Partly thanks to the success of Smashburger, one of America’s fastest-growing restaurant chains in the last few decades, partly thanks to burger historian, author, and filmmaker George Motz and his show on First We Feast, Burger Scholar Sessions, in recent years, smash burgers became a thing.
True to its name, you make a smash burger by pressing it down with a spatula as soon as you put it on your frying pan or flat-top grill. If, for some reason, you don’t have a spatula in your home kitchen, Lifehacker recommends that you pre-smash the burger by pressing down on the meat firmly with the bottom of a heavy skillet.
Though smash burgers become popular only so long ago, they’ve been around for decades. Two of the most famous places to get one are Carl’s Drive-In at 9033 Manchester Rd, Brentwood, along the historic Route 66, and one of the several Midwestern locations of Steak ‘n Shake.
If you can’t travel but want to experience the goodness of a smash burger, you can make it yourself at home (I’ll tell you how later in this post). But since you’re here, you’re probably asking yourself the question of whether you should be doing this in the first place.
Smashing your burger creates more surface area for the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that makes your patty more aromatic and flavorful, to take place. However, it also makes the patty thinner, which can cause it to come out chewier and drier than a regular burger.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the style of burger that you like the most. It’s a lot like pizza. On some days, I want a traditional Neapolitan pie. On others, I can’t resist a Chicago-style deep-dish.
The secret to what makes smash burgers so different—and so good—is in something food scientists call the “Maillard reaction.”
In 1912, French physician and chemist Louis-Camille Maillard was studying what happens when amino acids (the building blocks of protein) react with sugars at high heat when he discovered a chemical reaction that set the foundations of modern food science.
The Maillard reaction, as it’s commonly known today, is a chemical reaction that makes grilled burgers, seared steak, baked bread, browned pepperoni on pizza, roasted coffee, toasted spices, and protein-rich meats, produce, and nuts in general, so aromatic and flavorful.
As medical doctor turned food scientist (clearly, there’s a pattern here) Stuart Farrimond explains in his 2017 book, The Science of Cooking: Every Question Answered to Perfect Your Cooking, the Maillard reaction starts at a temperature of 284°F (140°C).
In case you’ve ever wondered, this is why almost every recipe calls for cooking over medium to medium-high heat when on the stove or at a temperature of somewhere around 320°F (160°C) in the oven.
Since water doesn’t exceed its boiling point of 212°F (100°C) in normal circumstances, this is also why food won’t brown (and will come out less aromatic and flavorful in general) when boiled, steamed, poached, or stewed.
Back to the topic of burgers—and what the Maillard reaction has in common with pressing down on the patty.
When the surface of your burger that’s in direct contact with the pan or grill reaches 284°F (140°C), the amino acids and sugars that it contains get charged with so much thermal energy that they start to collide and merge.
Hundreds of new aroma and flavor compounds get created as a byproduct of their collision, elevating the smell and taste of your burger. Its appearance also improves as its color starts to turn brown.
As the temperature increases, the Maillard reaction intensifies. By the time it has reached 302°F (150°C), malty aromas and deep meaty flavors are generated twice as fast.
All of this happens until it the reaction reaches its peak at 356°F (180°C), at which stage the burger starts to burn, developing bitter aromas and acrid flavors (which is why it isn’t a good idea to cook burgers on high heat or directly over a flame).
Now that you know all of this, you can understand the theory behind smashing your burger.
If you smash your burger on the pan or grill, you create more surface area for the Maillard reaction to take place, producing a crispier and better-browned patty with a more decadent aroma and more profound flavor.
As with many other things in cooking, this comes at a trade-off that not everyone is willing to accept. Smashed burgers are usually chewier and drier than their standard counterparts, which is why they’re not the first choice for eaters who like their burgers tender and juicy.
So how can you decide which method is right for you? It’s all about your (and your household’s) taste and preferences.
If you’ve never made smash burgers at home before and you’re looking for my 2¢, make a couple of burgers both ways—and see which one you like more.
But if you’re the type of person who likes to see it to believe it, keep on reading.
Comparing Regular vs. Smash Burgers
I made a regular burger and a smash burger—and I’m about to tell you what to watch out for during cooking and what differences to expect when you take a bite into each of them.
I bought two same-sized Black Angus beef burger patties from my favorite butcher shop. 10% more expensive than beef from other cattle, Black Angus beef is well-marbled and typically yields a delicate, succulent burger.
Curious if that would still be the case when the burger is smashed, I greased my frying pan lightly with rice bran oil and set the heat on my cooktop to medium-high.
While waiting 2-3 minutes for the pan to get up to heat, seasoned both patties with Himalayan salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
First was the regular burger. I placed it on the pan, waited 5 1/2 minutes before flipping it to the other side, and cooked the other side for the same amount of time before taking it off the heat and letting it rest.
Next came the smash burger. I placed it on the pan and smashed it flat with a spatula. Craggy edges, as former Bon Appétit magazine editor Adam Rapoport wrote, are your friend.
Then, I cooked it for 2-3 minutes before flipping it over. Watch the time; smash burgers are less thick than regular ones, so they take a little less to cook to your desired doneness.
It was now time for my favorite part, the taste test.
The regular burger reminded me of burgers I’ve eaten in steakhouses and the lobby restaurants of higher-end hotels. It had a tall build and a juicy patty with that meaty texture you get from medium-done ground beef.
The smash burger reminded me of a classic fast-food burger. The patty came out well-done. It was denser, chewier, and full of flavor. Somehow, it brought back memories of the drive-thru burgers that I used to love so much growing up as a kid.
If you like your burger taller and anything other than well-done, stick to the standard method of preparing the patty. If you prefer one that’s easier to cook and eat, and comes out a little bit more savory thanks to the Maillard reaction, make yourself a smash burger.
What to Read Next
Telling when burgers are done is a form of art and science by itself. Here’s how.
Seems like there’s a technique for everything nowadays. Speaking of which, I recently wrote about the best time to add cheese to a burger.