QT 83 – Building a Better Burger

Why Hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where we focus on facets of food culture, and drag them kicking and screaming into the light, that all may gawk on their knotted and heaving forms. Today’s leviathan of lunch is the humble hamburger, and what you can do to make it yours.


The Canvas Paints Itself

I’ve written a lot on this site over the years, making a wide array of foods, some weird, some common, some common ones in weird ways, and everything in between. But I think of all the ways to explore food, my favorite is something like what we’re doing today.  I called it “twisting” recipes, back in my post about it last year. Taking a recipe you know, you understand, and changing it. Something as simple as that is the basis for what makes you take control of your culinary destiny. Something as small as “what if I started adding Garlic Powder to my Kraft Mac and Cheese” can be a catalyst.

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Cinnamon is a BOLD choice, but not necessarily a WRONG one…

And the American Hamburger is a particularly tempting option, and an easy one, moreso, in some ways, than a couple of the options I laid out in the previously linked post, because the cookout hamburger is already an enterprise you build yourself. The secret comes in simply providing (or considering) more options. Think: in your standard American cook-out or barbecue, the burger comes to you cooked from the grill, perhaps with cheese melted on it, and everything else is by your choice. Tomatoes, onion, lettuce sit idly by to be added, as do ketchup, mustard, and mayo. These are the classics. But you can go so much farther. Today, I’m going to show you the way. Step by step, what you can change and add to your burgers to make something surprising and spectacular this summer.


Born and Bread to the BBQ

The first option is, of course, the bun you place it on. And a bun it should typically be: as I noted on Monday, Australia (and to a lesser extent America) don’t consider it a burger if it isn’t on a bun. That’s why the diner sandwich is called a “patty melt”, and not, say “a rye burger”. But even in that limitation, you have options. A hoagie roll bun for a longer burger dip is the most immediately form-forsaking option, but pretzel buns are all the rage in Bavarian-themed burgers. And you can use the buns as a first step for flavor: onion buns, jalapeño buns, sesame seed, they all offer different tastes as the outer layer to your meal.

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This one, in addition to being kind of terrifying to look at, is flavored like A-1 Steak Sauce.

Brioche versus Kaiser, Kaiser vs Ball-park, there’s even an array of textures from the white bread buns.

The Meat of the Matter

Another no-brainer is that changing the meat in your burger changes the burger results. I’ve made Turkey Burger patties for the site, and…huh, apparently that’s the only kind of burger I’ve made for the site other than Monday’s. Well, rest assured, there are tons of varieties. Salmon Burgers, Tuna Burgers, Shrimp Burgers, Lamb Burgers, Goat Burgers, Pork Burgers, Chicken burgers, and so on. Including, as we referenced last week, Veggie burgers, which come in their own wide variety, whether made with black beans, beets, chickpeas, or some other shit, I don’t know, I’m vamping until I can think of a joke and nothing’s coming to me.

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I know there’s no price on this.
I was hoping looking for one would distract you longer.

And while this is kind of its own category, I do want to call out that how you prep the meat can change it up. I recently found a recipe for “Cuban-spiced Burgers”, which ended up being basically just “Make normal burgers, with 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika and ground cumin in the beef.” Boom. That’s it. Different thing.

And then there’s the option of ADDING meats to the burger. Bacon on burgers is the easiest on to think of, of course, but you can also do slices of ham, pulled pork, additional patties, and more. It’s pretty indulgent, and not something you want to do very often for the sake of your heart, but it’s an option.

This list is getting kinda Cheesy

Look, there’s only so many ways I can introduce the concept of “If you alter component X, the results will be different!” Do I NEED to introduce every category, since it’s clear we understand what’s happening? Probably not, but I mismanaged my evening, so I’m writing this later than I wanted to be, so I’m tired and making mistakes.

The point is that while, yes, Cheddar is the classic cheese for burgers, basically any cheese that melts EVEN A LITTLE can be found on burgers somewhere. Swiss cheese on those Cuban-spiced burgers, (maybe with that slice of ham added) to mimic a cubano sandwich, perhaps? Or Pepper-jack cheese if you’re looking to spice up your burger. There’s TONS of Blue Cheese burgers, and I know for a fact I’ve seen, if not personally eaten, a burger with slices of brie on it.

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There were a lot of pictures of them, to be honest.

Heck, this is a super easy category to start playing around in with almost no real effort: just buy a couple new varieties of sliced cheese, and see how they work on a burger.


Once you start Topping, Things Get Weird

Normally I’d cut directly to veggies, but this is a distinct enough category that I wanted to dabble in it. It’s also one that, almost by definition, means you’re playing in interesting territory: burger “toppings”. By which I mean all the options that don’t quite fit in the other categories, and that, for some reason, typically go right on top of the cheese in the burger. When I was a kid, I used to get the Cheddar Melt from A&W, which had onion rings, as an example. With Monday’s post, we added fried eggs, another classic.

