Of all the calamities that can befall a hamburger, few are as subtly devastating as a convex patty. Though a bulbous burger won't taste as awful as one that's cooked or seasoned badly, it will ruin the structural integrity of the whole sandwich. A misshapen patty will make it impossible to distribute toppings evenly, to place the bun flush with the meat or to keep the meat-to-topping and meat-to-bread ratios even from bite to bite.
If you've ever encountered this problem, it probably was not in a good restaurant. That's because many restaurant chefs have figured out how to form burger patties to prevent puffiness.
Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the chef-owners of Border Grill, an acclaimed mini-chain of Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, clued us in on that method. Though they're best known for their authentic tacos, tamales and moles, they also love to serve sandwiches and burgers -- as long as the latter meet one crucial criterion.
"We're obsessed with all the tastes going all the way to the edge," Milliken said. "The opposite of [New York's] Carnegie Deli, where the middle bite is just a huge mound of meat. We want it to be perfectly even, for every single bite of the sandwich to have every taste in it."
To counteract the tendency of a burger to bulge out, Milliken and Feniger recommend squishing the center of the raw patty of ground beef so that it's indented in the middle. You want to do this from both sides of the burger.
"If you form them and you make the inside thinner and the outside bit bigger, then when you cook it, it all ends up exactly the same width," Milliken said. "Otherwise if you just do it all the same, it puffs up in the middle."
I tried out Milliken and Feniger's technique at home, comparing it with my usual method. Here are the two raw patties side by side: The Milliken-Feniger one is on the left; the traditional hockey-puck shape on the right.
Sure enough, the burger that started out concave cooked up to perfect flatness, while the one that started out flat swelled to a unsatisfying curvature.
Look how flat the burger formed using the Milliken-Feniger method turned out!
Feniger noted that the flatness of the burger becomes even more crucial once you add toppings and a bun. A slight tilt to the burger gets magnified, Leaning Tower of Pisa style, by extra ingredients.
"If you do this right, every bite will get not only the ground beef, but also the mustard and the cheese and the pickles, which really makes for a far better eating experience," she said. "There's a lot with common-sense thinking that the average person just isn't thinking about."
Here's a side-by-side comparison of the finished products. You'll notice that the top of the bun and the slide of tomato are tilting precariously on the puffy burger (at right), but they're completely straight across on the flat burger (at left).
Chef Shortcuts is a new semi-regular cooking series on HuffPost Taste in which I ask some of the world's best chefs to share one great tip, one cooking technique they've learned in all their years in professional kitchens. Then, I test it out at home! The idea is to discover shortcuts that will help you create restaurant-worthy dishes in your own home.
Master sommelier Andrea Robinson -- who took over the wine program at Delta Airlines in 2008 after a long tenure pouring wine at top restaurants -- gave a seminar on pairing wine with dessert at the New York Wine and Food Festival a couple of years back. In the middle of it, she offhandedly said something that's stuck with me as an amazing, helpful jewel of wisdom: Wine should always be sweeter than the food it's paired with. Otherwise, it inevitably tastes sort of bitter, sour and unpleasant. You don't really have to think about this when pairing wine with savory food, because wine is almost always going to be sweeter than pork, beef or potatoes. But it helps explain why dessert wine and port is so sweet, and so well suited to the last course of the evening.
At a TimesTalk with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Asimov way back in 2008, El Bulli star chef Ferran Adria gave a simple cooking tip that I have used more times than I can count. When making scrambled eggs, use a blender to beat the raw eggs rather than a fork or a whisk. It makes them perfectly fluffy and evenly mixed, allowing you to cook perfect scrambled eggs every time. One further tip for this one: keep the heat pretty low and stir fairly often.
Chef Alex Atala of D.O.M. Restaurant in Sao Paolo says that the best way to cook asparagus and peas is to bake them inside a hollowed-out head of iceberg lettuce.
If you want to make steakhouse-quality steak at home -- or, indeed, just about any other meat -- Grant Achatz says you need to use a ton of heat. And he thinks the best, easiest way to do that is to pre-heat a cast-iron griddle on two of your stove's burners for a whopping 30 minutes before putting any meat or oil on it to cook.
Daniel Boulud, one of the country's best French chefs, recommends doing a few simple things to your chicken before and after you roast it: Brine it, truss it, dry it and rest it.
"Top Chef" champion Stephanie Izard, owner of Girl and the Goat restaurant in Chicago, likes to serve salt-baked whole fish when she's hosting a dinner party.
Anglo-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi thinks that we should all grill vegetables more frequently than we do now.