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ByEmily Alexander/Updated: Jan. 6, 2021 4:19 pm EST
Despite its reputation for world-class burgers, Shake Shack began as a hot dog cart in New York City (via the New York Post). As Shake Shack grew in popularity, the owners opened a small but permanent restaurant — the first official Shake Shack. "We wanted to go forward without pomp or frills," Randy Garutti and Mark Rosati write in their book, Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories.
As Shake Shack grew, the crew stayed dedicated to simple recipes made with high-quality ingredients. As a result, the Shackburger quickly became one of the most popular fast food burgers in the nation. When you eat a burger this good, you expect it to be nearly impossible to replicate — but Garutti and Rosati insist that the Shackburger's tastiness relies mostly on everyday ingredients. Turns out, all that makes the Shackburger taste so good is a few special techniques, salt and pepper, and a little TLC.
Shake Shack is all about the buns
Shake Shack chose to pair their world famous Shackburgers with pillowy potato buns. For these chefs, it's all about texture. "We want the bun to be nice and soft and tender," said Shake Shack's culinary director, Mark Rosati (via Daily Beast). If you're wondering how Shake Shack's buns get so soft, the burger company owes it to Martin's Famous Pastry Shoppe, a family-owned bakery based in Pennsylvania. The Shake Shack chefs stick to what they know best (burgers) and let the professionals handle their buns.
Shake Shack also butters and toasts their buns to add another layer of textural variance to each bite. Shake Shack recommends buttering the inside of each half and toasting it face-down on the skillet. "That way you soften the outside of the bun, while at the same time you create that nice crispy interior, Rosati told the Daily Beast. "We're trying to get a contrast in textures in the bun."
The Shackburger is cooked in a cast iron pan
Many home chefs know there are numerous benefits to cooking with a cast iron pan — from its long lifespan to its ability to maintain high temperatures (via America's Test Kitchen), it's a versatile tool for all your searing needs, as Shake Shack cooks can attest. The Shackburger is made using a cast iron pan instead of a grill. While diehard grillers may be offended by this choice, Mark Rosati insists that using a cast iron pan to cook your burger will yield an evenly browned patty.
The rich flavor of the Shackburger can largely be attributed to this technique: By creating a seared crust around the meat, the juices get trapped inside. Whereas grills only allow for a few points of contact between burger and heat, a cast iron pan connects the entire surface of the burger with the hot pan. And the more contact the burger has with the pan, the better the crust. "The crust you're developing is where all the flavor is," Rosati said in the Daily Beast.
The Shackburger is the fattiest, freshest meat
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The most essential element of Shake Shack's Shackburger is, of course, the meat itself. Shake Shack uses only the best beef, sourced from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors. According to Mark Rosati, culinary director of the burger chain, the most important factor in meat selection is the fat content. As Samin Nosrat writes in her book, Salt Fat Acid Heat, fat imparts flavor into any dish, so it is an important factor in developing meat with a robust taste.
"We're looking for good fat content," Rosati said in an instructional video for Business Insider. "For us that's somewhere around 20/80. 20 percent fat to 80 percent lean. If you really want something amazing, go a little higher — go about 22 percent fat."
According to Epicurious, Shake Shack's exact ratio is kept a secret, as is the specific cut of meat from which the Shackburger is formed. But Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti confirmed on TODAY Food that his company's burgers are "no hormone, no antibiotic, whole muscle ... 100 percent beef" (via YouTube).
Shake Shack uses the smash
One of the most important parts of the Shackburger process is the smash — Shackburgers are thin but unbelievably flavorful, due in large part to this technique. The Shackburger recipe requires pressing the meat directly onto the hot pan to sear the meat and create "a beautiful crust" that "locks in all the juices" (via YouTube).
One of Shake Shack's tricks for cooking their burgers perfectly is to limit the smash to a single window of time — the meat should be pressed thin (about half an inch) immediately after placing it on the pan. If you smash it again, as many assume is necessary after the flip, the juices that have gathered in your burger will get squished out, and you'll lose flavor (via YouTube).
The other trick? A super secret smasher — according to Epicurious, it took the Shake Shack team five years to create the perfect tool to ensure their signature meat crust. Unfortunately, they're not sharing.
Shackburger and the scrape
Instead of flipping them, the Shake Shack team scrapes their Shackburger. Though it doesn't quite have the same ring to it, scraping the burger from the skillet emphasizes and maintains the formation of the meat's crust — which is definitely not something you want to lose. If you're focused on the flip rather than the scrape, you're more likely to inadvertently leave most of the crust on the pan during the flipping process (via Epicurious).
Instead, Shake Shack developed another special tool to make sure cooks scrape every bit of crust from the skillet, along with the rest of the burger. Then comes the flip, with nothing left behind on the pan besides a little rendered fat perfect for cooking the other side of the burger in. According to Epicurious, this is the most difficult part of the cooking process — luckily, Shake Shack has it down to a science (with the help of their ingenious scraping tool — think paint scraper-spatula hybrid).
Shake Shack has a secret sauce
Like many great burgers, the meat is not the only star of the show — Shake Shack's secret sauce carries its own weight in the Shackburger's flavor. When Mark Rosati, Shake Shack's culinary director, and CEO Randy Garutti appeared on the Today Show, they gave away some — but not all — of their secrets.
The secret sauce is a combination of many ingredients you probably have in your kitchen right now: mayonnaise, ketchup, and Dijon are mixed together along with a dash of cayenne pepper for heat and some of the liquid from a jar of pickles (this adds a unique acidic flavor to the sauce). This recipe will get you close to the real thing, but Shake Shack keeps its secret ingredient under wraps, claiming it's just "some TLC" that makes it taste so good. But if you're looking for a way to get the taste of Shake Shack in the comfort of your home, this version of the secret sauce makes it easy.
The Shackburger's magic seasoning
Shake Shack keeps its recipes simple to allow the natural flavors of its carefully sourced ingredients to shine. To season Shackburger beef, Shake Shack cooks use just a sprinkle of salt and pepper on each side of the burger. According to the New York Post, a half-cup of kosher salt to a half-teaspoon of pepper is the magic ratio that Shake Shack uses on all their burgers. "When you get it perfectly . . . [you taste the] natural flavor and nuance of the beef," Rosati said.
The seasoning is added before the burger is smashed, allowing the meat to absorb the flavor as it cooks. Once it's scraped and flipped, on goes another sprinkle of salt and pepper, and to top it off, a slice of cheese is added to the seared side of the patty. Then, the burger is finally ready to take its rightful place on a pillowy potato bun, beneath a slice of tomato, a lettuce leaf, and a dollop of secret sauce.