Average-quality ground beef can be rendered wonderful with the right cooking method. A cast-iron pan is my preference, and not just because I don’t have a restaurant’s flattop griddle at home. Cooking a burger creates grease splatters and meaty smoke. Taking it outside is a great idea. I don’t want wood coals or oak lump-charcoal flavor on my burger, so I put the cast-iron pan on my Weber Kettle grates after the charcoal has burned down to even, gray coals. Add a little bit of good oil in the pan if you must, but a seasoned pan with good meat won’t need anything else. Smash your patty down once if you want a thinner, diner-style burger. Don’t mess with it again until you flip.
Buy top quality. Assuming you don’t grind your own, make friends with a butcher. Announce that you want to make the ultimate hamburger and you’re willing to spend for good beef. You want a coarse grind of sirloin or chuck, roughly 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat. You can use even more fat if you’re getting grass-fed. The patties should be loose, not tightly packed, and cold until they hit the skillet, so the fat melts out slowly and helps create a perfect brown crust.
Jack Keller told me, “The bun is the single most important aspect of a good hamburger.” The frame on your sandwich should be soft, simple, and trim. Plain, poppy seed, or sesame; it’s up to you. Toast or griddle lightly if that’s your thing, but be careful not to burn the edges. It can mar the taste of the whole. The right bun-to-meat ratio is essential. The meat should go right to the edge of the bun—no less, no more. If there’s more bun than meat in any bite, the bun is too thick.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper are all you need to season the meat. And go easy on the salt. The cheese, mayo, and mustard will also bring sodium to the party. Choose your condiments wisely from here on out.
This is where personal preference rules, but you can also go off the rails pretty easily. Vegetables are nice but not essential. Think of the simple cheeseburger of your youth. Pickle discs and thinly sliced red onion give plenty of accent to your dream burger. Add a full lettuce leaf and good tomato slices on the bottom (Chili’s-style) so the whole thing locks together and isn’t top-heavy.