What is a slider? A slider is a particular thing. It's particularly American. It's a small subset of our great culinary tradition, the hamburger. But as I explained last week, it's not just a mini-hamburger. To be a slider, it cannot be perverted with expensive ingredients like foie gras or tuna tartar, a cutesy version of a burger for a chef to play with. A slider consists of a thin layer of beef, American cheese, a soft bun, and way more onions than seem necessary or right. At some point in the cooking process, the meat should steam above the onions, turning the patty richly aromatic and strangely beefy considering its small stature.
That's the secret about the slider, and why I am infatuated with them. It's that strange dichotomy of being petite yet robust, flavorful, and meaty despite its littleness. I can't think of many other dainty foods that have such a seedy reputation.
And, yes, sliders are rather seedy. The slider joint has a stigma, booths haunted with the funk of cooking onions, a smell that seems to follow you out the door and all the way home. To get right to it, cooking these at home will make your place smell like White Castle. Perhaps this is why there aren't many recipes online for how to do it correctly. "Leave it to the take-out place," seems to be the message, or use just a little onion (or even onion salt). But these recipes are not authentic, nor as delicious.
But as I found out, making sliders at home is easy, cheap, and produces one of the best hamburgers I've ever eaten. By the end, it seems like a noble trade off. To be perfectly honest, I kind of like the aroma.
I could easily show you how sliders are made at a White Castle, where most people have probably encountered them. But you could also find out for yourself, since the whole griddle is showcased behind glass. They just place ultra-thin frozen patties atop a bed of chopped onions. But I wanted to make the burgers from fresh meat. I wanted to do it how White Castle probably used to make burgers, before they switched to frozen patties.
The question became: how do you get the patty so thin? Luckily, there are some places in New Jersey that still keep the slider flame alive and make them the real way. I need to point out the excellent coverage Nick Solares has done over on A Hamburger Today about this subject. One of his favorite places is White Manna, and that's where this video came from of the griddle man in action. This was my ticket. To my surprise the technique showcased in the shaky YouTube video was backed up by a comment that I got from George Motz, who wrote Hamburger America. I figured he'd eaten a few sliders in his day.
Don’t pre-cook the onion. Use Vidalia (the way they do in Oklahoma), slice paper-thin on a mandoline so they cook faster, and never use a grind higher than 80/20. Smash the onion into the patty first – don’t wait to flip before you add the onion.
And that's pretty much exactly how to do it. For the burger aficionados out there, it's like a modified Smash Burger. A small ball of meat is placed on the cooking surface, topped with thinly sliced onions, and then flattened with a spatula to the desired thickness. When the bottom is done, it's then flipped onto the onions to finish cooking. The second part, where the burgers steam on top of the onions, is the genius of sliders and why I love them so much.
The main issue I had was keeping the meat from sticking to the surface. I had countless patties that stuck like concrete to my iron skillet and also my griddle no matter what temperature I used, or whether I lacquered the surface with oil. For smash burgers the meat is only smashed after it has cooked for a minute, ensuring that the meat holds together. But on the video from New Jersey, it's smashed right away. Perhaps these old time places have griddles that have developed incredible non-stick surface over years of use. They also use metal spatulas that can more easily get under the meat. My plastic spatula wasn't doing the trick.
So for the home cook, I recommend using a non-stick skillet. This will keep the meat from latching on to the bottom. Since you're not really after a perfect sear on a slider anyway, nothing is really lost. In the pictures you'll see a cast iron skillet used most often, but that's before I learned my lesson.
I bought a 2 1/2 pound slab of chuck which I ground with the help of my Kitchen Aid attachment. Pre-ground meat will definitely work, too, but just make sure it has some fat in it. Don't go for ground round or anything lean like that. I formed the meat into 2 ounce balls. This was a perfect size for the buns.
I needed something small and very soft. Last week I came across some self proclaimed "slider buns" that worked pretty well. But after looking around to see what other people had done, I took a note from Nick Solares's own slider recipe and picked up some dinner rolls. They turned out to be nearly perfect. Think about it: they are soft, squishy, and do a great job of soaking in liquid. I ventured to my local mega-mart and picked up some standard rolls along with some ultra soft potato rolls. The latter were the clear winner.
On my perfect slider, cheese is a must. I consider it the glue of the sandwich, the creamy center. After munching down a half dozen of these, I came to love the cheeseburgers far more than the hamburgers. Just remember not to use too much. A regular slice is too big for the patty, so trim each one down to perfectly fit the meat. You want to keep everything in a single layer.
I think this is all up to choice, and I truly don't want to get into deep discussion of whether ketchup should be used or not. A dab of ketchup is my nostalgic choice, but it can quickly overwhelm the taste. I can go either way. A little mustard works too. Honestly, the best of all is a simple slice of pickle which gives just a bit of crunch to this unique creation. Forget lettuce and tomato.
Makes 2 burgers, repeat process until you are full
Place a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the rolled up beef to the skillet, with plenty of space between them.
Immediately add a handful of thinly sliced onions on top.
Smash each ball down with a spatula until it is very thin. Let cook for about a minute and half, until the meat gets a good sear and the onions are beginning to brown.
Flip the burger over onto the onions. The cooked part of the patty is facing up.
Place just enough cheese to cover the patty, Add the top of the bun to each burger, and place the bottom on top of that.
Cover the skillet. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the patty is cooked. This is one occasion when medium-rare is not desired.
Scoop the onions and patty up with a spatula and place it on the bottom bun.
Serve with some pickles and whatever condiments you like.