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The best way to grill a burger keeps it off the grate

Cook in a cast-iron skillet, even on the grill. You can control the patty better, and the juices don't drip through the grates. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Food Styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.1 / 3
Perfect Tavern Cheeseburgers. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.2 / 3
Perfect Smash Cheeseburgers. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post.3 / 3

I used to have a sociological hamburger theory.

Growing up in Philly and Michigan, I thought a hamburger was big and fat, the type my mom made, the kind (amped up in size and quality) made famous at the 21 Club in New York. My wife thought a hamburger was thin and crusty, the sort she ate at the Diamond Inn, a homey cafe in the small Central Texas town of Taylor, where she grew up.

My theory was this: The tall burger was emblematic of the verticality of New York (and urban America), while the flat burger represented the horizontalness of Texas (and rural America).

If there was anything to that theory, it has crumbled like a stale brioche bun by now. The thin, or smash, burger is everywhere, at In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys, Shake Shack and more. Its crispiness adds texture to the orb's juiciness. When patties are stacked one atop another as a double-meat double-cheese, it becomes a transporting experience. Yet the thick, a.k.a. tavern, burger remains a mainstay in pubs, backyards and high-end restaurants. The brawny sphere exudes enormous beefy taste and, unlike a smash burger, it can be cooked to medium-rare, giving it a deeply satisfying flavor profile.

Which is better, you ask? My answer: Why choose? When I recently gathered my wife and a couple of friends for burger taste tests, we liked both styles. The surprise is in the best method to produce them: a cast-iron skillet on a grill. This lets burgers of either variety cook in their own juices, leaving them fantastically moist, while allowing for some smoke to waft in.

But there's more to it than that. Here, drawing on my recent tests and a little help from experts, are tips to help you create the best burger you can, whichever style you prefer:

- Choose the right meat. The best burgers come from freshly ground meat. Either grind your own or ask a butcher to grind it for you. Whatever you do, don't buy packages labeled hamburger or ground beef. They can contain meat from any of the primal cuts of the animal, which means you have no idea what you're getting.

For a wow factor, go for a custom blend. Elias Taddesse, the former executive chef of the Michelin-starred Caviar Russe in New York, makes a great burger at Mélange at Wet Dog Tavern in Washington from a combination of equal parts brisket, short rib and beef shank. I like a combination of brisket, chuck and sirloin.

But great burgers can also be made from all chuck, which comes from the shoulder; it's widely available and flavorful, with a good balance of meat (80 percent) and fat (20 percent). Fat is flavor, so if you choose packaged ground chuck, make sure it has at least 20 percent.

- Don't overwork it. That creates a dense burger. To optimize the juiciness, handle the meat just enough to barely form a patty.

Season the outside only. This keeps you from kneading the meat to spread the seasoning around. Use only salt and pepper, after forming the patties, to showcase the full flavor of beef. And season aggressively.

- Cook in a cast-iron skillet, even on the grill. It's the same reason that Taddesse and other burger-meisters cook on a flap top: You can control the patty better, and the juices don't drip through the grates. (Of course, you could also cook it on the stovetop. But it's summer. Use the grill to cook the rest of the meal and avoid heating up the kitchen.)

- Don't squash the patty. Constantly pressing on a burger while it's cooking releases too much of its juice. Don't do it - unless you are making a smash burger. Smash those once and only once, when you set the ball of meat onto the cooking surface. And then stop.

- Serve on a soft bun. To Michael McDearman, a judge for the World Burger Championship, the bun is the second-most important consideration after the choice of meat. "When you bite into the bun, you should not have to unhinge your jaw," he says. "It should have enough substance to hold what you put on [the burger]. It should complement. When I bite into it, I want to get every flavor of that bite." Shake Shack uses resilient, pillowy Martin's potato rolls. Just sayin'.

- Use whatever condiments you like. Take that, ketchup-haters. Also, consider protecting your burger eating experience. Tommy Shive, the 2017 winner of the World Burger Championship, suggests placing lettuce on the bottom bun to keep it from getting soggy.

- Go American. If you love blue or Gouda or Swiss or cheddar on a burger, go for it. But if you haven't tried it, know that nothing melts all gooey onto and into the meat like American. No cheese is content to play a supporting role like American. No other cheese is called American, which means, by nomenclature alone, it is perfect for that most American of foods.

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Perfect Tavern Cheeseburgers

4 servings

Call these backyard burgers, pub burgers or whatever. They are thick - the kind we associate with cookouts and fine-dining establishments, and therefore they allow for the complex flavors that comes with a charred exterior and a pink-red medium-rare interior.

Ground chuck is a great go-to because it is flavorful and easily available. But if you want to experiment with blends, try a third each of trimmed fatty brisket, sirloin and ground chuck.

Because a cast-iron skillet will help keep the burger juices in the pan and helps with uniform cooking, that's what is used here. You can cook directly on the grates of a grill, though, and achieve excellent results. The cook time and directions are the same for both methods.

This recipe calls for flipping the burger only once. But if you are a flipper, you're in good company. Leading authority on the science of cooking J. Kenji López-Alt says flipping several times actually improves the overall result, albeit slightly. Total cook time for multi-flipping will be a little less (about 2 minutes) than for one flip. Whether you are cooking on the grate or in a pan, use the remainder of the grill's cooking surface to cook corn or other vegetables to go with your burgers.

If you want to toast the buns, do so before cooking the burgers. Otherwise, the timing can get tricky and you may end up burning the buns or the burgers or both.

