How to Build a Perfect Cheeseburger (and Fun Cheeseburger Spinoffs)

Updated on May 6, 2020
Carb Diva profile image

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Possibly the most beautiful cheeseburger in the world
Possibly the most beautiful cheeseburger in the world | Source

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
Fresh ground beefCheese slicesPerfect fluffy buns
Fresh ground beef
Fresh ground beef | Source
Cheese slices
Cheese slices | Source
Perfect fluffy buns
Perfect fluffy buns | Source

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).

Meat

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.

Cheese

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.

Bun

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 Things

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fresh sliced tomatoa head of iceberg lettucesliced red onionhomemade dill picklesthe not so secret sauce
Fresh sliced tomato
Fresh sliced tomato | Source
a head of iceberg lettuce
a head of iceberg lettuce | Source
sliced red onion
sliced red onion | Source
homemade dill pickles
homemade dill pickles | Source
the not so secret sauce
the not so secret sauce | Source

Tomato

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.

Lettuce

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.

Onion

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.

Pickle

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.

Sauce

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:

Ingredients

  • 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
  • Pickles
  • Meat (with cheese melted on top, of course)
  • Tomato (optional)
  • Onion
  • Lettuce
  • 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
Homemade Cheeseburger Macaroni | Source

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
Impossible Cheeseburger Pie | Source

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
Low-Carb Cheeseburger Casserole | Source

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.

Cheeseburger Meatloaf
Cheeseburger Meatloaf | Source

Cheeseburger Meatloaf

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.

Cheeseburger Pizza
Cheeseburger Pizza | Source

Cheeseburger Pizza

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.

Sheet-Pan Quesadillas
Sheet-Pan Quesadillas | Source

Sheet-Pan Quesadilla

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
Award-Winning Cheeseburger Soup | Source

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.

Cheeseburger Salad
Cheeseburger Salad | Source

Cheeseburger Salad

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

Comments

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    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      2 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Lawrence, nothing wrong with sausage roll twice in one week, is there? I think it's time for an encore performance.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Linda

      I made sausage rolls last night for dinner. I should have read this hub and made cheesy sausage rolls, but with a good strong Cheddar?

      This hub has made me feel hungry!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Pamela, how very frightening for you and your family. I am glad to hear that you are home; I pray that each day you will get a little bit stronger.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      3 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I have been in the hospital with pneumonia, not COVID 19. I am home now but still weak.Each day is a little better though.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Thanks Pamela. I've been concerned because I had not heard from you. I hope you are well. Stay safe my friend.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      3 months ago from Sunny Florida

      It is hard to beat a good cheeseburger. I agree with you about the dill pickles also. This is a good article packed full of excellent information.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Doris, you have made my day. First the shout-out in the comments on Paula's Italian meatballs, and now this. I'm fine with Velveeta, in fact it's what I think of when I say "American" cheese.

      I might try putting a tomato on the windowsill, but then again perhaps I'd better not. I'm sure the kitty would assume it is a toy and would bat it all around the house.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      3 months ago from Beautiful South

      Linda, the secret sauce looks interesting. I usually slap a little mayo on one side and a (very good grade) German mustard on the other side of my cheesburger. As for onion, the best kind is any kind I have on hand. My late mother-in-law said she'd never encountered such an onion lover as I am. I used to would not eat cheese on my hamburgers, but now I love it, probably because it enhances the blah flavor of the gluten-free bun. However, Here I'm afraid that I'm going to lose you. My preferred cheese is Velveeta. I'm allergic to dairy, and Velveeta is mostly fake cheese anyway, so I tolerate it well. I think we always used American when I was a child and my dairy allergy hadn't gotten so bad.

      Hint on those flavorless March store bought tomatoes, Choose an anemic looking one and let it sit on the counter for a couple of days until it reddens up. Sometimes that helps, and then some of them are beyond help. And never, never buy any tomato labeled "Mountain ...." They are GMO'd to withstand shipping, not eating. Anyway, some great ideas, expecially the cheesburger quesadilla. I can hardly wait to get crackin' on it.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish, Eric is a pretty smart guy so I'll keep my fingers crossed that he'll do what is right. As for soy burgers, I think any of the cheeseburger spinoffs could be adapted to use veggie protein.

      Thank you for your kind words. It means a lot to me.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      3 months ago from USA

      I’d tell Eric - If the turkey smells bad, don’t eat it. But if it’s just approaching the best by date or sell by date and you need to make it taste less gamey then add Lipton onion soup mix to it. Especially in bad economic times, sometimes we have to do the best we can. Don’t skimp on health, of course, so toss it if you suspect it’s spoiled.

      I eat soy burgers but enjoyed reading here. I used to really enjoy cheeseburgers many years ago. Your writing is lovely.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Eric, I don't think I could eat turkey (or anything else for that matter) that had expired. Some say that's why the Europeans were so heavily into the spice trade centuries ago. They used a heavy hand with spices to cover up the funk.

      Now, as to a burger without tomato. That is a sad concept, but if I can't get a tomato that actually TASTES like a tomato, I'd rather do without. By the way, I'm still awaiting your critical review of yesterday's post.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, I actually wrote this one with you in mind (although it was our friend in London who suggested the topic). If you had given this one a thumbs-down I would have given up entirely.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Now you're talking my language. This is true soul food, my friend, manna from heaven, and a staple of my diet for decades. I am so pleased with you right now. :)

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      3 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Linda we are having a problem. These crazy friends of my wife from the base are having food wars. Who can give another more food. Filipino, Mexican, Vietnamese and your standard Caucasian Americans. I am tasked to get food from the Baptist churches. Not to worry. I know when the trucks arrive So am there to lend my back unloading them. Then I get treats that are just about ready to expire. My Hang (wife) is up to the challenge.

      But today I am going to "build" a bleu cheese monster burger, thanks to you. Yahoo. But the burger is Turkey. And gamie Turkey at that. I like that taste. But how do you get rid of that pungent taste?

      Yes one gal is from Manilla and she raises Turkey and chickens. And yes it is fun capitalizing Turkey.

      Hey there is an interesting one. Our store is always out of tomatoes. A burger without?

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      3 months ago from Central Florida

      Oh, Bill will be all over this one, Linda! He'll absolutely love it.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      3 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Shauna, you're the first to comment and I thank you so much. My dear, please feel free to build that burger any way your little heart desires. I'm glad to know that the Impossible Pie does indeed deliver as promised.

      I know you're a great cook, and if I've tantalized your discriminating taste buds, I'm a happy gal. BTW, do you think I've FINALLY found a topic that Bill won't pooh pooh?

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      3 months ago from Central Florida

      Linda, I've actually made Betty Crocker's Impossible Cheeseburger Pie many, many times. It's easy, tasty and does exactly what it promises to do: drop and form a crust during cooking.

      I know you say American is the way to go when making a cheeseburger, but I love Swiss cheese on my burgers, especially with grilled baby bella mushrooms.

      This is a beautiful and tantalizing post, Linda. My mouth is actually watering!

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