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I’m 95% sure that they’ve discontinued the burger, so I’m probably cool to use publicity material like this.

But you can encounter a ton of options. From more-manipulated veggies like coleslaw, caramelized onions, or sauerkraut, to a dollop of mac-and-cheese, a ladle of chili, or tons of other options, this is for the things that don’t fit fully in one category. And tend to make the BURGER not fit fully in a normal mouth.


I am about to Veg Out, which puts me in a Pickle

Seriously, though, I can FEEL the crash barreling down the track at me…in fact, going back and adding pickles to this category triggered it. I’m out. Morning Jon, wrap this up.

 You’re lucky, past Me. I almost didn’t get here in time. This is Barely-Morning Jon, here to pick up where Past Jon Passed out.

Veggies and pickles are probably actually the aspect of a burger you’re most likely to have experimented with changing, even over cheese. Do you put on tomato and onion, do you leave the lettuce off this time, this is where the cook-out assembly line really asks for assembly. And if you haven’t explored it, there’s a lot to uncover here, even in so simple a detail as the variety of leafy green used: the texture of shredded lettuce is different than a whole leaf of butter lettuce or green leaf lettuce, or a handful of baby spinach.

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This is a wild bunch of veg on this. Supposedly there’s some potato sticks in there.

Pickles kind of overlap with the topping category if you get too deep in the weeds, but I’m actually just talking about straight-up American “pickles”, in the “slices of pickled cucumber” sense. I mean, think about it. You’ve got Dill, Kosher Dill (which includes garlic, if you’ve never known the difference. A Kosher Dill pickle is one made with dill AND garlic), Zesty Garlic,  Bread and Butter, Spicy-Sweet, and the various relish varieties of the aforementioned options and more. You can make a dozen different burgers just by changing which flavor (and texture) of pickle you add to the same set-up.


Slather on the Sauce, or, Concluding with Condiments

The last category (well, TECHNICALLY there’s one more, but you’ll see that it’s weird) is the condiments. Mustard, Ketchup, Mayo are the core three for the average American cook-out (though, if you got to the restaurant that supposedly invented the burger, you’ll find that ketchup is banned). But this is another category where things can get wild pretty easily. Firstly, there’s the fact that mayo on its own is a fairly neutral flavor, and this has led many chefs to infuse it with flavors, from garlic aiolis, to “secret sauces”, chili-mayos, and so on.

Then come the actual additional sauces, and how you USE them. There are many places that swear brushing your cooking burgers with mustard gets a better char and flavor. I can think of 6-7 varieties of mustard offhand. And why stop there? Barbecue sauce, gochujang, teriyaki, tartar, all options to be added to burgers as you explore.

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Here’s a creamy basil sauce on a lemon salmon burger. Flavor on flavor.

But how do you make sense of the options. How do you choose which creative impulses to follow? Well, that’s the last point.


Tie it Up with a Theme

The answer is simple: don’t wander willy-nilly, but bring in an idea for what you’re trying to do. And it’s as easy as replicating some other dish, or tying the burger to a food theme. If that sounds complicated, here’s a simple example: My family, as I’ve noted before, has become a fan of Korean flavors, especially dishes like Bibimbap. So let’s say I set out to make a bibimbap burger. The first thing to note is that I COULD make buns out of rice patties. But that feels like a lot of work, so I’m not going to do it. (Hey, knowing what you’re willing to do is part of being a chef.) Obviously, we’re going to want a fried egg on the burger, and kimchi. We can make the soy-garlic mushrooms, and use the gochujang sauce instead of mayonnaise. Boom. Maybe paint the burger with the same soy-garlic marinade, and toast the buns with a little sesame oil, and boom, bibimbap burger.

Or let’s say you want to do like, a crab-cake burger. You’ve got a couple options. First, of course, you make the crab-cake. Then you can either do a tartar sauce for the bun, or maybe mix some old-bay into the mayo. Shredded iceberg lettuce feels like the right veggie for it, since it’s shredded like the crab meat, and It adds a little crispness. And…honestly, I don’t really eat crab cakes, so I don’t know what else to add except maybe like, a lemon wedge on the side.

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These guys didn’t even go THAT far.

Finally, let’s say you want to make a “Steak dinner” burger. You get really good, fresh meat. Maybe just take an actual steak and have it ground (or grind it yourself). Instead of mayo, you do a smear of garlic mashed potatoes on the bottom bun. Top the burger with some crumbled blue cheese or sautéed mushrooms, and one of those rich sauces (a béarnaise, a madeira, peppercorn, whatever) top with some of those little crispy onion straws, and boom, steakhouse burger.

These are just examples. Quick ideas to spark your imagination and interest. Just think of your favorite meals, and say “is there a way to make a burger out of this?” The answer is probably “yes”. And that can be your guide to try something new.