Give Burgers a Perfect Sear With Ina Garten’s Unconventional Method

Editor’s Note: As more people are working from home, Bloomberg Pursuits is running a weekly Lunch Break column that highlights a notable recipe from a favorite cookbook and the hack that makes it genius. 

Who would argue that Ina Garten is not the most trusted name in the food world these days? She’s the oracle of East Hampton, N.Y.—the culinary world’s Warren Buffett.

When she highlights a recipe, it becomes a sensation: A video of her making asupersized cosmo during lockdown went viral and brought the maligned cocktail attention it hasn’t enjoyed since Sex & the City.

The cosmo recipe is not featured in Garten’s 12th cookbook, the forthcoming Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook (Penguin Random House; $35). But Garten, who has an estimatednet worth of $50 million, thanks to her popular TV show Barefoot Contessa and the 12 million-plus books she has in print, does offer a selection of alcoholic beverages. It’s as if she anticipated how much people would need a drink in these increasingly anxious times.

“Comfort is so key right now,” says Garten in a phone interview about the timeliness of her book’s title. She started planning it in 2018, well before events such as the pandemic were on the horizon. “I knew it was going to be a stressful election, no matter which side of the aisle you’re on.” She adds: “I knew I wanted to provide foods that make people feel better—but modern, with fresher ingredients. Not a plain old Mac and cheese.”

Garten’s culinary superpower is to take a familiar recipe and tweak it so that it seems refreshed but is still delicious. Among the 85 dishes featured in her book are Brussels sprouts pizza carbonara, beef stew made with short ribs, and chicken pot pie soup. Her Mac and cheese is enhanced with truffle butter and cream sherry.

In Modern Comfort Food, she also turns her attention to hamburgers. “Could there possibly be a new way to make hamburgers that I didn’t know about?” asks Garten in the headnote. “As it turns out, there is!” The secret to her smashed burgers, which are topped with a mountain of caramelized onions and Gruyère cheese, is simple: She freezes the meat for exactly 15 minutes before putting the burgers in a searing-hot skillet. Garten’s recipes are so impeccable that when she says 15 minutes, set your timer. 

The result is an interior that stays juicy because of the temporary chill, while the crust on the burger becomes further caramelized. Garten also adds a pinch of dry mustard powder to the ground beef along with salt and pepper seasoning, which adds an underlying sharpness; it’s excellent with the melted Gruyère.

“When I’m stressed, cooking for people I love makes me feel better. It helps me to make my friends feel taken care of—and certainly, my husband Jeffrey,” says Garten. “And it helps to make something familiar, like smash burgers that taste better than you expect.”

In the summer, Garten says, you can pair the burger with her cosmo. “The key to the cosmo is fresh lime juice. It wakes up all the other flavors,” she notes. 

In cooler, fall weather, Garten recommends a whiskey sour. (Her recipe for that is in a previous cookbook, Barefoot Contessa at Home.) Her newest book does have one for hot, spiced apple cider enhanced with a shot or two of bourbon. She recommends it as a drink to serve before sitting down to the burger, though for people who need a double dose of comfort right now, it could be just fine.

The following recipe is from Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, by Ina Garten.

Smashed Hamburgers With Caramelized Onions

Makes 4 hamburgers

Canola or grapeseed oil
2 medium red onions, sliced ¼ inch thick (4 cups)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. good red wine vinegar
1½ tsp. dry mustard powder, such as Colman’s
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1¼ pounds ground beef with 20% fat
1¼ cups grated Gruyère cheese (4 oz.)
4 sandwich potato rolls, such as Martin’s
Ketchup, for serving

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and starting to brown. Add the sugar, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browned and caramelized. Add the vinegar and cook for 30 seconds to deglaze the pan.

Meanwhile, combine the dry mustard, 1½ teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Place the ground beef in a medium bowl and sprinkle on the mustard mixture. With your fingers, lightly work the mustard into the beef and shape into four 1-inch-thick patties. Place them on a plate and freeze for exactly 15 minutes.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add 1½ tablespoons oil. From the freezer, place the burgers directly in the hot skillet. With a large, metal spatula, firmly press each burger into the pan. Cook the burgers for 2½ to 3 minutes without moving them, so the bottoms get browned and crusty.

Flip the burgers, then spoon on the onions and sprinkle the Gruyère on top. Place a lid on the skillet and cook the burgers for 1½ to 2 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the burgers are medium-rare inside. Place one burger on each roll and serve hot, with ketchup on the side.

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