Perfect Burgers – How to Make them

It seems simple to make perfect burgers. After all, how hard can it be? Anyone who eats burgers regularly knows there is a vast difference between good and bad. It’s often hard to put your finger on exactly why a burger works or doesn’t. Is it the burger patty? Is it the bun? Are there too many fillings or not enough? Too much sauce or not enough?

Sometimes it pays to go back to the basics.

The late, great chef, Anthony Bourdain (RIP), writes at length in his book Appetites – A Cookbook about what constitutes perfect burgers. He even included a poster with a book, so you can hang it on your wall and refer to it with regularity. He took his burgers that seriously.

In the interest of brevity, I’ve summarised Chef Bourdain’s thoughts on the matter. I should mention that he is referencing the classic American burger:

1. The Bun

To quote Bourdain:

“The purpose of the bun is to support and enhance the meat”

What he means here, is that a burger bun should:

  • Hold together when you bite into it. 
  • Be soft enough to bite through so the filling does not fall out the end. Crustiness is not desirable for this reason
  • Be porous enough to soak up the fat from the burger patty. Burgers need to be fatty to enhance the flavour, so a good white, store bought burger bun will soak up the fat.
  • Brioche buns are made with a HUGE amount of butter. They will not soak up fat, so are not ideal for burgers, but they are delicious for breakfast

Which means to say, you don’t need to be fancy with your burger buns. A good old Tip Top white bun from the supermarket is the way forward here.

2. The Perfect Burgers Patty

Bourdain recommends grinding your own meat. Which seems hard to me. However, he also recommends getting a good balance of fat versus lean meat, and going for texture. Unlike many chefs that recommend using a blend of pork and beef mince, in this case he recommends all beef, going for a mix of short rib and scotch fillet. You could try asking your butcher to mince it down for you on a coarse setting. Or you could try chopping the meat by hand.

Alternatively, you could do what I do and find the fattiest mince at the supermarket. Once again, fat is flavour, so don’t go for lean mince this time.

It is important to note that the meat should be tasty enough to stand on it’s own. No breadcrumbs, herbs, spices or sauces are necessary here. Just a decent amount of salt before cooking should do the trick. The pan also needs to be very hot to get the meat very brown and crisp on the outside. Depending on the quality of the meat, you should be aiming for medium doneness once cooked.

Although if you prefer the flavour of well browned meat, two thin patties (ala the Smash Burger) is the way forward.

3. The Cheese

As with the bun, we’re not going for fancy here. Bourdain recommends processed American Cheese (think Chesdale cheese slices). In this case, it’s not about the flavour of the cheese, but the texture. We’re after cheese that melts most effectively, and processed cheese slices definitely do that!

4. The Sauces

“Do not put ‘housemade chutney’ on my hamburger. Please. Let ketchup do its job.”

Heinz Ketchup, American yellow mustard (Al Brown makes a good one). That’s all you need.

Bourdain even questions the necessity of mayonnaise, and suggests this needs a “cost/benefit” analysis. Too much sauce adds slipperiness and can cause the fillings to fall out of the bun. I quite like it though. I am also of the opinion that perfect burgers should be a bit messy!

5. The Green Stuff

Once again, the “cost/benefit” analysis comes into play here.

On tomatoes:

“The tomato may be in season, and at its height of deliciousness, but will including it in the delicately constructed hamburger be worth the possible damage to its structure and ‘eatability’?”

On lettuce:

“I understand the desire for crunch. If you’re putting mesclun or baby arugula (rocket) on your burger, though, Guantanamo Bay would not be an unreasonable punishment. Use finely shredded iceberg.”

On onions:

“Onions add something to the party, but they must be thinly sliced. Paper thin. And fresh, please. Caramelised? No. Not a fan. Burgers should not be sweet. Any sweetness in a burger should come from the ketchup alone.”

6. The Extras

Personally, I like the acid of gherkins. These are essential to a good burger in my world. Extras on a burger come down to personal taste. Bacon is delicious, but needs to be cooked until the fat is rendered and it is very crunchy. A little goes a long way here.

Eggs are a purely Kiwi phenomenon on burgers. Unlike a certain famous “Kiwiburger” they should be fried until crisp on the bottom, with a runny yolk. Yolk = sauce = mess = deliciousness.

In my opinion, sometimes less is more with a burger. A monster burger may look impressive, but it’s impossible to eat. Work out what to put in the burger, and what to put on the side. Hash browns? On the side. Mushrooms? Could go either way.

You can test your burger making skills with your team mates at one of our Short & Sharp Burger Challenges. Take the challenge to make perfect burgers!