From columnist Jim Shahin.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

4 hamburger buns, preferably potato buns

1 1/2 pounds ground chuck (80-20)

Condiments of your choice

4 iceberg or green leaf lettuce leaves (optional)

Coarse ground kosher salt (total of about 1 tablespoon)

Freshly ground black pepper (total of about 1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon neutrally flavored oil, such as canola oil or grapeseed

4 slices white or yellow American cheese

Steps

Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 3 or 4 seconds. Have a spray water bottle ready for taming any flames.

Place a large cast-iron skillet on the grates directly over the fire. Brush a little melted butter on the inside of the buns. Place them, buttered sides down, in the skillet or on the cooking grates to toast for 2 to 3 minutes total. (Turn them over and lightly brown the exteriors, if desired.) There's no need to clean the skillet before adding the oil to cook the burgers. Transfer the buns to a plate.

Divide the meat into 4 equal portions, then shape into patties that are 1 inch tall and 3 1/2 inches in diameter (between 5 and 6 ounces each).

If you want to dress the bottom buns with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup or a special sauce, now's the time so that you can set the burger directly on the dressed bun. If you are using the lettuce leaves, place one on each bottom bun.

Generously season the patties with the salt and pepper on both sides. Use your thumb to make an indentation at the center of the burger (the resulting dimple will help prevent burger shrinkage).

Add the oil to the skillet; once the oil shimmers, place the patties in the pan. Cook, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the bottom of the meat caramelizes and becomes a little charred. Turn them over; cook for 3 to 4 minutes.

Place a slice of cheese on each burger. Close the grill lid and cook for 1 to 2 minutes; once the cheese is gooey, transfer each burger to a bottom bun.

Place the top buns on each burger; serve right away.

Nutrition | Calories: 560; Total Fat: 33 g; Saturated Fat: 14 g; Cholesterol: 160 mg; Sodium: 1390 mg; Total Carbohydrates: 28 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 8 g; Protein: 40 g.

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Perfect Smash Cheeseburgers

2 double-patty portions or 4 single servings

Smash burgers have become all the rage in recent years. They're juicy. They cook quickly. And they achieve a wonderful crustiness. When placed one atop another (the popular double-meat), they are also super meaty. Ground chuck is a great go-to because it is flavorful and easily available. But if you want to experiment with blends, try a third each of trimmed fatty brisket, sirloin and ground chuck. So they get super crispy, each burger is 3 ounces. It assumes, too, that you'll make a double-meat (because they're amazing). However, a single-meat 3-ounce burger is terrific as well. And if you don't want your burger quite so crispy, make 4-ounce burgers from 1 pound of meat. The cooking times are the same.

Because it keeps the burger juices in the pan and helps with uniform cooking, a cast-iron skillet is used here. You can cook directly on the grates of a grill, though, and achieve excellent results. The cook time and directions are the same for both methods. The classic method is to smash the ball of meat once you place it in the skillet, but you can form the burger beforehand if you prefer. We've found that it's easier to perform when you're putting the meat directly on the grill, because sometimes the spatula will stick to the meat, which can become a hassle. Whether you are cooking on the grate or in a pan, use the remainder of the grill's cooking surface to cook corn or other vegetables to go with your burgers.

If you want to toast the buns, do so before cooking the burgers. Otherwise, the timing can get tricky and you may end up burning the buns or the burgers, or both.

From columnist Jim Shahin.

Ingredients

Condiments of your choice

12 ounces ground chuck (80-20)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 or 4 hamburger buns, preferably potato buns

4 iceberg or greenleaf lettuce leaves (optional)

1 teaspoon neutrally flavored oil, such as canola oil or grapeseed

Coarse ground kosher salt (about 1 tablespoon)

Freshly ground black pepper (about 1 tablespoon)

4 slices white or yellow American cheese

Steps

Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (500 degrees). If you are using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; once the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 3 or 4 seconds. Have a spray water bottle ready for taming any flames.

Set out your favorite condiments so you'll be ready to dress your burgers as soon as they come off the grill. Divide the meat into 4 equal portions; shape into balls.

Place a large cast-iron skillet on the grates directly over the fire. Brush a little melted butter on the inside of the buns. Place them, buttered sides down, in the skillet or on the cooking grates to toast for 2 to 3 minutes total. (Turn them over and lightly brown the exteriors, if desired.) There's no need to clean the skillet before adding the oil to cook the burgers. Transfer the buns to a plate.

If you want to dress the bottom buns with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup and/or a special sauce, now's the time so that you can set the burger directly on the dressed bun. If you are using the lettuce leaves, place one on each bottom bun.

Add the oil to the skillet; once the oil shimmers, place the balls of meat in the pan and immediately mash them down with a heatproof spatula. Use half the salt and pepper to season the meat. Cook, uncovered, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the burgers crisp a little on the bottom, then turn them over and season with the remaining salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, for 1 to 2 minutes, then lay a slice of cheese on each burger. Close the grill lid; cook for about 1 minute, then, once the cheese is gooey, stack two cheese-topped burgers on each of 2 bottom buns (for double-meat portions) or place 1 burger on each of 4 bottom buns (for singles), then finish with the top buns.

Serve right away.

Nutrition (based on a single-patty cheeseburger, with bun) | Calories: 410; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 110 mg; Sodium: 1330 mg; Total Carbohydrates: 28 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 8 g; Protein: 25 g.

Author Information:

Jim Shahin, who writes the monthly Smoke Signals column about barbecue and grilling, is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University.