I’ve eaten a lot of bottom-tier burgers in my life and I’ve heartily enjoyed most of them. Neighborhood cookouts, college parties, church functions, fast food joints: throughout my life, bad burgers have been a mainstay of the public spaces I frequent. And if the suburban United States is home to you, you know exactly what I’m talking about. A soft grocery-store bun; an iPhone-thin patty of bland, meat-like grind, cooked well-done on a gas grill; a pasty, out-of-season tomato slice; a rag of wilted lettuce; a few strings of raw onion; and a splotch of lukewarm ketchup and mustard. Even when each individual ingredient has been mistreated and insulted to the point of ruin, the final product is surprisingly palatable, even comforting. Like a mediocre summer blockbuster or a worn-out sweater, it reminds us that not everything is a quest for perfection. The lowly, common, and everyday is beautiful in its way. We don’t need to be ashamed of it.
So lest I come across as a burger snob, let me be clear: I enjoy a bad burger as much as the next guy. Although I draw the line at Arctic Circle. No, thanks.
I also enjoy mushroom burgers, Impossible Burgers, Beyond Burgers, and black bean burgers. The vegans are definitely on to something.
That said, there are multiple levels of burger above and beyond the “backyard special,” and I’ve taken the trouble of distilling them into 10 commandments for your reading pleasure. A burger can be ranked based on the first commandment it fails to fulfill. That is, each commandment is a gatekeeper for those that follow; a burger that fulfills commandments 1 through 3 but fails commandment 4 is only a Tier 3 burger, even if it fulfills later commandments.
We begin with a crucial but rarely-obeyed truism.
1) Thou shalt taste like beef
Hamburger is, by definition, beef. And most hamburgers contain as much beef as is legally required. But the presence of a dead cow alone is not enough for a sandwich to ascend the ranks of Burgerhood. Even a 100% beef patty is not guaranteed a spot. Somehow, from the day of bovine sacrifice until the moment the meat passes the lips, the beef’s true flavor has to be preserved (or chemically restored).
Yes, I’ve just condemned the vast majority of the world’s burgers to Tier 0. I am not ashamed of the message I bear.
I know this will raise the ire of burger makers worldwide. But it has to be said: hamburger patties are primarily an element of flavor, not structure. They are not simply filler, a vessel for finer ingredients. Their value does not lie in their shape or texture or ability to absorb and radiate heat. We don’t use them for the iconic strip of brown, so our burgers can look like the 🍔 emoji. Hamburger patties have a higher purpose, and that purpose is earthy, savory, beefy flavor.
This really only requires two ingredients: fresh beef and salt. Yet we’ve managed to mess it up on a truly grand scale. People in our modern world run the risk of going their entire lives without eating a burger that tastes like beef. This is, frankly, a tragedy. We should all be able to enjoy a bad burger, but we should recognize it for what it is. Otherwise, we might simply accept that flavorless patties are all there is, and spend the rest of our lives judging burgers by their trimmings (shudder), in direct violation of the “hamburger” designation and the sole ingredient that differentiates it from other sandwiches.
A Tier 1 burger does not need cheese or bacon or pickles or sauce in order to be rich and flavorful. Although it may benefit from all these things, it speaks for itself. It tastes like beef.
2) Thou shalt not be chewy
There is a type of beef that is supposed to be chewy. It’s called jerky, and it’s a wonderful thing. Beef jerky is half snack, half punching bag for your teeth. Chewiness is also acceptable in a mid-tier steak or a weekday pot roast. But chewiness in a hamburger is just unprofessional.
Have you ever taken a bite of a fast food burger and ended up chewing rubbery, squeaky bits of beef for much longer than you wanted to? Even if that burger was delicious at first, soon it’s a piece of gray and flavorless trash in your mouth. That kind of unpleasantness relegates the burger to Tier 1 at best.
My understanding is that low moisture content is to blame for this chewiness. Freezing and overcooking beef are both surefire ways to dehydrate it, and coincidentally those are the two things people almost always do to hamburger. No surprise, then, that the average hamburger doesn’t melt in your mouth.
