The short answer is I have no favorite burger. There are burgers that I like, burgers that I love, and burgers that I loathe. I have yet to find, in all my burger endeavors, that perfect burger that fulfills my burger criteria. Don’t get me wrong, I am hardly a picky eater. However, I do have an ever changing idea of the elements to my perfect burger.
My burger philosophy stems from one word: simple. Like the saying goes, K.I.S.S., Keep It Simple, Stupid. There are only so many things you can do to a burger to make it awesome. Some places stack ingredient, upon topping, upon condiment, on their burger. But when all that extra stuff is stripped away, what is almost every burger left with? Beef, bread, and cheese. These are the key elements of the burger. If a place fails to get these three things right, then there is no magical combination of toppings, sauces, or pork products that will save the sandwich.
The beef is the basis of the burger. No beef, no burger. Good beef is hard to come by, especially if you are eating a “cheffy” burger at a fancy or hip new restaurant. Lots of restaurants emphasize their beef choice as if beef choice alone automatically makes a burger taste good. Wagyu beef, Kobe beef, Certified Black Angus beef, brisket beef, ground chuck, Pat LaFrieda artisan beef. There are so many choices it is easy to get confused. What most burger consumers fail to realize is that no matter what kind of beef a place chooses, the fat content, seasoning, and cooking method are the only things that matter.
The fat content in ground beef is hands down the most important component. The fat is what ultimately gives the beef more flavor. I prefer a fairly high fat content in a burger. 80/20 (80% lean/ 20% fat) seems to always have the best flavor profile in a burger. There is enough fat to keep the burger juicy. Much of the fat will melt in the cooking process, saturating the lean beef. This gives the burger a nice airy quality. A burger should be somewhat soft when you bite into it. Too often if there is not enough fat, the burger will lose it’s soft, airy texture and transform into a hockey puck. Nobody likes to eat hockey pucks. Nobody.
The type of beef, in my experience, has no effect on the final outcome of the burger. I cannot emphasize enough how much it is all about the fat content. For example, take a nice grind of expensive, ground Wagyu or Kobe beef. If the fat content is not high enough (at least 80/20) the burger is going to be dense and dry. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not pay a premium for overcooked beef, even if it has a fancy lineage.As far as seasoning goes, my philosophy holds true. Simple. Salt and pepper (always before you cook!) are the only two seasonings necessary. Salt and pepper form the basis of flavor. Magically, they make everything taste better. If you feel so inclined, use a seasoned salt like Lawry’s or Morton’s.
Once we have a nice, fatty patty seasoned well with salt and pepper, it’s off to the grill we go! Or to the flat top? This is an easy choice for me. I’ve never been a fan of grilled burgers, and if you’ve read this far you may know why. When a burger is cooked on a grill, much of the fat drips right down onto the coals and flames. There goes all the flavor, all the juiciness, all the fun. Remember, fat equals flavor.
It’s got to be a flat top. Give that delicious beef a chance to survive. Let it sear evenly across its entire surface. A flat top burger should come out juicy with a thick caramelized crunch to the exterior. The flat top cooks the burgers evenly, and better yet, lets the burger cook in its own fat (flavor!).
Note: I prefer my burgers to be cooked medium-well.
Bread choice can be a bit more complicated. Some places serve burgers on toast, but almost all restaurants use buns. Brioche bun, ciabatta bun, kaiser roll, potato bun, pretzel bun, challah rolls. And that’s all before lettuce wraps, english muffins, donuts, and grilled cheese sandwiches. The amount of vessels to put your meat on is mind blowing.
This is where my burger philosophy kicks back in. Keep it simple. I have to think to myself, “Will this donut bun really make the burger taste any better?” More often than not the answer is no.
What is most important is choosing a bun that can hold up to the burger. If the burger is thin or small (or even grilled), then a kaiser roll will hold up fine. However, if the burger is thick and juicy, the potato roll may hold up better. There is nothing worse than a bun that can’t handle its burger.
There are, however, two things that I believe make a bun, and by extension the burger, better. Toasting and butter.Toasting is essential to a good bun. It makes the bun stronger and more stable to withstand the burger’s steam and juiciness. Preferably, the bun should be toasted directly on the flat top alongside the burger.
And if you’re going to toast the bun, you might as well give it some butter. The butter takes the toasting to the next level. Toasting with butter creates a crunchy layer to help keep the bun from getting soggy when adding the burger. Butter also adds fat to the bun which means it adds, you guessed it, flavor! Keep it simple here, too, and use regular salted butter. Save the unsalted butter for baking cookies, and save the clarified butter for your seafood and popcorn. Salted butter is simple and delicious.
The cheese:Cheese choice is subjective. Restaurants offer so many kinds of cheeses, and, to tell you the truth, it is hard to go wrong with most of them. That being said, I do have a preference. I shy away from the overly processed American cheese, which seems to be the standard, and instead opt for the cheddar.
Cheddar has the most flavor, and I want a thick slab of sharp cheddar on my burger. Sharp cheddar lacks the meltability of American or Swiss, but it more than makes up for meltability with flavor. Sharp cheddar has a strong smell and rich taste, plus it tastes less milky when you compare it with American.
No matter what cheese you choose, you gotta add it before the burger is done cooking. This gives it a chance to melt and seep down into the crevices of the burger. There is nothing worse than cold cheese on a hot burger.
What makes a great burger? It is simple. Good quality, higher fat content beef. An appropriately selected buttered and toasted bun. Melty cheddar cheese. If these three elements don’t come together, your burger stands no chance.
Interested in learning more about how my burger philosophy applies to toppings, condiments, and veggies? Stay tuned.
Tune in here to hear the latest episode of Burger Radio where I talk more about my burger philosophy!