I have often thought of turkey burgers as a relic of the ‘90s, leftover from an era when fat was the number one enemy, and Snackwells reigned (and it was a reign of artificially sweet terror). But some people just don’t like red meat, and others have medical reasons for wanting to avoid it. Some people may just like the idea of the turkey burger, but had never been able to make a truly tasty one.
There are only three things you need to do to make a turkey burger taste good, though: You have to up the fat (just a little), season it with MSG (that extra bit of glutamate makes a world of difference), and smash the heck out of it.
How much fat does a turkey burger need?
One of the biggest issues people run into with these particular bird burgers is that they have a tendency to dry out while cooking. Adding wet ingredients makes it hard for the burger to keep itself together, which means you have to get binders (such as bread crumbs and eggs) involved, and I simply don’t have time for all of that.
A little fat goes a long way though, and it keeps your turkey burger from turning into a turkey puck. Ground dark meat turkey has enough, so ask your butcher if they have any behind the counter. If they don’t, just buy the pre-packaged ground turkey with the highest percentage of fat (usually 85/15). If all you can find is the super lean stuff, you can mix some fat in yourself. A tablespoon of schmaltz, lard, or bacon grease per pound of meat will keep things moist and give your burger more flavour, especially if you use unfiltered bacon grease.
Season your turkey burger with MSG (and salt)
Monosodium glutamate is the easiest way to give something a meaty, savoury umami, and that is something that ground, white-meat turkey definitely needs. It also needs salt, because everything needs salt.
You don’t need a lot of MSG — just a few shakes. Start by dividing your turkey into four-ounce balls, but don’t press them into patties just yet. Season the outside of each of your turkey orbs with three to four pinches of salt, and four shakes of MSG from your MSG shaker. (Don’t have an MSG shaker? Get yourself a little panda. They sell them on Amazon, but you’ll find them for much cheaper at Asian grocery stores) Now it’s smashing time.
You should smash your turkey burgers
There is no point in making a thick turkey burger. It will take longer to cook, which gives it more time to dry out and, unlike thicc beefy bois, you can’t even cook it to a nice medium-rare. (Some people would argue you shouldn’t even do this with ground beef, but others live a little more dangerously.) I have always preferred thin, smashed burgers to thick, steaky burgers, anyway. Smashing creates more surface area, which means more of the meat gets browned, and browned ground turkey is the only ground turkey that tastes like anything.
If your goal is to maximise flavour with crispy, craggy edges, smashing quickly in a super hot pan is your best course of action. Basically, you want it to look like this:
Heat a cast iron or stainless steel pan over higher-than-medium-high heat. You don’t want your burners at their hottest setting, but you want them almost there. Once your pan is hot enough — use the water drop method to test — add a teaspoon or so of animal fat or vegetable oil to the pan and wipe it around with a paper towel. Take your seasoned orb of turkey meat, place it in the pan, and smash it down hard with a large spatula. Let it cook until the edges are browned — at least two minutes — then scrape and flip the burger and top it with a slice of American cheese. Let it cook for a couple more minutes, then transfer directly to a bun, slather on the condiments, and pile on the toppings. You’ve just made a turkey burger that tastes really good, and that’s a rare thing.