Best Way To Season Ground Beef For Burgers

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Today we’re focusing on Best Ways to season ground beef for burgers. It’s an important skill to master if you want to create epic BAKED HAMBURGERS RECIPES that tickle your taste buds and leave your friends vowing never to eat ground beef again. This post isn’t all about providing you with how to make a burger patty but in creating a master list of ingredients and explaining the numerous health benefits of ground beef to you.

Best Way To Season Ground Beef For Burgers

Classic smashed burger on a potato bun with pickles, red onion, tomato, and lettuce.

WHY IT WORKS

  • Smashing down on the burger patties within the first 30 seconds of hitting a hot skillet ensures maximum juiciness and a flavorful, well-browned crust.
  • Using a well-heated, heavy-bottomed skillet helps the crust brown evenly.
  • A firm, flat metal spatula helps to get every last bit of crust off of the skillet.

“Never ever press down on your burger!”

How many times have you read that in a book or heard a TV chef say it? “It squeezes the juices out!”  It turns your lunch into a hockey puck!” Sometimes they’ll try and appeal to your compassionate side. “Certainly there are some things that deserve crushing. Evil grapes. T-800 model Terminators. Rebel scum trapped in trash disposals. But what has that poor, defenseless little burger ever done to you to deserve such a fate?”

You’ve heard it so many times you can’t help but believe it’s true, right?

Well okay, Mr. Smarty-Chef, I’ll believe you, but first, you must answer me these questions three:

  • Question the first: One of my favorite burgers in New York—the one that folks’ll stand in line for an hour to get—is smashed. How does the Shake Shack burger still retain such abundant juiciness?
  • Question the second: The SmashBurger chain of fast-casual burger joints has built its reputation on its smashing technique. Are all of its fans (which are legion) deluded into enjoying the flavor of dry hockey pucks?
  • Question the third: I just had what was the finest burger I’ve tasted in recent memory at Off-Site Kitchen in Dallas where—guess what?—the burgers are smashed. What gives?

Now, these questions are largely rhetorical, and anybody who’s been making burgers for a while or has been reading Serious Eats for long enough knows the answer: not smashing your burgers is always, sometimes, only sort of occasionally, good advice.

When is it okay to smash your burgers and when is it not? Well first, let’s consider the advantages of smashing a burger.

A Good Crust Creates Deep Flavor

Close up image of a hand holding a Shake Shack cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato.

There’s really only one reason to do it, and it’s the reason that all three of the burgers I mentioned above (as well as countless others) taste so good: The Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction—also known as the browning reaction*—is a series of chemical reactions that take place when protein-rich foods are heated. Large proteins break into smaller compounds, which react with others and recombine into new configurations. They break apart again, recombine, and on and on in a cascade of chemical reactions that create hundreds of brand new compounds.

*This is not to be confused with caramelization, which is a reaction that takes place when sugar is heated. You can’t caramelize a steak or a burger, no matter what any TV chef tells you!

It’s what creates the crust on your steak or burger, the golden brown color on your toast, and the complex, pleasing aromas and flavors that accompany that browning. It’s the smell of a steakhouse and fresh bread from the oven. And it’s the smell of a good burger joint. It doesn’t just make meat taste good, it actually makes it taste more meaty.

Most of the browning reactions don’t take place until foods are heated to at least 300°F (150°C) or so, and are greatly accelerated at temperatures higher than that, so if maximizing browning is your goal when cooking a burger (and it should be!), then it’s plain to see why smashing a burger can improve its flavor: It maximizes contact with the pan, which means it increases the surface area directly in contact with the hot metal and therefore maximizes browning.

While it’s true that given enough time you can brown even a non-smashed burger, there are a couple of problems. If the heat is too high, the browning will be uneven—at worst, the bits of meat directly in contact with the skillet or griddle will burn before the bits elevated above it can even begin to brown properly. With lower heat, you can get more even browning, but it takes longer—long enough that your burger will end up overcooking in the middle (and overcooking is the real path to dry burgers).

Smashing allows you to get a deep brown crust before the interior overcooks, even with a relatively small patty.

Proper Smashed Burgers Are All About Timing

Fully smashed hamburger patty on a smoking hot carbon steel skillet.

So when is it not a good idea to smash? Well, there’s the obvious: you can’t smash a burger on a grill.

But what about in a skillet or griddle? I cooked through a couple dozen burgers smashing at various stages during cooking in order to make sure. The results? If you don’t want to lose juices, you must smash within the first 30 seconds of cooking.

When ground beef is cold, its fat is still solid and its juices are still held firmly in place inside small, chopped up segments of muscle fibers. That’s the reason why you can push and press on ground meat without squeezing out too much liquid, and the reason why you can smash a burger during the initial phases of cooking without fear of losing moisture.

But what happens after that initial cooking phase as the meat warms up?

