Turkey or Beef Smash Burgers

By Ann Fulton

The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time is lighting quick!
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The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. (It’s basic science for those who are interested.) And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time for both is lighting quick!

 

If you try smash burgers once, I will venture to guess that their taste, speed, and versatility will earn them a spot on your regular dinner rotation. 

Easy to make for one person or many, the burgers take about three minutes to cook, and in that short time, they develop a golden, flavorful crust while the inside stays tender and juicy.

As a bonus, a smaller amount of meat goes further, but it never feels “less than.” I’d choose these smash burgers over a thick burger every time. 

It all starts with a lightly formed ball of meat–beef, turkey, even ground pork will work. The cold meat is then flattened like a pancake in a piping hot skillet and the magic happens quickly.

With a range of toppings and meat options available, these burgers have become a staple in our house and always feel unique. In fact, I regularly keep a stash of the meat balls in my freezer, which I can thaw as needed.

Along with my tips for foolproof smash burgers (there’s a video too!), I’ve included my family’s favorite ways to top these burgers–toppings that truly transform the burgers into a uniquely satisfying and wholesome meal. For those who appreciate the side dish inspiration, I’ve included some of that as well.

 

 

Simple science explains why smash burgers taste so good, but all you really need to know is that the process to create the signature golden crust and juicy interior is lightening quick. And though traditionally made with beef, I have tips to make a truly delicious smashed turkey burger.

The science behind smash burger success:

We’ve been told not to press down on burgers when cooking them, that this practice will squeeze out the flavorful juices, rendering the burgers tough and dry.

To that point, would you believe that smashing burgers to hurry them along can cause them to lose up to a whopping 50% of their moisture—moisture we need to keep them tender and juicy?

So why do smash burgers work?

It all comes down to timing. Smashing the burgers as soon as they hit the piping hot skillet ensures the flattening happens before the natural juices start to flow. That happens around the one-minute mark.

Once smashed, the burgers are left to cook, undisturbed (no more pressing down on them) until a golden, flavorful crust forms and maximum moisture remains.

So much of a burger’s flavor lies within the crust. The science behind this is referred to as the Maillard reaction, which explains how high heat reacts with the proteins in the meat to form caramelized, charred, toasty flavor. You need the heat to form the reaction, so flatter burgers mean more surface area for this to occur.

The craggy, jagged edges of the burgers add rustic appeal. The lightning quick cooking time is a bonus. 

Simple science explains why smash burgers taste so good, but all you really need to know is that the process to create the signature golden crust and juicy interior is lightening quick. And though traditionally made with beef, I have tips to make a truly delicious smashed turkey burger.

Tips for making the best smash burgers:

  • Meat with 20% fat is ideal–try to go no lower than 15%. Freshly ground is preferable and straight chuck or a blend works well.
  • Avoid pre-formed, frozen patties from the grocery. They tend to be too compact and won’t smash well.
  • Ground turkey is fair game too. Just make sure to stick with meat that is between 80 and 85% lean. Leaner than that and the burgers will be drier and not as tender.
  • Season well and at the right time. I season the first side as soon as I smash the burgers and the second side right after flipping. Salting the meat early will draw out moisture, which reduces the quality of the sear.
  • A light touch is good when forming the balls. Take care not to overwork the meat. You want the balls to hold their shape and not fall apart but not be too compressed.
  • Refrigerate the ground beef or turkey balls for at least 30 minutes after forming. Or freeze for 15—setting a timer in that case so you don’t forget about them. Cold meat will prevent the burgers from overcooking before the burgers achieve a good sear.
  • Have your toasted buns and condiments at the ready. These burgers cook fast.
  • Avoid cooking more than two burgers in a large skillet. Otherwise, you won’t have room to fully smash them. If more burgers are needed, cook in batches or use multiple pans—or use the grill method described below.
  • Use high heat—and make sure the skillet has been preheated so it’s really hot when the meat hits the skillet.
  • Don’t use a nonstick skillet. Opt for cast iron or stainless steel, because the high heat required for a good crust can damage a non-stick surface. A heavy-bottomed skillet that heats evenly will also help the patties brown evenly.
  • Smash the burgers within 30 seconds of touching the pan. This will ensure the flavorful juices aren’t pressed out.
  • When smashing, aim for a diameter that will extend roughly an inch wider than your hamburger bun. This will allow for the usual shrinking that occurs when cooked and result in a patty that fully extends to the edges of your bun.
  • Don’t move the burger after smashing. Allowing the meat to cook, undisturbed, will allow it to develop the desired crust.
  • Aim for a great sear on the first side only. Give the second side a quick kiss so that the meat isn’t raw. This will prevent the thin burgers from overcooking and drying out while achieving an excellent ratio of golden brown crust to tender meat.
  • Remove the cooked burgers from the pan right away to reduce carryover cooking.

