Build a Better Burger: Cast Iron CookingBy Todd • Dec 25th, 2010 • Category: How To Cook Burgers
When you visit an old-school burger joint and the guy behind the bar (and it’s always a bar) is working an antique flat top- scraping it clean, smashing beef into its well-oiled surface, and tink-tink-tinking the spatula blade clean with his unique, practiced cadence of taps,- it’s something to behold. When I get the urge to re-create that diner experience at home, I don’t have a seasoned flat top at my disposal. But I do have something just as good:
The cast iron skillet at my house is a Griswold #10, about 40 years old. It was handed down to my wife from her grandmother, who used it for everything from bacon to fried chicken to biscuits to eggs. And on some molecular level, everything the woman ever cooked in it left some microscopic bits of goodness behind, ready to help flavor whatever gets cooked in it next. If you don’t have a cast iron skillet, I implore you to get your hands on one. Search an attic. Hit a yard sale. Ask a grandmother.
Cast iron is a crazy-good heat conductor, and since high heat is what gives a thin diner-style burg its signature char, a skillet like this is the perfect vessel for indoor burger cooking. A worthy cast iron skillet must be properly seasoned; there are several ways to do it and countless places where you can learn how… but a seasoned skillet does not make it a non-stick skillet. Grease is key. Use some saved bacon fat, a swipe of Crisco, some vegetable oil, or even a blast of cooking spray. The skillet is forgiving, but this thin lubricating layer is absolutely necessary. I sprinkle in some salt and black pepper (to kick-start the seasoning) and get the pan rip-roaring hot, to the point of actually smoking.
Time to drop the meat. For griddle burgs, I go a little thinner than usual. One-third-pounders (or even quarter-pounders) work nicely here. I shape mine into loose balls and plop them in the skillet, listening for that telltale hiss.
In just a few seconds, you can start smashing. You’re maximizing the surface area of the burger, putting more of it in contact with the skillet. Now’s a good time to salt and pepper the tops of these bad boys. That perfectly spherical ball will probably crack and look like it’s going to fall apart, but that’s okay. The extreme heat will “glue” the shape of the patty intact and hold everything together.
You’ll be able to watch the patty as it cooks and see how high up on its edges it’s turning brown. For me, when the halfway point is no longer raw-colored, it’s time to flip. You should be rewarded with a lovely bit of crust on the just-cooked side.
When I grill, I wait until after the burgers come off the heat to add the cheese. When I griddle, I cheese them while they’re still sizzling away. I’m not worried about losing any cheese between the grill grates; here, any drippage puddles around the burger and will get scooped up when it’s time to bun. The result is a super-melty blanket of awesomeness that can’t be duplicated on the ol’ Weber.
A few notes. A #10 cast iron skillet is fairly large, but it still can’t handle more than four decent-sized burgers. So prepare yourself for cooking in batches if you’re whipping up more than a quartet of cheebies.
And if you’re cooking in batches, know that the second batch will cook much differently from the first. The first batch got every bit of heat that that skillet had to offer. As soon as you added the burgers, the temperature came down. Sure, you got the burgers done, but the skillet is nowhere near as hot as it was when you started this whole process. If you can, let the skillet come back up to temp before Batch #2. Or allow more cooking time and know that you’ll have less char on later burgs.
And finally, remember when I said that cast iron is an outrageously efficient heat conductor? I meant it… all the way down to the handle. Use a pot holder, champ. Trust me, you’ll want those hands burn-free so you can wrap your mitts around these luscious beauties.