Our love for the mighty and humble burger runs deep. But what makes the best burger the best? Some would argue that the meat has to be just fatty enough to create that perfect emulsion. Others live and die by a great bun. Does any of that matter if the toppings are subpar? These are questions for the ages.
Here’s a secret: All the above factors hold equal importance when considering what separates a good burger from a great one. Why spend a fortune on home ground cuts of meat if you’re not also using aged cheese, perfect bread, and the right mix of sauce and crunchy vegetables? It’s madness. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ve ground it all down and now we’re dishing up what you need to create the world’s most perfect burger.
The right bread is the first step in creating a perfect burger, because it’s literally holding the whole thing together. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once preached that “a proper hamburger bun should retain its structural integrity, playing its role as delivery vehicle for the meat patty until the last bite.” That means that the crumbly brioche bun is out, no matter how fancy it sounds. “God is against the brioche bun,” Bourdain’s announced, and if anyone would know, it’s him.
So which bun should you use? It’s argued by many that the best bread is the Amish Dinner Roll. That’s a super soft roll made with eggs and mashed potatoes to maximize the smoothness of the bread. The extra starch from the potato adds integrity to the bread’s structure, meaning that the grease and sauce aren’t going to break down the bun and create an unholy mess on your hands.
Butter those rolls and add a little garlic salt before grilling (on a flat top or flame), and you’ve got yourself a great start to your burger.
The meat determines whether the burger lives or dies. No one wants a dried out burger patty. The perfect protein is juicy, succulent, and… velvety.
The standard ratio is 20 percent fat to 80 percent lean. That ratio can be nudged closer to 30/80 if you want, but the higher the fat the looser the patty is going to be. To amp up the juiciness without adding more animal fat, you can add a good slab of butter to the meat when you’re forming patties.
When it comes to which cut, you should ask your butcher to grind with that fat ratio, your options go well beyond just chuck. Try adding some brisket, short rib, and maybe even some skirt to the mix. Some chefs like to add rib eye, but that amps up the price tag considerably.
When cooking your beef patty, know your temperatures. 140F is where bacteria die off. This will give you a pink interior and maximum moist texture. 160F is considered well done, leaving your burger brown through and through.
Play around with your protein. If old-fashioned red meat isn’t for you, try a black bean patty, bison patty, Impossible Burger, lamb, or whatever else tickles your fancy. Just remember to season liberally with black pepper and plenty of salt before you sear.
A great hamburger sauce is a very personal choice. High-end joints will throw truffle aiolis at you left and right, and those are all good and well. But it doesn’t need to be that complicated. Sometimes a great BBQ sauce or even some decent ketchup will do the trick.
We like to think there’s a reason McDonald’s hamburger sauce is so close to In-N-Out’s. There’s something that feels right about a ketchup/mayo convergence with a slight vinegar edge and some finely minced pickle.
The only way to have full control over the sauce is to make your mayo and ketchup yourself (and you can). If you want to save time, though, you can get just as much enjoyment by trying out a variety of sauces and then choosing one (or ten) signature combos that feel 100 percent you.
The holy trinity of lettuce, tomato, and onion is a must, but some nice butter lettuce or even a crisp iceberg can do the trick when used sparingly. Large cuts of ripe tomatoes are a must as well. Beef steaks are a popular choice, but a good Roma can add a little extra umami to the mix. Then there’s the onion, which should be used sparingly. A whole onion slice will overwhelm, so go for a few rings of yellow, white, or red to add crunch and flavor.
After the base toppings, it’s really dealer’s choice as to what goes on next (although it’s best to keep it at one or two extras if you don’t want a mess on your hands). Not that we’re saying that that’s bad. Add some guac, bacon, onion rings, hell a slice of foie gras if you’re not afraid to get dirty. Or just keep things simple and refined with the holy trinity. No need to mess with the classics.
And yes, you’re going to need a crisp pickle.
The last important component of a truly perfect burger is the cheese. Yellow American Cheese is the standard bearer, but even processed cheese is Bourdain approved!
If you want to explore some different flavor profiles, however, there’s a whole world of cheese just waiting for you. Try a nutty Edam with a smokey bacon. Or move on from the processed cheese to an extra sharp cheddar, shredded Port of Call style. Want to go full-on crazy train? Add some Swiss Raclette melted cheese madness.
If the question of whether or not to add cheese to a burger, we all know the answer is a resounding HELL YEAH.