You'd think that something as ubiquitous and loved in the American diet would be easy to make -- but it isn't. It's taken me years to finally be able to produce delicious hamburgers fairly consistently. Now that I have, and now that I understand some of the food science underlying my method (thanks to James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking -- a book I highly recommend), I'm happy to share it. While the cooking method is important, how the cook handles the ground beef is equally important. Too much squishing and handling makes the hamburger too dense.
Start with good ground beef, with 20 to 25% fat. (The fat is what carries the bulk of the flavor, which is why leaner ground beef generally doesn't taste as flavorful.) Use about 1/4 pound of beef per serving, and with a minimum of pressure, form into patties. (Beard describes the action as almost tossing the beef back and forth in your hands.) The idea is to just get the beef to hold together. If you want rare hamburgers, make them thick; for medium, make them thinner. Season to your taste with salt and pepper.
Put 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil, or a combination of oil and butter (my preference) into a heavy skillet, and heat until the fat is hot but not smoking. If you're making more than 4 burgers, use two skillets or cook them in shifts, as they should not be crowded. Put the burgers in the heated pan and cook over fairly high heat until they're nicely brown -- about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn carefully with a large spatula and cook for about the same time on the other side.
Reduce the heat slightly and flip the burgers once more. If you want rare burgers, cook them 2-3 minutes more on each side. For medium burgers, cook for 3-5 minutes longer. Serve immediately. It's really that simple!
Notes: Yes, adding the oil to the skillet is an essential part of this recipe. It provides more flavor to the beef (via the Maillard reaction). Butter does this best on its own, but has a lower smoking point than oils; this is why I use a combination of butter and oil. Peanut oil is an excellent choice, as it has a very high smoking point and a clean flavor; olive oil is good too. Vegetable oils generally have less flavor than these oils; if that's all you have available I recommend using only butter and watching the skillet closely so it doesn't burn.
All you need is a thin film of oil in the skillet. If you're using a cast iron skillet, you'll need more oil than if you're using a nonstick skillet. A good, heavy skillet that distributes the heat evenly is important.
The best way to gauge the doneness of the burgers is to touch them. After you flip the burgers the first time, press the center to feel the outer firmness, and the softness underneath. Each time you flip them, you should touch them, so that you can feel the increasing firmness. A nicely-done rare hamburger (or steak) should feel like a semi-erect penis -- somewhat solid, but with a fair amount of "give" still. A medium burger should feel like an almost-fully erect member -- less give, but still some. If your burger or steak feels like a fully erect penis -- hard and with little give -- it's overdone. It shouldn't take you too long to recognize by feel when the burgers are done to your taste. (As long as your hands are clean, touching food isn't the problem many nannies make it out to be.)
I've found that aging the ground beef in the refrigerator until it's just turning grayish-brown improves the flavor greatly, but others may be too squeamish to try this. I attribute that to government and other health-nannies' overbroad advice, that leads us to overcook most meats and to generally be overly fearful of our food. Beard does an excellent job of addressing these issues in his book as well.
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