Best of the best: how to make the ultimate smash burger

No shortcuts. No cheat ingredients. Our best of the best series takes the view that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. We take a deep-dive into a classic dish, delving into the processes and analysing why it tastes so good, then we’ll give you our ultimate recipe. This month: we build the smash burger to end all burgers. Are you ready?

Best of the best: how to make the ultimate smash burger

How many burgers do you think you’ve eaten in your life? If you’re anything like me, probably more than you’d care to admit. There’s just something so appealing about a good burger – it’s quick, hot, handheld, endlessly customisable, provides a balance of salt, sweet, tang, crunch and chew, is relatively cheap to make or buy at a restaurant and contains a mix of flavours that are pretty much universally loved. So why are there so many bad burgers out there? The reason, I think, comes from two sources: ready-shaped patties and overcomplication.

You know those preformed pucks of minced meat sold in the supermarkets? Avoid them. At all costs. They are a false flag, promising all sorts of burger-based goodness but in fact leaving you with a dense, thick, overprocessed patty that ends up steaming in the centre as it cooks, overpowering your entire burger with that boiled meat flavour.

Keep it simple

Do you find yourself reaching for the goat’s cheese, incorporating finely chopped balsamic-soaked onions into your patty or loading your bun up with 10 different things? Stop it. Right now. What you’re doing is taking something sacred – a dish that’s a shining example of something being greater than the sum of its parts – and trying to improve upon perfection. Don’t worry, it’s not just you; gastropub chefs have been committing crimes against burgerkind for a long time in this country.

In all honesty, it’s only in the past few years that we’ve realised a cheeseburger’s base simplicity is what made it the poster child for American fast food and a world-conquering dish. It doesn’t need mature artisan cheddars, thick flavour-added patties or a cacophony of accoutrements. What it does need, however, is a good balance between the few elements that are present, a bit of technique when cooking the meat, and one tip which I promise will completely change the game when it comes to making burgers at home.

This is it - the best burger you can make at home. It's simple, yet it offers that perfect balance of salt, sweetness and tang. Smashing the patties boosts the edges, while letting the burger rest in foil for a few minutes allows everything to meld together.

Take tips from the fast food masters

McDonalds makes a damn good cheeseburger. You can protest and turn up your nose all you want, but you know it to be true. And in all honesty, with their decades of experience and huge research and development departments, why would you expect anything less?

I have zero qualms looking to the big hitters – not just McDonalds but the newer more premium US chains like Five Guys and Shake Shack – to discover the fundamentals of a good cheeseburger. I’m less interested in the quality of the ingredients, as we don’t have the same costs and margins to consider as global fast food empires; it’s more the essence of the burger itself. The balance of sweet, salty and tangy. The thickness of the burger as a whole. The way all those different elements come together to create that unmistakable ‘burger’ flavour and texture. And honestly, it’s pretty simple.

The all-important patty

We’ve already covered why ready-made beef patties are the work of the devil, steaming themselves into a grey chewy puck as they fry. I don’t know how these thicker patties came to be a calling card of British burgers, whether on pub menus or on supermarket shelves. A good burger patty should be very thin, allowing for maximum caramelisation. It’s why larger burgers from the US chains contain multiple thin patties rather than one thicker one – the more mince that’s in direct contact with the metal, the more crispy, caramelised flavour you get.


This maximum caramelisation approach to patty cookery gave birth to the ‘smash burger’ – a nifty method which sees roughly shaped balls of seasoned beef mince added to a hot pan and then flattened with something heavy, creating a thin patty with as much contact with the hot metal as possible. I love it because it’s easy, quick and really does make a difference. You can buy special metal presses, but I just use a wide spatula, pressing down on it with the end of a rolling pin to really flatten and squish the meat against the pan.

While the quality of the meat is obviously important, it’s the fat content that really matters. Real burger nerds will mince their own meat to exacting ratios and recipes, but so long as you’re buying good quality beef mince with 20% fat, you’ll get a good patty out of it. Anything less and you’ll end up with something dry and crumbly.

Finally, there really isn’t any need to add anything to your patty apart from salt and pepper. The other elements in the burger are going to provide all the extra flavour you need.

What else goes in a classic cheeseburger?

Cheese, please
Just use those processed slices of American cheese. I know it’s not real cheese. I know it’s full of all sorts of preservatives. But a burger just doesn’t taste right without it. It melts in just the right way, acting as a glue to hold everything together, providing just enough richness without an overpowering cheesy flavour. Weirdly, it tastes far nicer once melted – so don’t be tempted to try a piece straight out of the fridge (it’s not pleasant).

The best bun to go for
About four years ago it suddenly became very difficult to find a burger which wasn’t housed inside a brioche bun. I understand the appeal – they provide extra richness and sweetness and look all appealing and glossy. But they are far too overbearing, becoming a cakey coffin for your burger that’s generally too large and thick, knocking everything off balance. A simple sesame seed bun is all you need to house patty and friends: it quietly does its job of allowing you to pick up your burger without trying to assert its dominance flavour-wise.

Straight to the sauce
Ketchup, mayo and American mustard are the holy trinity of fast food condiments, but if you try and apply them separately you tend to get an over-sauced burger that starts to venture into sloppy territory. Instead, whisk them together with some finely chopped onion and gherkins (plus a splash of brine for extra acidity), then fine tune the flavour with sugar and garlic granules. This is where the majority of your ‘burger’ flavour comes from, providing sweetness and acidity to counteract all that rich meat and cheese.

Time for toppings
The only other thing I add to a cheeseburger is a few slices of gherkin, to help boost the sauce’s acidity and add a little bit of crunch. The idea of warm lettuce or slimy sliced tomatoes just doesn’t do it for me – if I wanted those, I’d have made a salad!

If you’re feeling particularly indulgent then a few slices of crispy bacon are admissible, but I find this upsets the balance between the fat and acid present, making it too greasy and heavy. Of course, the joy of a burger is its endless customisability – but even though I sometimes veer off the beaten track and add a dollop of hot sauce, some pickled cabbage or a tomato jam, I’ve never found they improve on the classic.

The final finesse
Here it is – the one thing that’s going to make your cheeseburger better than anything else. Once you’ve built your burger, wrap it tightly in foil and just let it sit for 2 minutes – just like in a burger chain. The trapped heat will soften the bun, allow the cheese to stick everything together and amalgamate that meat, bread, cheese and sauce into a single entity: the cheeseburger. When you unwrap it you’ll be greeted by a perfectly formed burger, tightly knit and without any risk of fillings falling out or your bun lid sliding off the top. It really does make all the difference, so if there’s one thing you take away from all this, it should be this.

Find the BEST OF THE BEST smash burger recipe here.

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