When you look at a burger under a microscope, you basically see what amounts to an interconnected network of proteins interspersed with fat and water-based liquids. Like all meats, as a burger cooks, this protein network tightens, squeezing out liquids. Simultaneously, the fat begins to render and liquefy, allowing it to be squeezed out right along with the other juices.

Squeezing a fully cooked hamburger in a citrus juicer, showing all of the juice that comes out.
If you squeeze a fully cooked hamburger, it will exude massive amounts of juice. 

In a properly formed burger—one that is made with meat that’s been ground properly, kept chilled, and minimally handled while shaping—the protein matrix is relatively loose. Even once fat has been liquefied and the protein network tightens, juices can remain trapped in the patty, only getting released when you bite into the burger, in much the same way that liquids can be trapped in a sponge and only released by squeezing.

Press down on a burger during this phase, and the juices come gushing out into the skillet or onto your coals. You’re left with what amounts to a meat patty with the texture of a sponge that’s been run through a ringer.

All burgers will lose weight as you cook them—it’s not possible to hold on to all liquefied fat and exuded juices. In my testing, four-ounce burgers that started as round pucks and were smashed down to a half-inch thickness any time before 30 seconds still lost a little over 20% of their weight while cooking. This was comparable to four-ounce burgers that were formed into 1/2-inch disks and cooked with no smashing at all. Both burgers tasted quite juicy, while the smashed burger had better flavor (obviously!).

Bar graph showing the final weight of a hamburger patty when smashed at various time intervals.

Once you start smashing after the 1 minute mark, juices really start to flow and you end up with a dramatically drier burger—a good 50% more moisture is lost in a burger smashed after 1 minute versus one smashed within 30 seconds.

Move into the territory of double- or even triple-smashing—that is, smashing once at the beginning, then getting impatient and smashing again and again during the middle and latter phases of cooking—and a burger can easily lose half of its weight to the evil griddle gods. I’ve seen more than one short order cook at a greasy spoon with a backup of orders resort to this dastardly method, and not once have I ever taken more than one bite of a burger that’s been exposed to it.

If you’ve read my breakdown of the Fake Shackburger, you already know the best way to cook a smashed burger at home. But I realized that I’ve never produced a more generic recipe for a classic smashed burger, so here you go.

Three Rules for Smashed Burger Success

Other than the basic rules of burgers (use meat with at least 20% fat; make it with a good blend of cuts or straight ground chuck, preferably freshly ground; and don’t add salt or other seasonings until after the patties are formed), making a smashed burger is simple. Just follow these basic rules:

Rule 1: Use a good stainless steel, carbon steel, or cast iron skillet.

A ball of seasoned ground beef on a smoking hot carbon steel skillet before being smashed into a burger patty.

The goal is steady, even heat, so you want to use a relatively thick pan and allow it to preheat for long enough that there are no hot or cool spots. I let my pans preheat over medium heat for a few minutes, pumping them up to high just before I add the meat. Don’t use a non-stick pan, as the high heat required for a good crust is damaging to non-stick coatings and can cause the coatings to vaporize. You don’t want to breathe that junk in.

Rule 2: Smash early and smash firmly.

Smashing a hamburger patty in a smoking hot stainless steel skillet

I have a thick, flat, sturdy metal spatula specially devoted to the task of smashing burgers. You’ll need one to do this properly. Form four to five ounces of meat into a puck about 2 inches high, season liberally with salt and pepper, and place it on the preheated skillet, then smash down on it with the spatula, using a second spatula to add pressure if necessary. Then just cook without moving until a deep brown crust develops. This’ll take about a minute and a half.

Rule 3: Leave no crust behind.

Scraping up a smashed hamburger patty before flipping it on a smoking hot stainless steel skillet.

The whole goal of smashing is to develop a nice, deeply browned crust, so it’s important that you scrape it all up intact. Once again, a sturdy metal spatula is your friend. I find that flipping the spatula upside down to help scrape the crust off is pretty effective. If your crust is properly developed and your burger properly smashed, it should spend very little time on its second side—just enough to finish cooking through and to allow cheese to melt (if added), about 30 seconds or so.

BAKED HAMBURGERS RECIPES

Oven-baking is the easiest way to cook hamburgers. Simply press the seasoned ground beef into the pan, then bake for about 15 minutes in a 400°F oven.

Once the meat is cooked, you can add some cheese, cut it into squares, and serve! It’s so much easier than pan-frying.

Baked hamburgers stacked on a plate.

Ground beef is so convenient, versatile, and affordable. I almost always have a package or two of vacuum-sealed ground beef in the fridge (or in the freezer), so I use it quite often when cooking for my family.

