This weekend, millions of people across the United States will be firing up their grills and plunking down hamburger patties and grilling them. And those millions of people are all cooking cheeseburgers the wrong way. In my feeble attempt to save your taste buds from yet one more badly cooked cheeseburger, I offer you the definitive guide for cooking the perfect cheeseburger. Use this power wisely as any mis-application may result in you being invited to many BBQ parties only for your cooking skills.
As with every recipe, the perfect cheeseburger starts with the perfect ingredients. Luckily, the list is not long.
Hamburger, 80/20 ground chuck no leaner. This is no time to be thinking healthy.
Kaiser rolls, do not be tempted to go weird like Ciabatta rolls or anything like that. Kaiser rolls are the perfect hamburger bun, no substitutes.
Sharp cheddar cheese, the big brick kind. Do not get shredded or pre-sliced.
Lettuce, iceberg, fresh, cold. Keep cold. Again, keep cold! Also, like the rolls, do not substitute for fancy gourmet greens.
You will also need a flat griddle pan or a large frying pan. if you insist on using your grill, make sure you get a cast iron griddle you can place over the coals or burners.
Prep the ingredients
The cheese and hamburger should be chilled. First, cut the cheese into square slices about 1/4″ thick. You can cut thicker, but not thinner. Set them aside and allow to reach room temperature. You may find if you wet your knife between slices, it will cut easier. Make sure your knife is very, very sharp and that you take safety precautions. If you have a cheese slicer with an adjustable wire, use that instead as you need all ten fingers to eat the cheeseburger once done.
Make the hamburger patties by first wetting your hands and breaking off a piece of hamburger larger than an orange, but smaller than a grapefruit. The exact amount of meat is not important, only it’s size in relation to the bun. My favorite size bun is a 4 inch roll, so my uncooked patty will be about 5-5.5″ in diameter, at 1-1.5″ thick.
With the ball of meat in your hands, pack it down to a solid ball. Then, transfer it from palm to palm by smacking and turning it slighting as you transfer, making sure to hit the center of the ball with the meaty part of your palm. The patty will get larger and larger with each smack. Do this until the patty is about 1-1.5 inces larger than your roll. Place it on a cutting board and press a slight indentation in the center. The burger will shrink up and out and the indentation enables you to have a somewhat flat patty when fully cooked instead of a “ball-shaped” patty that is higher in the middle. Do this for every patty. Season the top slightly with salt and pepper, nothing else.
Then, allow the meat temperature to increase to room temperature. Do not rush to put cold meat on a hot pan as it will only result in all the juices running out quickly.
Fire up the griddle
Why a griddle? To remain juicy and tasty, ground meats should cook in their own fat. If you are using a grill, the fat will drip away of the meat, leaving a lifeless, dry, tasteless burger behind. Rule of thumb: solid meat like steak, seafood, chops are grilled; ground meats are fried.
Fire up the griddle over a medium heat and allow to come up to temperature. Place the hamburger patty seasoned side down and immediately sprinkle a small amount of salt and pepper on top. Allow a crust to form, about five minutes. Turn over and crust the other side. DO NOT PRESS DOWN ON THE BURGER PATTTY AT ANY TIME DURING THE COOKING PROCESS!!! Please be kind to your meat. Never poke a steak, never press a burger. Give each side about five minutes of cooking time and then gently turn. Keep cooking and turning until the burger reaches your desired doneness. For reference, the burgers used here cooked for 20 minutes on medium to low heat, turned gently every five minutes.
Make sure the burgers are cooking in their own fat. If your griddle is not level or you see the grease run off to the sides, keep turning the griddle or pushing the grease back. But be careful, hamburger grease is very flammable.
While the meat is cooking, cut leaves of lettuce from the head by making small incisions at the stalk and gently peeling back the leaf. Remove the bulk of the stalk within the leaf and return it to the refrigerator. The lettuce leaf must be crispy, cold and flat for the final assembly.
Melting the cheese, toasting the rolls
The final steps require precise timing. if there are any noisy distractions in the kitchen, shoo her out now. Turn on the broiler. I use a small toaster oven, but if you are hosting a party, you may want to turn to your oven. Slice the rolls and have ready to toast.
Place a slice of cheese on each burger and place under the broiler. WATCH THEM LIKE A HAWK. You want to see the cheese sweat slightly and the corners start to droop. Remove the burgers and set aside to rest.
Immediately place your buns sliced side up to toast. The cheese will continue to melt slowly and the burgers will rest, making sure the juices will not run out when you bit into them. Once your rolls are toasted, everything is ready.
Some cheeseburger people say to use shredded cheese or melt the cheese under a steam cap until it is fully melted and gooey. I say they are wrong. When cheese is fully melted, it separates slightly become sticky, tasteless and a little bitter. When it is slightly warmed, it retains it’s taste and texture. Really. I’m right.
Assemble the cheeseburger
Place the heel of the bun on the plate, slide the hamburger patty with slightly melted cheese onto it, place a cold lettuce leaf on top, place the top bun on top of that and serve. The time from assembly to serving to that first bite should be no more than .00001 seconds.
If you have done this correctly, you will bite into a cheeseburger that has a juicy, flavorful beef taste, with a slight crunch and a full-bodied cheese flavor that is slightly al dente.
No. No, really I advise no variations on this. I don’t care if you like ketchup, mustard, pickles, mayonnaise or other condiments, they are simply not allowed on the perfect cheeseburger. They only mask the taste.
Ok, there is one exception, but only one. Swiss cheese and mushrooms. Prepare the cheese as you did for the cheddar; cut cold and thick and allow to warm to room temperature. Prepare the mushrooms by sautéing in a small frying pan with butter, not margarine. Set aside and keep warm until the cheese warming phase, where you can place a layer of mushrooms between the hamburger patty and cheese slice immediately before broiling.
I may have lied. There is another variation; blue burger. But — and this is one huge but — only use quality blue cheese slices. Do not attempt to cheat with blue cheese dressing. Since blue cheese is hard to slice and keep in tact at room temperature, you can pile it on either crumbled or in slivers. Be bold; blue cheese deserves no less.
There you have the perfect cheeseburger recipe. Now, go forth and rid thy neighbors of crappy, dry, tasteless, over-grilled, mashed-down burgers this Fourth of July. George Washington would want you too.