to resist the urge to touch it.

Finally, add a tiny bit (a tablespoon, no more) of olive oil to the pan. Does it smoke? Your pan is too hot — take it off the burner for a couple of minutes, then try again. If it beads slightly and shines as it hits the pan, it's ready.

5. Flip once; don't mess with it. There's a tendency among home cooks to poke and prod their burgers. Do not do that. Instead, put in a maximum of two patties at a time into your cast iron skillet (that's for a 12-inch skillet; smaller sizes should do only one). You'll hear an intense sizzle as the meat hits the searing-hot iron. You might even get some smoke. This is good. Now, do not touch it! Resist the urge to move it, check the underside, whatever. What's happening is the screeching-hot pan is creating a ridiculously rich crust. This crust will both seal in flavor and create flavor. It is the ultimate key to a great burger — a thick crust that you cannot achieve on the grill. After about four minutes, or whenever you can see the side of the patty starting to turn from red to brown, carefully flip your patty and repeat on the other side.

Immediately after flipping to the other side, cut off a pat of butter (about a quarter of a tablespoon is all you need), and place it on top of each patty. Leave them alone now. Wait three to four minutes, until you see that the red completely gone from the sides. Add cheese now if you like, cover, and wait about one minute. (I strongly suggest sharp, aged cheddar.) Is the cheese melted? You're ready to plate.

6. Eat. Oh, I forget the sixth key: Dig in. I like to dress the perfect burger very simply: a smear of mayonnaise on the bottom bun, along with a slice of (seasoned!) ripe tomato. Some caramelized onions and mushrooms also work nicely, as does a piece of Boston lettuce if you like. Bacon is also a personal preference, but I prefer not to add it here — I want to taste the burger, not pork.

For extra credit, I suggest you also use a fresh-baked bun purchased that day, toasted on the inside only (a good time to do this is to put your cut buns face-down in the skillet when you add the cheese). Toasting the bun on the inside adds toasty crunch but does not make it so your teeth have to work to get through the bun — that just squishes your burger and allows juice to seep out. And trust me: This beast will be plenty juicy. It might be the juiciest burger you've ever eaten.

Taste that? Sure beats the heck out of the grill.

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John Linn