What happens when you smoke a whole cheeseburger

Graphic: Allison Corr
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“I love you and I think you’re a great cook... but this is the worst thing you’ve ever made. Ever.” That was Emily, my wife, dealing me a cold, hard, necessary truth.

As you can see, my latest culinary experiment went well! It was productive in the same way that those horrific workplace safety videos are: a jolt of startling horror that brings the joys of your safe, safe life into sharper focus.

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This whole smoking-a-burger thing started, as all the worst ideas do, somewhere on a hobby forum. I, like many other lawn-mowing dads of my general size and shape, frequent various online barbecue boards. Along with the usual pork butts, briskets, and wings, I had noticed some diehards were also cooking their burgers low and slow. I obsess over my burgers almost as much as my barbecue, so I thought it might be worth a shot.

But as long as I was going to smoke the burger, I figured it was worthwhile to see what else we could smoke. Tomato, cheese, onion, pickle, bun. Really, everything but the lettuce (I tried for a second, it went roughly as you’d figure). I love burgers. I love smoked meats. Clearly it seemed like a love connection waiting to be made. But ... well, let’s go bit by bit. Let us descend together into my applewood-scented fever dream.

The Patty

Every delicious burger starts with good meat. If you don’t grind your own burger blend (a worthwhile pain in the ass, but a pain in the ass nonetheless), it’s important to start with something as rich and unctuous as you can get. Your local meat counter’s version of phony Kobe/Wagyu is just the thing. Part of the magic of smoked meat is how the tough collagen and stubborn fat melts over time into something magical. The burger doesn’t have that, so the line between just-cooked and insanely dry is much closer.

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I went with 7.5-ounce patties, for thickness that could stand up to the smoke and that I could cook to specific doneness. After about 30 minutes on a 240-degree pit, the burger came off at almost exactly 140. Another came off later at 150, and the last at 165.

That precision was mostly wasted, as it turns out. All the salty, juicy-crisp richness of a good grilled burger was replaced with a wave of campfire smoke. Even at a juicy medium-rare, the flavor profile shifted to something ashen and overdone. Kind of a bummer, to be honest.

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The best part of barbecue is the alchemical transformation of the tough and humble into the melty and transcendent. With a brisket, you take something challenging and turn it into something amazing. There’s no real transformation like that with a burger—it’s more like a coat of garish new paint.

As a last-ditch effort I tried knocking down the smoke time and finishing in a hot cast-iron pan. It didn’t make the smoke character any more welcome, but it did add some much needed texture.

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Cheddar and American Cheeses

Photo: John Carruthers
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I think we’re all in agreement that smoked cheese is a delight. I used a smoking gun (ordered years ago, possibly while drinking and watching Top Chef, used maybe twice since) on some cheddar and some American cheese. It is a handy tool if you need to turn takeout containers into a tiny aquarium smoker. And by sealing it up and placing it in the fridge, I was able to get good smoky cheese without the rind you get from cold-smoking on an outdoor pit.

Cheddar was, as predicted, delightful with a smoky accent. But American got a lot more interesting with a mellow smoky note playing against the salty taste and gooey texture. A win!

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Onions

Vidalia onions came off the pit looking a little worse for the wear after 45 minutes, but picked up some great smoke flavor and sweetness alongside great texture. Emily thought they had a lot of onion ring flavor traits, sans the breading.

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Photo: John Carruthers

Tomatoes

Some fresh summer tomatoes got salt and pepper about 10 minutes before going on the pit, and stayed for the same 45 minutes as the onions. They came off looking gorgeous, with taste to match. Sweet, smoky, and deep in flavor with less acidity than fresh tomatoes. At least, to me. Everything I just wrote, imagine the opposite—that’s how much Emily hated them.

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Pickles

Another cool one: Hamburger dill chips came off with less vinegar tang, a milder, sweet character, and a little bit of smoke after 30 minutes. It was recognizably a pickle, but with a compellingly different flavor profile.

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Burger sauce

I pulled the same aquarium smoker trick with the gun on classic orangey burger sauce. After mixing up a mayo/ketchup/relish/vinegar concoction, this got a light 10-minute smoke. Where the pickles were kind of cool with less sharpness, the smoke here just kind of wrung the zest out of the sauce. Which is fine, because I looked really dumb wrangling a smoke gun tube and mason jar lid and now I know I don’t have to do it again.

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Buns

These got a quick five-minute smoke as the burger rested. Both potato and brioche rolls got the treatment, and it didn’t go well for either.

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“You know how when you start a wood fire with newspaper and those little bits of blackened paper curl up and fly away? That’s what this tastes like,” Emily said. And damned if that wasn’t exactly what it tasted like.

Photo: John Carruthers
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Every single burger item, smoked

Oh noooooo. Noooooooooo. Do not do this, my dear friends.

You know how sometimes you say a thing that really hurts someone you love, and you see it in their face, and you can never take it back even though it’s all you want in the world? That was Emily’s face three bites in.

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I even did the guy-who-failed thing where I was like “Nah, this is interesting and I’m going to finish it” and my resolve lasted all of two additional bites.

I can still taste it now if I think about it hard enough. It’s awful. I created whatever the opposite of joy is.

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The solution

As much as this devolved into a bit of a yuck-fest, it did help me eventually dial in a fantastic burger. I did it by returning to my beloved griddle (griddle burgers for life!) with two 2.5-ounce balls of beef. Sear, smash, flip, cheese, and off onto a toasted (not smoked) potato bun. Topped with smoked onion, tomato, cheese, and maybe pickle, depending on your preference, and tied together with blessedly unsmoked burger sauce and lettuce. That, friends, is a fine damn burger that we took the scenic route to find. And so, this necessary remind from your friends at The Takeout: Beware the redolent odor of hubris and do not smoke an entire burger.

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Final Rankings of Smoked Burger Things

1. Onion

2. Pickle

3. Tomato (note: divisive)

4. Cheese

5-48. (A very large drop off, like Grand Canyon-sized)

49. Burger sauce

50. Burger patty

51. The entirely-smoked burger

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About the author

John Carruthers

Quasi-legal popup operator, beer writer by day (and also night), author of two cookbooks.