Diner Burgers are small disks, 4 ounces or less, as opposed to big thick Steakhouse Steakburgers.
In George Motz’s excellent guide to the best burgers in the country, Hamburger America: One Man’s Cross-Country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation, 81 of the 100 burgers he describes are griddled, four are steamed or deep fried, and just 13 are cooked by an open flame.
Why? It’s all about the browning the meat surface, it’s all about the Maillard reaction.
But if you try to do a diner burger in your kitchen, you will almost certainly make the smoke alarm cry, and you will also be crying because you will be scrubbing spatters off the top of the range for hours. Next time you are sitting at the counter, notice the huge exhaust fan over the griddle, and how greasy the floors are. So the perfect homemade diner burgers are cooked, where else, outdoors, on our grills.
First, let’s try and get the nomenclature straight. Chances are that “Charlie’s Bar and Grill” does not have a grill. It probably has a large, flat, thick, heavy piece of steel heated from below. A griddle. A griddle that cooks by conduction. A grill cooks mostly by radiation as heat rises from open flames through open grates. If you hear the waitress say, “Toss a burger on the grill, Charlie,” she is really referring to the griddle. Just don’t correct her.
Charlie is often called the grill man, but just as often he is called a “fry cook”, and just as often griddled burgers are called “fried”. This is only partially correct. The meat cooks in a thin layer of its own rendered fat on the griddle, but this is not really the same as frying, which usually involves a bit more oil. So from here on, we shall refer to the method correctly, as griddled.
The griddle has a distinct advantage when used properly. The food surface is in contact with the heat source with only a thin layer of oil in between, so it gets brown on most of the surface. On a real grill, the grates get hot and are in direct contact with the food, so you get dark browning only where the grates touch the food, hence the grill marks. On a griddle browning happens rapidly, so the method is ideal for thin burgers, like quarter pounders.
The best tasting burgers are the ones that are darkest color on the outside. Now this means that you cannot have a rare Diner Burger. By the time the surface gets to the right color, the meat is well done. That’s why a high fat content of the meat is so important. As discussed in The Science of Hamburgers, a 20 to 30% fat burger will remain juicy even when the surface is cooked until it is GBD (Golden Brown and Delicious).
Also, you need two spatulas, one to smash the raw meat, and a clean one to flip and serve.
I have named my version of the Diner Burger after J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in the Popeye cartoon series, who was addicted to burgers. Popeye ate spinach and was a pugnacious, quarrelsome, hothead sailor. Wimpy ate hamburgers, and he was just a good natured mooch whose favorite saying was “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” Click here to watch Wimpy make a burger on a griddle in the 1930s. This style of pressed burger has also become known as a smash burger.
To make great Diner Burgers you need some special tools, a heavy cooking surface and a solid spatula.
The griddle. I recommend a cast iron griddle, the same surface many diners use. When it comes to cast iron cookware, Lodge is the gold standard. I have the Lodge Logic Pro 20″ x 10 7/16″ Cast Iron Griddle. I can get 6 burgers on there. A cast iron frying pan will work too. The Lodge Logic 12″ Pre-Seasoned Skillet is a good choice, but it will hold only 2 Diner Burgers. In a pinch you can use any heavy bottomed pan, just make sure it doesn’t have a rubber or plastic handle that will melt. You want a surface that will not cool off when the burgers hit it. The heavier, the better. The 12″ All-Clad is a good choice. If you can afford a griddle, get one. It can hold up to 6 burgers. There are many other things you can do with it (sandwiches, omelets, etc.).
The spatula. You need to smash the burger on the griddle in order to maximize contact, but you don’t want to use a slotted spatula because that will deform the top surface and apply uneven pressure. I like the Weber Style 6446 Professional-Grade Fish Turner. I keep the tip of my spatula sharp with the grinder in my tool shop so it will have no trouble slipping under the burgers to flip them. If you don’t have a solid spatula, you can use the bottom of a small frying pan or a saucepan to smash the burgers.
Undercooked ground meat and sausage can kill. It can happen to you or a loved one. It is primarily a problem in ground meats, not steaks. I urge you to click this link to read more about dangerous pathogens in burgers and other ground meats and how to prevent food-borne illness. If you see pink ground meat on this website, it is meat I have pasteurized as described in the above link.
Serve with: root beer.
Published On: 7/6/2012 Last Modified: 3/25/2021