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I would gladly defend the position that all cover versions are intrinsically good with some crossing into the great territory and a rare few surpassing the originals. I especially have a deep passion for the easy listening covers of the ’50s and ’60s. Top 40 rock tunes, sanitized and usually instrumental, intended as the soundtrack to swanky cocktail lounges and suburban dinner parties. One of my favorite duos from this era is Santo & Johnny. While technically classified as a “rock” duo, their chilled-out covers are more on the “cocktail parties” end of the musical spectrum. I’m especially fond of their Beatles covers and not simply because I am not a Beatles fan. Those covers are simultaneously smooth as hell, slightly sophisticated, and extremely cheesy. It’s specifically for that last quality that I chose to make Santo & Johnny’s cover of “Please, Please Me” the theme for this burger. This recipe is my cheesy cover version of my favorite NYC smash burgers.
There was a time in my life when the only burger I cooked at home was grilled outdoors over charcoal and wood. It was usually an 8-ounce patty, seasoned with a coffee cinnamon rub, and topped with aged cheddar cheese. I often made fancy toppings – slaws, relishes, sauces – in order to finish my grilled creation. The whole thing, while delicious, would end up falling apart under its own overbuilt weight after a few bites.
Ultimately, I would realize I was a victim of the chef-driven burger syndrome in New York. Sometime in the last couple of decades, chefs decided burgers had to be elevated. Big ass patties of special dry-aged beef blends – complex house-crafted spreads and toppings – artisan baked brioches – all became a part of the ever-bigger ever less burger-like burger in NYC. It’s understandable. Chefs want to innovate, put their stamp on their dishes, and hopefully make something culinary press worthy. Many of the Chef burgers in NYC did just that garnering a lot of press that finally triggered an inevitable backlash and a return to sanity: the smash burger.
Smash burgers are a thing of simple culinary beauty. A couple of ounces of ground beef, smashed into a patty on a searingly hot griddle, cooked until a crisp crust forms, topped with American cheese, and served on a potato roll. Top it with mustard, mayo, pickle chips, and perhaps lettuce, tomato, and onion then eat and be satisfied. My current favorite NYC burgers are all smashed-style, so I decided to change up my home burger game and start making smash burgers.
While it is certainly possible to do this burger in a non-stick skillet, the best results are going to come from a cast-iron pan. You want something heavy that will hold heat and replicate a commercial kitchen griddle. Best turn the kitchen fan on early. It will get smoky. When you get your pan up to temperature, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil or butter and spread it evenly using a paper towel held with tongs. You’re looking for a nice shiny pan with no pools of oil.
I am a proponent of plain high-fat content ground chuck for burgers. No dry-aging, no special blends, and definitely not grass-fed. Once upon a time, you could find 70/30 mix in the store (70% lean beef, 30% fat) and that made amazing burgers. These days, unless you get a custom grind at a butcher, you’re probably going to find 80/20 chuck. That’s what I recommend here. Three simple prep steps: lightly season (salt, pepper, and Worcestershire mixed into the meat), do not overwork when making the balls and rest them in the fridge to let the fat set back up before cooking.
For me, a burger sweet spot is a 4-6 ounce patty. This remains filling, stands up to toppings, and is overall manageable as a sandwich. Traditionally, you take 4 ounces of meat and smash it on the grill. This will result in a great burger with a killer outer crust (the goal of a smash burger) but also increases cook time a bit. Thanks to my favorite research source – Serious Eats – I discovered a method for reducing cook time and increasing the amount of killer outer crust. Rather than one 4-ounce ball of meat, Serious Eats smashed two 2-ounce balls. Burger perfection. I use 3-ounce balls and top each patty with a slice of cheese because more cheese is the best cheese.
Once your beef has rested in the fridge, get all of your toppings and buns sorted and ready. Make sure to unwrap the cheese slices ahead of time. Once you start cooking, things move quickly. You are shooting for a crisp crust but not to burn your burgers. Getting distracted during cooking will end up in a potential disaster. For assembly, I believe in the building from the bottom bun up – mustard on the bottom – then lettuce, tomato, and onion (if using and in that order) – burgers – pickles – mayo on the top bun.
CHEESE CHEESE ME
Two smashed beef burgers, American cheese, bread & butter pickles, yellow mustard, and mayo on a potato roll
Makes 2 burgers
12 ounces 80/20 ground beef chuck
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 slices white American cheese
Bread & Butter Pickles
2 potato rolls
Gently mix the Worcestershire, salt, and pepper into the ground chuck. Do not overwork the mix. Divide the meat into 4 3-ounce balls and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes.
Lightly toast the potato rolls and set them aside.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over high heat. When hot, add the olive oil, and using tongs and a paper towel, coat the skillet with the oil. Put the chuck balls into the skillet and immediately smash them down with a grill weight or non-slotted metal spatula pressing for 10 seconds. Cook for 2 minutes. Flip patties – making sure to get your spatula between the pan and crust – and place a slice of cheese on each patty. Conk for another 1 to 1½ minutes until cheese gets melty.
To assemble, spread mayo and mustard on the bottom bun. Top with two patties and pickles. Add spread mayo and mustard on the top bun to finish. Grab some napkins and get messy!