What do I use to smash the burgers?

You have quite a few options. My favorite method is to use a small pot and place a square piece of parchment over the burger before smashing, as pictured below. (Then remove the parchment.) That way, nothing sticks. Optionally, you could wrap the pot in foil and spray it with cooking spray.

And when I say smash, I mean really smash it. The thinner the burger, the crispier the edges will get. 

Simple science explains why smash burgers taste so good, but all you really need to know is that the process to create the signature golden crust and juicy interior is lightening quick. And though traditionally made with beef, I have tips to make a truly delicious smashed turkey burger.

A small pot is easy to reach into and get the leverage to really press down. A relatively narrow base will also allow you to smash one burger without mashing half of the other when cooking two. 

Simple science explains why smash burgers taste so good, but all you really need to know is that the process to create the signature golden crust and juicy interior is lightening quick. And though traditionally made with beef, I have tips to make a truly delicious smashed turkey burger.

Other smashing options include a very stiff spatula or a potato masher that’s been wrapped in foil—otherwise the meat will squeeze through the holes and stick. Note that many spatulas will bend under the pressure of the mashing, so stiff is the key word.

The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time is lighting quick!

Season the burgers liberally just as you begin to cook them. Salting more than a minute before cooking will draw moisture out of the meat, which is the enemy of a good sear.

The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time is lighting quick!

The crust on turkey smash burgers will be lighter, but still quite delicious. You could absolutely use this technique with ground pork as well.

The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time is lighting quick!

How do I make the burgers on the grill?

The smashing happens in the pan, and if smashed the same way on the grill, the meat would squish right through the grates. A better method is to line a large sheet pan with parchment paper, and then place one meat ball in each of the four quadrants (so they have room to expand). 

At this point, cover with another sheet of parchment paper, and using a small pot as described above, smash the burgers. You can cut the parchment and use it to carefully flip the burgers onto the hot grill when ready to cook. 

Should the pan be oiled when making smash burgers?

Some say it’s better to not oil the pan–that no oil means the meat sticks a little and develops a better sear, and that you can release it with a stiff metal spatula. I’ve tried this but find the burger can break more easily and that a very thin coating of oil is preferable. A light coating also means little splatter. (How light? I add ½ teaspoon of oil to a 12-inch skillet and rub it around with a piece of paper towel.)

Best sauces and favorite ways to top the burgers:

  • Sriracha Mayo with Cumin Lime Slaw, sliced avocado, and Pickled Red Onions
  • Special Sauce with lettuce, tomato, and optional onion and pickles
  • No lettuce for your burger? Try thin cucumber slices for crunch.
  • Tomato Jam with blue cheese and bacon. Don’t love blue cheese? Use sharp cheddar, Gruyere, or smoked Gouda instead.
  • Chick-fil-A Sauce (Especially good on turkey burgers. My copycat recipe isn’t on the blog yet, but here it is: Mix together ¼ cup (52g) mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons (40g) honey, 2 tablespoons (34g) barbecue sauce, 1 tablespoon (15g) yellow mustard, and ½ teaspoon lemon juice. Cover and store in the refrigerator, it will keep for 2 weeks or so. 
  • Smoked Paprika Aioli offers a smoky parallel to sriracha mayo and takes 2 minutes to make.
  • Quick Russian Dressing (you’ll love this if you’re a Thousand Island fan) with sauerkraut or coleslaw. Swiss cheese optional. 
  • For a delicious, Rueben-inspired twist on the typical burger toppings, we enjoy topping the smash burgers with Thousand Island or Russian dressing and sauerkraut. Feeling more like a Rachel? Coleslaw may be used in place of the sauerkraut.
  • Baked beans offer a traditional side dish, but for a delicious burger, add a spoonful as a topping!

