Whenever I make beef burgers, they tend to shrink in diameter and go really thick in the middle. How do I keep them nice and wide, and thin?Nick, London
Burgers are the bane of my life, too, Nick, but for very different reasons. Namely, two teenagers with – the horror! – Deliveroo and Five Guys addictions. But I digress: your homemade burgers do this because the proteins in the meat contract when exposed to heat. This expels moisture from the burger, especially from its edges, which in turn makes the patty swell up in the centre; it can also increase the cooking time, which is why burgers end up with thin, overcooked sides and a fat, underdone centre. Many home cooks mistakenly try to counter this by pressing the middle back down when it rises up like a meaty molehill, but that only pushes more of those glorious juices out into the pan, where they just sizzle and evaporate, so forfeiting more flavour; over-handling a burger also threatens its structure, and runs the risk of leaving you with a grim-looking pile of mince, rather than a lush meat patty.
According to Samantha Evans of Hangfire Southern Kitchen in Barry, South Wales, by far the best solution is to use one tool we always have close to hand: your thumb. “Push a big dimple into the centre of the patty with your thumb,” she says. “The divot ‘reinflates’ as the meat contracts, so you end up with a patty that’s an even thickness and cooked uniformly throughout.” Evans cooks her burgers on a custom-built wood-fired asado grill, which aren’t exactly ten-a-penny, but the same principle applies to a barbecue, griddle or frying pan, too. An added benefit of a burger that’s the same depth all over is that it gives the toppings a flat platform to sit on, so they’re less likely to slide off and wind up in your lap.
Tom Barton of Honest Burgers, which earlier this week opened its 33rd site in the UK, says that when a burger changes shape in this way during cooking, “It usually means the meat’s been over-minced or over-cooked.” Supermarket mince, for example, may have been put through an industrial mincer three or four times, to ensure an even consistency, but such texture-free pap isn’t conducive to a decent burger. “It’s overworked and rubbery,” Barton says, “and it contracts alarmingly when cooked.” To that end, he recommends smiling sweetly at a butcher and asking them to mince your beef from scratch: “Once only, on a 5mm plate, ideally.”
Alternatively, he says, chop it by hand with a very sharp, heavy knife. “You’re not after mince as such,” he says, “but a steak tartare consistency”, adding that it needs at least 20% fat content for the patty to bind together: “It has a softer, more delicate texture.” It’s a bit like using a press or a knife on garlic: when you push it through a press, you end up with wet, mushy paste, but chopped, it’s dry and still has texture.
Charlie Carroll of mini steakhouse chain Flat Iron, meanwhile, advises much more drastic action, especially at home. “These days,” he says, “it’s all about smashed burgers for me.” The process couldn’t be easier, even if it does seem a little counter-intuitive, given that we know it’s best to leave a burger well alone while it’s cooking. “Roll the patty into a ball, season one side, then lay it seasoned side down in a hot, lightly oiled skillet.” Using an oiled spatula (a cranked one with a kink in the handle is ideal; failing that, the oiled base of a clean pan will do), squash it down into a 1cm-thick patty. “Hold it in place with the spatula [or pan] for another 30 seconds, lift off the spatula and leave the burger to cook for 60 seconds more. Season the top, flip over [now’s the moment to pop that slice of cheese on top, by the way] and cook for 30-45 seconds on the other side. That’s it. Done.”
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