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Credit: Photo: Meghan Splawn; Design: The Kitchn

We Tried 6 Popular Methods for Better Burger Patties and the Winner Was a Complete Surprise

updated Sep 4, 2022
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Everything delicious about a burger starts with the beefy patty, and yet this step is sometimes overlooked when cooking burgers at home. We grab the best buns, make special sauce, or even buy extra-juicy beef, but then stumble when it comes to shaping and cooking the patties.

There are lots of “hacks” for making better burgers with secret ingredients and sauces (there are even special pieces of equipment for shaping burger patties with finesse!). Somehow, making burger patties ourselves has become a whole thing — arduous, complex, a chore to be avoided.

If you really want to make a restaurant-quality burger at home, really nailing making the patty is the secret — no matter how you cook it. So we put six popular methods for enhancing, shaping, and hacking your burger patty to the test.

We tested these six methods side-by-side on the stove and on the grill to finally determine the ultimate method for making patties at home. The winning method is easy, smart, and surprisingly requires minimal shaping and effort.

Credit: Photo: Meghan Splawn; Design: The Kitchn

How We Tested These Burger Patty Making Methods

These six methods for making burger patties come from a variety of sources — an older Kitchn story on the subject, our own recipes, cult-favorite restaurants, and even YouTube. To keep the playing field even, all of these burgers were made with 80/20 ground beef and shaped from a quarter pound of said beef. The patties were all shaped and cooked on the same day.

Because sometimes you need the convenience of stovetop cooking and other times you want the flavorful char of the grill, we tested each patty two ways: first in a cast iron skillet on the stove and then on the grill. Some methods work well for the grill, some are better for stovetop cooking, but the winning method works best for both!

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Burger Patty Method: Dimpled with a Knife

  • Time: 3 minutes
  • Overall rating: 3/10

About this method: This quirky method is an ideal hack for tenderizing pre-shaped patties or for making hand-shaped patties cook more evenly. After shaping the beef into a 1/2-inch-thick by 3-inch-wide patty, use a butter knife to dimple or dock the top of the patty. As with docking a pie dough, this method is supposed to guarantee even cooking and reduce shrinking by allowing the heat of cooking to pass through the patty.

Results: In both tests — stovetop and grill — these patties shrunk the most, shriveling into an uneven mess and resulting in a dry, wonky puck of a burger patty.

Takeaways: While it’s common to see frozen or grocery store patties with docking or dimpling, this method seems like it works best when the patty has a long rest after shaping and cooking and works best for people who prefer a well-done burger. The forced airflow seems to dry out the patty rather than keep it flat — especially on the grill.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Burger Patty Method: Made with a Deep Indentation in the Center

  • Time: 2 minutes
  • Overall rating: 4/10

About this method: This might be the most well-known “trick” for making a burger patty that is cooked evenly and doesn’t have a bulbous shape post-cooking. You shape the beef into a thick disk shape and then make a wide and deep indentation in the middle of the patty. As the burger shrinks during cooking, the indentation should fill and make for a perfectly flat and even burger shape that’s ideal for topping with cheese and sliding onto a bun.

Results: Eh. Similarly to the dimpled burger above and the thumbprint method below, these burgers shrank and nearly wobbled as they cooked both on the grill and in the cast iron pan, which resulted in uneven cooking for both patties. Unlike the dimpled burger, the patties with these deep indentations did pull in towards the center (more so than the dimpled burger) and were slightly less dry.

Takeaways: This method faired the best on the grill, where a hotter cooking surface gave the patty less time to shrink. A word of warning: The indentation creates a place for fat to pool on top of the burger, which can fuel a fiery flare-up when flipped on the grill.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Burger Patty Method: Pressed with Your Thumb in the Center

  • Time: 2 minutes
  • Overall rating: 5/10

About this method: This sweet and simple method uses the same theory as the dimple and indentation methods: The burger patty is shaped as usual and a thumb is pressed into the center to make a small indentation.

Results: Of the three denting methods, this was also the fastest with the best results. Pressing a thumb into a burger patty doesn’t require any special shaping or make for a wildly shaped patty while cooking. It gave the burger just a little bit of shrinking leeway to prevent a ball-shaped burger. Still, it didn’t make for an extra-juicy, crispy, or tender burger either.

Takeaways: This is one of those take-anywhere-with-any-burger tips (even veggie burgers!) that every cook should keep in their back pocket. It doesn’t result in the best burger, but it makes any burger slightly easier to cook.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Burger Patty Method: Adding Grated Butter into the Burger

  • Time: 10 minutes, plus chilling time
  • Overall rating: 7/10

About this method: This has long been one of my favorite methods for making juicier burgers — especially with leaner beef bound for the grill. You grate a cold stick of butter and incorporate the cold butter into the beef before shaping the patties.

Results: This method was my favorite burger off the grill. The lower temperature of a skillet on the stove results in melted butter that fries the beef patty but also leaves pocket-like holes in the cooked patty — not terrible for texture, but not super appealing when you bite into it.

Takeaways: While I still absolutely stand by this method for leaner ground beef, turkey, and chicken, if you’ve got 80/20 ground beef with plenty of fat you don’t need this method — especially for stovetop cooking.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Burger Patty Method: Smashed in a Hot Skillet

  • Time: 2 minutes
  • Overall rating: 8/10

About this method: The beauty of a smash-style burger is that there is absolutely no shaping of the beef before cooking! Instead, you portion the beef and have it loosely shaped into a mound, standing at the ready to be cooked and smashed in a hot skillet.

Results: A smash burger-style patty has a distinct crispy texture and an ultra-thin patty. Smashing the patty mid-cooking keeps it juicy and helps it cook quickly without drying out. This method work brilliantly on a large skillet or flat-top, but didn’t fair well at all on the grill.

Takeaways: These burgers are incredibly fun to make at home, but almost comically bad for the grill (I’m still scraping my grates) and the resulting burger isn’t the thick, juicy burger that many of us expect. Save this method for a special smash burger night and go all out making the special sauce, too.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

Burger Patty Method: Pressed Between Deli Lids

  • Time: 15 minutes
  • Overall rating: 10/10

About this method: Using two small deli container lids, this method helps you make a gentle press for shaping the burger patties without getting your hot hands involved. (Even the slight heat from your hands begins to melt beef’s natural fat. Overwork the patty with hot hands and you risk melting all the fat that makes a cooked burger juicy before it even hits the pan.) With this method there’s no pre-shaping, no sneaky trick to making the burgers shrink less — it seemed almost impossibly easy.

Results: Both the stovetop and the grilled versions of this patty cooked up evenly with minimal shrinking and resulted in a burger with a crispy exterior and juicy, barely pink interior (read: the perfect burger patty).

Takeaways: The genius of this recipe is in what you don’t do to the beef. No time spent shaping, no poking or probing — you shape the burger into a perfect patty disk while barely touching it. The only roadblock to this technique is having the correct lid size on hand: You need two lids in the same 4-inch diameter with a 1/4-inch depth for this method.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

The Biggest Tip for Better Burger Patties

If you take anything away from this skills showdown, let it be this: The best burger patty is one that is made from quality meat with minimal shaping. Pressing the beef too much, even in order to make it shrink evenly, will give you a tough, dry burger. Adding more fat to the patty only helps dry beef, and smashing should be saved for special occasions (and the stovetop).

Even if you can’t hack a burger press with two container lids, you can make a better burger patty by keeping your beef cold, shaping it quickly, and salting it just before cooking.

Your turn: Do you have a secret for making better burgers? An ingenious tip for topping?We’d love to hear from you!