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Back in the day, these burgers were considered a mistake. For contemporary burger lovers, smash burgers are something else entirely! The wildly popular fast food franchise Smashburger was first sold in Denver during the mid-2000s with an interesting new way to prepare the traditional burger. Since then, the burger phenomenon has grown into a successful fast-food franchise replicated in restaurants and home kitchens and grills across the United States.

Image: Celeste Lindell via Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Smashburger ideal is the complete antithesis of the stereotypical medium-rare, meat-heavy patties delivered on home grills, in bars, restaurants, and fast food joints across the United States. Instead of letting a big, fat burger lay on the grill to cook, you add the burger meat to a piping hot skillet or griddle and smash it as it cooks for the first few seconds. The heat plus pressure combo results in a crispy textured, well-browned burger that cooks in moments.

The Maillard Reaction

Smashburger on the Grill
Image: 5chw4r7z via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The browning process makes for a decidedly crispy outer layer of the burger, this effect comes from the Maillard Reaction. According to Merriam Webster, the Maillard Reaction is “a nonenzymatic reaction between sugars and proteins that occurs upon heating and that produces browning of some foods (such as meat and bread).”

A hot skillet and thin layer of burger meat create a rich combination of sizzle, steam, and smoke that cooks the meat quickly but doesn’t dry out, as it browns swiftly in butter to create a caramelized flavor layer. Because it’s smashed almost immediately, and cooks so fast, the taste is much different to dry, overcooked patties that we associate with being “well done.”

Can I make smash burgers at home?

Image: Mitch Schwartz for 12 Tomatoes

The Smashburger franchise has their own proprietary method of creating the Maillard Reaction, but with a hot enough plate to work on – that is NOT non-stick – just about any home cook can get the reaction needed to make exceptionally tasty burger patties with the caramelized, crunchy texture that is synonymous with Smashburger-style.

Check out Smashed vs. Grilled Burgers if you’d like some perspective on what makes both versions so amazingly good. And might I also suggest our Oklahoma Fried Onion Burger recipe as an excellent example of the Maillard Reaction and how it makes an impact on a burger.

Outside of the meat’s thickness, cooking temperature and Maillard reaction, it’s essential to know that ground meat with a fat content of at least 15-20 percent works best for crafting delicious smash burgers. This level of fat content keeps things juicy with natural flavor and doesn’t allow overcooking or burning. Extremely lean meat may still give you the characteristic caramelization and crunch but could be blander on the palate than is ideal.

Given that in general, smash burger sauces and toppings are also simple – the emphasis is on the patties’ flavor – you can make delicious, mouthwatering burgers, and you can use any variation of meat you like, or even plant-based patties if that’s how you like to eat.

Are smash burgers worth the effort?

Burger and Fries
Image: Kayleigh Harrington Via Unsplash

I firmly believe that smash burgers are a great way of incorporating interesting flavor and texture to patties to make burgers taste more delicious, more so than seasoning with herbs and spices. Some people will prefer the simplicity and smaller size, while others will always go for the traditional, meat-heavy patty style accompanied by big buns, salads, and sauces.

The degree of smash burger enjoyment comes down to what you’re looking for, what you find valuable in your burger experience, and how hungry you are!