If to cook a hamburger the main rule has always been to absolutely avoid spilling the juices of the meat, there is a technique that subverts this principle and that certainly angers grill purists, the smashed burger. A burger which, instead of being gently placed on the hot grill, is literally crushed, increasing the surface on which the crust will form. So let’s see exactly what the smashed burger is, how to prepare it at home and the mistakes to watch out for to avoid bringing a disc of dried meat to the table.
Smashed burger and Maillard reaction
Let's talk about one of the most important chemical reactions in the kitchen, the one that makes our steaks succulent; the Maillard reaction is essential to prepare a good meat dish that must be cooked on the grill or on the plate. It is a chemical reaction that involves the proteins of the meat, to be precise the amino acids of which they are formed; these react at high temperatures, together with the sugars, forming the typical brown crust of the meat.
Actually, we are talking about complex reactions, which also have intermediate stages such as glucosamine and the Amadori-Heyns compounds, responsible for browning, and which depend on many factors – such as the types and quantity of sugars, the pH of the environment, and the amino acids present linked to the variety of meat – so much so that you should speak, more correctly, of Maillard reactions. In any case, the result is the chemical transformation of the meat that results in that succulent crust that we are used to eating and whose smell immediately triggers the appetite; not to be confused, as many do, with the caramelization of sugars, another type of reaction that does not involve amino acids.
The Maillard reaction occurs around 160 degrees C (between 160 degrees C and 180 degrees C). And it is precisely at this temperature that the burger meat, if you want to prepare a smashed burger, is crushed, increasing the surface in contact with the pan/plate and maximizing browning. But, to avoid spoiling your meat, there are very specific rules to follow.
How to make the smashed burger and the mistakes to avoid
The aim is therefore to increase the crust of the meat, preventing the liquids contained in it from escaping. The first rule for a perfect smashed burger is that the meat must be very fresh; this result, in fact, cannot be obtained if the burger has been frozen. Here are the other rules to follow:
Take the meat out from the refrigerator just a few minutes before cooking it. In fact, when the meat is in the refrigerator, the fat is still compact and the disc perfectly retains all its juices, which cannot yet melt;
Use a pan or plate made of iron, steel or cast iron, which can withstand high temperatures without getting damaged, as could happen with a non-stick coated pan;
Wait for the plate to be really hot, otherwise you will ruin the smashed effect; the difference between the temperature of the meat and that of the plate must be maximum; the plate temperature should be around 300 – 350 degrees C. You can decide to lightly grease the plate with oil or butter, but also to cook the meat as it is, avoiding adding other fats;
Crush your hamburger only and exclusively within the first 30 seconds of cooking; in fact, beyond this time the meat will begin to heat up inside too, melting the fats and thus allowing the liquids to escape. Crush hard especially the first 10 seconds and don't crush the burger again after the first 30 seconds;
Turn the burgers when the edges begin to show signs of cooking. Once the burger has been turned, keep it on the plate for 1 minute, 1 minute and a half maximum.
To favor this type of technique, rather than a slightly flattened disc, it would be good to use a sort of "meatball", which should have a percentage of fat around 20% of the total.
Smashed burger: where it comes from and why it is rarely used
The smashed burger is one of the oldest techniques for cooking burgers. Smashing began to be widespread during the 1920s in American Midwest thanks to the White Castle fast food chain and it was immediately appreciated by consumers who praised this maximization of the taste of the burger crust. But the smashed burger has a big "flaw", it can't be done with frozen burgers. For this reason, the technique gradually loses consensus in favor of other "unsmashed" methods that allow the use of frozen foods.
After being forgotten for a while, this technique was back in fashion in the first decade of the 2000s, also thanks to the changes that occurred slowly but effectively in the fast food industry, which today devote more time to the raw material, offering different customer options. In 2007, as proof of the return of the smashed burger technique, the SmashBurger fast food chain was founded in Denver, and it bases its preparations on this technique (and not only) and in a few years it has greatly increased its places throughout the United States.