My go-to recipes used to be juicy bunless burgers and cheese stuffed meatballs. But lately, I’ve been gravitating towards cooking burgers in the oven instead. It’s just so easy – way easier than frying them in a pan or even grilling them

INGREDIENTS

Baking burgers in the oven requires a fairly short list of ingredients that you probably have on hand. The exact measurements are listed in the recipe card below. Here’s a general overview of what you’ll need:

  • Ground beef: I like to use lean ground beef (85/15). Leaner than that doesn’t work in this recipe. I’ve tried using a 90/10 mix, and it turned out extremely dry.
  • Kosher salt and black pepper: If using fine salt, you might want to reduce the amount you use, or the burgers could end up too salty.
  • Spices: I use onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, and chili powder. Please make sure the spices you use are fresh! A stale spice can easily ruin a dish.
  • Sliced cheddar: I like to use sharp cheddar or even extra-sharp for the best flavor. Other cheeses that work well are provolone and Swiss cheese.

INSTRUCTIONS

How to cook burgers in the oven? It’s super easy! There’s no need to form the meat into patties, or to keep an eye on the burgers as they fry or grill. And just as important – no grease splatters to clean up!

  1. Your first step is to combine the ground beef with the spices. You want to spread the spices evenly into the beef mixture, but you don’t want to overwork the mixture. It’s a fine balance, for sure.
  2. Now gently press the mixture into a glass square 8-inch pan. There’s no need to grease the pan.
  3. Bake until cooked through. This should take about 15 minutes in a 400°F oven. Carefully drain.
  4. Top the cooked meat with the cheese slices, as shown in the image below. Return the pan to the oven and bake just until the cheese is melted, about 2 more minutes.
  5. Allow to rest for 5 minutes, then cut into four squares and serve.
A photo collage showing the steps for baking burgers in the oven.

VARIATIONS AND SUBSTITUTIONS

I love this recipe as is and almost always make it as written. But in case you’d like to vary the basic recipe, here are a few ideas for you:

  • You can experiment with different spices. A pinch of thyme is good, and I also like to add a pinch of cumin.
  • You can use different cheeses too – whatever you like as long as it’s a relatively melty cheese. I like to use Swiss cheese, gruyere, and sometimes brie.

how to make a burger patty

Celebrate National Burger Day (today) by getting your shit together.

If you’re doing any of these things, you’re doing it wrong.

1. You don’t buy the right amount of meat.

2. Your grill isn’t clean and oiled.

3. You’re not paying attention to the fat/lean ratio.

4. You’re overhandling the meat.

5. You don’t consider the bun size when you make the patty.

6. You’re adding salt to the meat before you make the patties.

7. You’re not putting an indentation in your patties.

8. You’re packing it too tight.

9. You’re pressing on your patties with a spatula as they cook.

10. You’re adding the cheese too soon.

11. You are shutting the lid to speed things up.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Are baked hamburgers good?

They are. The only issue is that the meat does tend to come out a bit drier compared to frying or grilling since some juices are lost while baking. So they are not as good as, say, broiled burgers.

Still, these burgers are delicious, and my family requests them often. I would say their main advantage is that they are very easy to make.

How long does it take to cook hamburgers at 400 degrees?

It should take about 15 minutes. The best way to ensure they’re done is to use an instant-read thermometer.

I aim for an internal temperature of 155°F since I then return them to the oven to melt the cheese, at which point they should reach 160°F.

Do you need to flip burgers in the oven?

No, there’s no need to flip. I simply season the meat, press it into the pan, and bake until the meat is done.

Health Benefits Of Ground Beef

People have been eating beef for thousands of years. The first domesticated cattle lived in the Middle East almost 10,000 years ago before migration brought them to Africa.

It’s been a long journey from the savanna to the dinner table. Beef probably looks very different now than it did in those early days of farming. However, beef is still a powerful source of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Health Benefits

Beef is a good source of protein and other nutrients, but is also high in cholesterol and saturated fats that can cause fatty deposits to build up in the blood.

Beef can be a healthy part of your diet, but should be eaten in moderation. According to experts from Harvard University, “an accumulated body of evidence shows a clear link between high intake of red and processed meats and a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and premature death.”

Eating beef does increase your health risks overall. However, there are some benefits to eating beef if you eat it in small portions and choose lean cuts.

Blood health

Beef is an excellent source of iron. The iron in beef helps your body produce hemoglobin, a protein that helps your blood carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Not consuming enough iron can put you at risk of iron deficiency anemia, meaning your body isn’t getting enough oxygen. You might feel tired, listless, weak, and mentally foggy. 

Eating beef can help prevent iron deficiency anemia in people who are at risk.

Immunity and healing

Beef is a good source of zinc, which the body needs to heal damaged tissue and support a healthy immune system. Children and adolescents also need healthy amounts of zinc to make sure they thrive and grow.

Muscle function

Protein is essential for muscle health. It rebuilds the muscle tissue that is naturally lost in the wear and tear of daily life. Protein also helps you build more muscle and is especially helpful if you’re working on strength training.

A single serving of beef supplies the recommended daily amount of protein, helping to prevent lost muscle mass. Losing muscle mass can make you feel weaker and may make it difficult to keep your balance, especially if you’re age 55 or older.

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