Bond trader–turned-landscaper-turned-pitmaster Pat Martin is an acknowledged authority on whole-hog barbecue, drawing crowds to nine locations of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Nashville, Louisville, Birmingham, and Charleston. But the man loves a good burger too, as evidenced by a “side project,” Hugh-Baby’s BBQ & Burger Shop, modeled on small-town Southern burger shops of days gone by. We figure Martin is just the guy to provide no-nonsense tips (and an actual recipe, below) to make the perfect smash cheeseburger, the thin-patty style served at Hugh-Baby’s.
• Treat your meat: Martin prefers high-quality 80/20 hamburger ground fresh the same day. “Ball the meat into the size of a racquetball, but be careful to not pack too tightly,” he says. “Just pack gently—this is very important.”
• ’Tis the seasoning: Martin keeps it notably simple—salt and pepper only.
• Skillet whisperer: Martin uses a cast-iron skillet or griddle, and focuses on bringing it to the ideal medium heat. “I moisten a paper towel, ball it up, and touch it to the skillet, using my ears to tell whether it’s ready. If it sizzles rapidly, the skillet is too hot, and if the sizzle develops slow, the skillet is too cool.” Once the skillet finds that medium zone, he adds a little oil with a high smoke point, such as grapeseed oil.
• Smash it: Flatten the burger ball with a greased metal spatula directly on the hot skillet. “Use a second spatula to help give you leverage if needed. You want them very thin!”
• Melted glory: Gently slide the slice of cheese over the skillet to start the melting process before placing it atop the patty. “Cold cheese directly on the burger doesn’t have time to properly melt.”
• Bread start: “Toast your buns—always!”
• Layer up: “There’s a method to stacking that I personally think is non-negotiable. Start with lettuce on the bottom bun where it doesn’t make other stuff shift around. Then put on the patty you just cooked with cheese, and use the melted cheese to hold thin onion slices. Always put your condiments on the top bun. I’m partial to comeback sauce. The final step is spreading pickles—we use three at Hugh-Baby’s—on the top bun so they don’t overlap, using the sauce as an adhesive. Use tomato only if it’s in season!”