Perhaps you've heard of the little hamburger operation called Shake Shack. Started in 2001 as a hot dog cart in a public park, the critically acclaimed New York-based burger chain now has 63 locations and, last Friday, debuted on the NYSE with a valuation of nearly $1 billion. The driving force behind all that success is the incomparable burger itself, which has become—to me personally, but also in the industry—the gold standard to which all other burgers are held.
It's the gold standard to which all other burgers are held.
Gallons of digital ink have been spilt in the hopes of reverse-engineering the burger outside the confines of The Shack's seemingly magical kitchen walls. But I wanted to know exactly how Shake Shack makes them, not a way to hack them at home. That meant asking Mark Rosati, the company's Culinary Director (aka the guy responsible for all of the closely-guarded recipes) if I could spend some time in the kitchen to learn the same burger-flipping ropes any new recruit would. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "I want to learn how to make a Shack Burger. Can I?"
Mark: "Sure, when?"
Me: "But, I think it would really make a great story—wait, what?"
A week later, I find myself deep underground inside a bunker at an undisclosed location. (Or, you know, walking into the kitchen of Shake Shack's Midtown Manhattan location.) I'm more than a little nervous. I've made plenty of grilled burgers in my day, but this feels like a completely different ball game—I'm with my burger idol, working with the same equipment and products that actual, real-life Shack Burgers are made with.
Things are Fort Knox-level secret at Shake Shack, so they don't let me snap pictures of anything once I hop behind the counter. But I don't care. I slap on a pair of blue rubber gloves and start taking photos with my mind.
Start with a Martin’s Potato Roll
I knew two things going into this: That I'm going to eat as many free Shack Burgers as possible and that Shake Shack uses potato rolls from Martin's Famous Pastry Shoppe, a family-operated business in Pennsylvania. (NB, their website is actually potatorolls.com.)
Sure enough, dozens of bags of Martin's sandwich buns lie behind the counter at Shake Shack. They're not "Made for Shake Shack Edition," either—the bags are identical to ones I find up the block at my local grocery store. Like everything else at Shake Shack, these buns start out as a great product and are made even better by the time you get a finished burger, but it's nothing immediately noticeable or over-the-top.
This is where Rosati lays the first major piece of his philosophy on me: "We don't really want the guest to see the work we do," he says. "We think that takes them out of the experience, which should just be pure pleasure."
That probably explains why I'd never realized that the Shack Burger's bun is toasted. It is toasted—but only on the inside, which yields a subtle textural interplay between soft and buttery crunch. The key to that is a massive contraption that looks more like something out of the obstacle course on Wipeout than anything you'd make burgers with. A rotating metal drum stays perpetually lathered in melted butter so I can simply press an open bun (being careful not to break the "hinge," as Rosati warns) against it and then pop the buttery roll directly into the toaster shoot behind it. Essentially, it's a toaster oven on steroids.
"You see how the buns look like french toast?" asks Rosati. It's true, Mark's bun has traded in that cartoonishly yellow inside for a perfect golden brown. "That's what we're going for." My bun isn't as nicely bronzed—it's the yellow sheep of the family. But we move on.
Get the Highest-Quality, Freshest Ground Beef as Possible
Talk to anyone about the burger at Shake Shack and what you'll hear more than anything else is that the beef tastes, well, "beefy."
Famously, their secret meat blend is sourced from star butcher Pat LaFrieda. But what burger experts babble on (and on) about more than source is a blend's fat ratio. And since I'm playing the part of a burger expert, that's exactly what I ask Rosati about.
"So, uh, is this an eighty-twenty blend or what?" I ask.
Rosati wouldn't confirm or deny the 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio, but said it would be "a good starting point."
And what about the blend of beef cuts? What combination of sirloin, brisket, chuck, or short rib make up the storied blend? Again, Rosati doesn't quite answer my question. "What you're looking for is that sweet spot," explained Rosati. "You want enough fat to get that juiciness, but not so much that the patty is going to shrink down to nothing when you cook it."
Great—freshly ground, really nice beef without too much fat. Got it. But how is it so juicy?
Don’t Just Fuss with the Burger—Smash It
We move over to Shake Shack's super-wide, 36-inch griddle. This, as they say, is where the magic happens.
"Not only is this the biggest griddle I've ever been behind, it's the best looking one," I remark.
"After the first couple of burgers of the day are griddled, it's not so pristine anymore," says Rosati.
He explains that when Shake Shack does big events, they take burger meat and cook a test batch on the grill just to get it seasoned. And, sure enough, the first round of burgers we toss on the grill don't have the browned patina of the second or third batches. There's no squeeze bottle of oil sitting on the griddle to keep things going, just the natural fat of cooked meat.
But Shack Burgers aren't cooked gently on this griddle, the way you might have seen them cooked at diners across the country. The massive burger pucks are smashed into juicy, sublime submission.
The idea, Rosati explains, is that the puck is smashed to the point of being very thin, so the meat starts to caramelize in its own fat, forming those crispy nooks and crannies that make it the English muffin of burgers.
Rosati pulls a couple of the two-inch tall, four-ounce pucks out of a refrigerator below the griddle and hands one to me. The first thing I notice is that it's very cold. I assume it's a food safety thing, but no: It's actually one of the most unexpected slices of wisdom I pick up all day. When the cold puck meets the extremely hot grill by way of being smashed into it, that browning process that gives a well-cooked burger its flavor—known to science people as the Maillard reaction—happens a heck of a lot more smoothly; the meat retains most of its juices when it's smashed because the fats haven't melted yet.
Rosati seasons the unsmashed puck with salt and pepper then hands me a crazy metal disk with a handle on it that looks like something out of TRON. This is what I'll use to smash my burger.
"How do I buy one of these things?" I ask, marveling at the device, which should definitely be called THE SMASHER.
"You can't," smiles Rosati. "It took us five years to develop that tool." It's actually the type of patented equipment that IPOs are built on—and that I'm definitely not allowed to take pictures of. (I snap a selfie with one for my archives.) Rosati tells me that back when Shake Shack opened its first location, the cooks used to smash the living daylights out of the burger pucks with two griddle spatulas, setting the metal blade of one flat atop the burger and using the handle of the other to hammer the puck into a thin patty.
Here's the thing about smashed burgers—you need to get the patty a lot thinner than you'd think. You're aiming to get the thing about half an inch thick, otherwise you'll end up with a burger than burns by time it cooks through instead of one with dark brown caramelized sides.
Steam rises off the grill and I can actually see the crust forming between the griddle and my newly-thinned patty. We're almost there.
Don’t Flip the Burgers—Scrape Them
About a minute goes by. "Do I do it now?" I ask Rosati. My hands are visibly shaking at the prospect of screwing up this next part of the process.
No one who works at Shake Shack "flips burgers." Instead, they scrape them. This is trickiest part of the whole process and surely where I'd earn an automatic fail.
Rosati hands me yet another patented piece of technology; it looks like a big paint scraper. He instructs me to hold the scraper at a 45° angle, slide it underneath the patty with the speed that you'd rip off a bandaid and flip the patty over. It totally works (on my second or third try). When I finally get it down, all of that flavor-boosting crust that's been forming stays attached to the burger, leaving nothing behind on the griddle besides the rendered fat you'll need to do it all again.
We season the other side of the patty with salt and pepper and place a slice of waxy American cheese on top of it.
How do you know when the burger's ready to come off the griddle? "When the corners of the cheese slice melt and fold down," advises Rosati.
When the cheese finally gives way, I make my move.
More from Epicurious