How to Build a Perfect Cheeseburger (and Fun Cheeseburger Spinoffs)
Who Invented the Cheeseburger?
On the Mount Rushmore of fast foods, there should be four profiles:
- Ray Kroc, creator of the McDonald’s French fry
- Harland David Sanders, founder of KFC and inventor of the 11-secret-herbs-and-spices fried chicken
- Margaret Thatcher (yes, that Margaret Thatcher) who before entering politics was an Oxford-trained chemist and helped develop the technology that makes soft-serve ice cream
And the fourth profile? That position is more difficult to pin down. Some food historians believe that 16-year old Lionel Sternberger did “it” in 1924. In 1928 the owner of O'Dell's restaurant in Los Angeles sold "it" with chili for 25 cents. Charles Kaelin did “it” in 1934 at his eponymous restaurant. Or perhaps the distinction should go to Louis Ballast, owner/operator of the Denver-based Humpty Dumpty Drive-in. The “it” for which they are vying is the creation of the cheeseburger, perhaps the most perfect comfort food.
As guilty and fun as it is to go through a drive-thru and get a cheeseburger or whatever, I just feel like you can make your own burger at home. You know what’s going into it. You know where it came from. And it’s just easy to go back and forth to those drive-thrus. Just kick that habit!— Julianne Hough (American dancer, actress, songwriter and singer)
What Are the Basic Components?Click thumbnail to view full-size
What does it take to make the perfect cheeseburger? Well, of course, there is meat and cheese and a bun. Let's define the best of each of those, and then we'll discuss the accompaniments (that's a fancy way of saying the other things that go between the bun).
The star of the show is the beef patty. You might be tempted to source out the best quality, twice-ground mixture of Prime sirloin and Kobe beef. Please don't. A cheeseburger is a celebration of juicy drips-running-down-your-arm patties and the only way to create that is to use ground beef with a higher percentage of fat. A grind of 80/20 is perfect.
The Wisconsin Cheeseman suggests Cheddar, melty Swiss, or blue; they also suggest that one can get creative with some off-the-wall specialty cheeses such as brie, Gouda, pepper Jack, or goat cheese. It is said that 16-year-old Lionel Sternberger used a slice of American and there's a really good reason for that. American is supremely melty. Some of the other choices don't pass the test. Here's why:
- Swiss cheese has a nutty sweetness that works in fondue but doesn't marry well with the umami flavors in beef.
- Gouda has great meltiness, but a neutral flavor.
- Cheddar has an amazing flavor but doesn't melt as much as we need; the fat in the cheese tends to separate.
- Feta is too dry and crumbly.
- Pepper jack is a good melting cheese, but the heat of the pepper flakes overshadows the good beefy flavor.
- Blue and goat cheeses are melty but too funky.
The bottom line? Use American cheese.
Choose a bun that roughly matches the size of your burger patties. Pretzel buns and ciabatta rolls are trendy but are also a challenge to bite into. But you also don't want bread that will fall apart and dump the burger into your lap. Opt for a potato or brioche bun—they are slightly sweet with a tender crumb but sturdy enough to stay with you until the last bite of your cheeseburger masterpiece. Lightly toasting/grilling the bun before you top it helps to prevent sogginess.
And All the Other ThingsClick thumbnail to view full-size
May I say with certainty that "it depends." If the tomato you are considering is from the supermarket, purchased in mid-March, and has been in cold storage for weeks on end, please don't use that tomato. On the other hand, if you bought a big juicy tomato at the Farmers' Market today or picked one from your garden, or were gifted one from a friend/neighbor/relative, by all means, use a sweet slice of fresh tomato on your cheeseburger.
Don't go fancy with spinach or arugula and don't use leaf lettuce. It goes wimpy-limpy in nanoseconds. Iceberg lettuce has no (redeeming) nutritional values, but boy is it good on a burger. It's crisp and you get bonus points for shredding it. Yes, I know that sounds like heresy, but shredding the iceberg helps it soak up all the yummy goodness of the secret sauce.
Yellow, white, sweet, red—which is the best for a burger? Yellow and sweet onions are best when cooked and allowed to caramelize. White onions are sharp, giving salsa that hot bite. The best raw onion for a burger is the red onion.