And a few great sides:

Turkey or Beef Smash Burgers
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 burgers (recipe easy to scale up or down)
I like patties that are 3 to 4 ounces in weight. It’s just right for creating the ideal thickness when smashed and a circumference that extends to the edge of the bun. The burgers cook in a flash, so have your rolls toasted and condiments ready.
Ingredients
  • ½ teaspoon + ½ teaspoon vegetable oil (or another high heat oil like peanut, canola, sunflower, safflower, or ghee)
  • 12 to 16 ounces ground beef or turkey (preferably 80/20 or 85/15), divided into four 4-ounce portions (see notes)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Optional: Cheese slices, optional (we love Cooper Sharp for flavor—and it melts well)
  • For serving: Four toasted burger buns, toppings and condiments of choice
Instructions

Form the burgers: Divide the ground beef into four evenly sized portions and form each portion into a ball. Press together just until meat holds its shape. For best results, refrigerate for 30 minutes (longer is fine) or freeze for 10-15 minutes. (In the latter case, set a timer so you don’t forget.) Starting with cold meat will help the flavorful crust form before the burgers overcook.

When ready to cook: Rub ½ teaspoon of the oil over the bottom of a 12-inch cast iron or stainless steel skillet. I use a paper towel to very lightly and evenly coat. Place the skillet over high heat and allow it to preheat until very hot but not smoking, about 4-5 minutes.

Add 2 meat balls to the skillet. Immediately place a piece of parchment paper over the first burger and, using a very stiff metal spatula or smaller pot (my preference), press down on the burger until it’s roughly 4 to 4½ inches in diameter and ½-inch thick. Repeat with the second burger. (Alternatively, you could wrap the pot in foil, but the parchment works better to prevent the burger from sticking to your smashing implement.) Season generously with kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Cook without moving (and no more smashing because the juices will start to flow) until a golden-brown crust develops, about 1-2 minutes. Use a spatula to flip the patties, making sure to scrape all browned bits from the skillet. If using cheese, add it now. Continue to cook until burgers are cooked to desired doneness—about 30 seconds longer for medium-rare. If using turkey, cook another 2 to 2½ minutes to ensure the meat is cooked through.

Immediately remove to a plate, wipe out the skillet with a paper towel, and repeat process with remaining meat balls. (Tip: For a quick, restaurant-style clean, pour about ½ cup of water into the hot skillet and use tongs and a paper towel to wipe it clean.)

Place the burgers on the toasted buns, adding toppings as desired, and serve immediately.

Notes & Tips

Skillet size: Two patties at a time can be cooked in a 12-inch skillet. I’ve squeezed in three, although there isn’t enough room for four once smashed. The process is fast, however, so it’s easy to repeat. Alternatively, two skillets may be used.

Using ground turkey? Thigh meat makes a more flavorful, tender burger. Try not to go higher than an 85/15 lean meat-to-fat ratio. I’ve made smash burgers with leaner breast meat (90/10 and 95/5), but they tend to be drier, even when I added fat back in (which sort of defeats the purpose!). That said, they aren’t bad when topped with cheese, avocado, and condiments of choice and make a speedy meal if that’s what you prefer to use.

Cooking for one or two? This recipe can easily be scaled to cook one burger at a time, in which case a smaller skillet will work. Just make sure your smashing implement fits within the skillet.

Smash burgers are great for those who like a double-decker. In this case, start with smaller size balls (3 ounces) and serve with the cheese in between the two.

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The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time is lighting quick!
The signature crust and juicy interior of the classic smash burger are within easy reach thanks to a few simple tips. And though traditionally made with beef, a delicious turkey smash burger is easy to achieve – plus the cook time is lighting quick!

A fun nutrition fact from our dietitian Emily:
We often think of beef and turkey as good source of iron or protein, but did you know that meat (as well as eggs and dairy) are also high in Vitamin B12? Those who follow a vegan diet get their Vitamin B12 from other sources such as fortified cereals, seaweed, nutritional yeast, or oral supplements to prevent deficiency. 

For those who are curious…
The reason we don’t list nutritional breakdowns next to each recipe is because the numbers can change significantly depending on brands people buy and how exact the measuring is. In saying that, if you email me separately, I can provide you with my best estimations on the nutrients you would like to know more about in this recipe. I’m happy to help! 

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