I cannot understand the love affair with sweet pickles (aka bread and butter pickles). They should not even be allowed to be called pickles. Real, honest-to-goodness pickles are sharp and bright, dilly, and tangy to cut the taste and feel of the fat in the burger. Use dill pickle slices. Case closed.
Some people want mayo only, others want a dab of mustard. There are members of my family (who will remain nameless) who liberally douse everything with ketchup. But, my friend Kenji (of Serious Eats) has broken the code for the perfect secret sauce, the Shack Burger sauce. It's epic! It combines all of the aforementioned flavors into one amazing schmeer. He uses all of these whirred together in a blender:
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon ketchup
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
- 4 slices kosher dill pickle
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- Pinch cayenne pepper
And Finally, the Burger Equation
This is not to be confused with the "Burgers equation" (a dissertation on fluid mechanics). Of course, you can put your burger together any way your little heart desires. But if you want to truly enjoy those flavors to the ultimate, there is a science behind the order. Your taste receptors will thank you if you do this from the bottom up:
- Lightly-toasted bun bottom
- "Secret" sauce
- Meat (with cheese melted on top, of course)
- Tomato (optional)
- Another schmeer of secret sauce
More Fun Recipes
Want that cheeseburger flavor without grilling? Here are eight ideas.
While You Look at the Recipes, Some Music for Your Listening Pleasure
Homemade Cheeseburger Macaroni
In 1971 the Betty Crocker/General Mills company created "Hamburger Helper," dried pasta, rice, or potatoes plus seasonings that could be added to one pound of ground beef; it helped that one pound of meat stretch to feed a family of 5.
This cheeseburger macaroni dish is reminiscent of those meals, but you are controlling the seasonings and sodium. Of course, you can swap out ground beef and use ground turkey or chicken. Mushrooms and vegetable broth will make it a vegetarian meal, and the addition of bacon will make everyone else happy.
Impossible Cheeseburger Pie
Another 1970's innovation by Betty Crocker (this time under the guise of Bisquick baking mix) was the Impossible Pie. The premise was that one could mix all of the ingredients in one bowl, dump into the awaiting pie tin, bake, and the impossible would happen. The pie would make its own crust as it baked.
This impossible cheeseburger pie does just that. Through some inexplicable alchemy or magic, the crust slips down under the meaty filling. Go ahead, give it a try. Impress your kids.
Low-Carb Cheeseburger Casserole
This low-carb cheeseburger casserole is tailored for those following the Keto diet; one serving is only 479 calories. And, because it uses cauliflower instead of pasta, it's gluten-free.
Please stop for a moment and really look at the photo above. Do you see those pockets of cheese, all gooey and oozy and yummy? That, my friends, is a meatloaf stuffed with cheese. All of the flavors of a cheeseburger in a meatloaf. Sara Welch's recipe makes individual meatloaves and serves 4 hungry people.
I assume that you love (or at least have strong feelings for) cheeseburgers. If not, you wouldn't be here. But perhaps you are feeling torn—you love pizza too. How can you decide? Well, I have good news. You don't have to choose between the two; you can have them both in this cheeseburger pizza from the Spicy Southern Kitchen.
Although not exactly "cheeseburger-flavored" (because of the added salsa and taco seasonings), this sheet-pan quesadilla recipe could certainly be adapted to take care of your cheeseburger craving.
April presents several suggestions for changing this dish (which by the way feeds 10!) to suit your tastes or what you have available in your fridge or pantry. Don't like ground beef, you could use chicken, steak, or even shrimp. Adjust the seasonings and use whatever toppings sound good to you.
Award-Winning Cheeseburger Soup
This cheeseburger soup is a big heap of comfort in a bowl. The recipe as written serves 12, but can easily be adjusted up or down. One commenter suggested deleting the potatoes and substituting elbow macaroni. I would suggest adding some spinach too.
A cheeseburger salad might seem a bit silly, but consider this—it's gluten-free, colorful, chock full of vegetables and can be expanded to feed a big group (we will have big groups once again, I promise).
© 2020 Linda Lum