3) Thou shalt not be dry
Chewiness and dryness are distinct attributes. A burger can be chewy and yet perfectly greasy; or it can be pillow-soft, yet cardboard-dry. Ideally, it should be both soft and greasy, albeit not in the extreme.
Most of the time, you’re expected to combat the dryness of a burger by adding condiments—a mix-and-match of mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, and barbecue sauce. And while this is certainly better than nothing at all, it isn’t half as good as a naturally juicy burger.
“Extra lean beef” is not the way to go here. There’s nothing you can do to make a burger heart-healthy, so you might as well make it delicious. The bare minimum for this tier is that the burger’s interior glistens slightly when you bite off a piece; for maximum indulgence, it should make a puddle of grease on your plate as soon as you penetrate the exterior.
Other than a properly fatty piece of meat, I’ve learned that a light touch when forming the patty is helpful. Some people squish the meat as hard as they can, as though it were a stress ball on a Monday afternoon; this is unnecessary and yields no benefit. A loosely-packed burger tends to be much juicier.
4) Thou shalt be served hot
Aside from “frozen solid” and “literally on fire,” lukewarm is the worst temperature to eat a burger at. A leftover burger from the refrigerator has a rich and comforting flavor: the cold solidifies the burger’s saturated fats into a savory frosting and brings out the sharpest, toothiest notes of each ingredient (with the exception of lettuce, which tends to wilt too quickly). And a hot burger is buttery and mellow, coating the mouth in a sudden emulsion of sauces, fats, and soluble flavors. A lukewarm burger has none of these qualities. It’s trapped in an unflattering limbo of vaguely-textured boredom.
Since the public, by and large, hasn’t caught the vision of cold hamburgers, your best bet is to serve your burgers piping hot, fresh off the grill. More than a few moments in the open air and they’ll have lost their shot at sublimity. A warmer can extend this deadline, but not by much.
Of all the commandments, this one is the simplest. There is no “secret” to making hamburgers hot. Humans have been heating up meat for a million years. Assembling and delivering the meat in time is the hard part, and it makes all the difference.
5) Thou shalt not be wafer-thin
Again, I’m no burger snob, and I’ll happily join you at Smashburger any day of the week. But a smashed burger is, by nature, limited to the lower tiers of Burgerhood. There’s no variety, no gradation, no gentleness to it. It’s homogenous to a fault, a single uniform slab of well-done beef. Even the slightly thicker patties of McDonald’s and Wendy’s fall short of hamburger’s true potential.
The ideal shape for a burger patty is less “pancake” and more “overstuffed tuna can.” That is, a cylinder with a bit of bulge around the edge, or an exercise ball with someone sitting on it. It should have depth: it’s the substance of the sandwich, not a savory spread. At most it should be a few times wider than it is tall. This allows the burger to serve up a gradient of flavors and textures, from the darker edges to the pinker center.
This often goes hand-in-hand with commandment 6. Classic fast-food burger patties are simply too thin to serve pink. By the time they’ve kissed the flat-top grill, they’re browned through (which is a virtue when the drive-through line starts to get crowded, but a vice the rest of the time).
6) Thou shalt be cooked to order
The earliest indication of a burger’s quality is that familiar question, “how would you like it cooked?” If it’s not asked at all, the unspoken answer is usually “well-done” and the burger is probably a Tier 0. But when it is asked, it has the power to change the listener’s perception of the occasion (from workaday lunch to foodie affair), the restaurant (from one with unsupervised “line cooks” to one with a chef), and the burger itself (from hockey puck to glorious indulgence).
There’s a sort of romance to this interaction. The brave soul who orders medium or rare is making themselves vulnerable. They hope you’ll keep your promise. They’re afraid you won’t. Their anticipation builds as the dish approaches the table, culminating in either joy or heartbreak. There’s no better way to earn someone’s trust than to serve them a burger or steak cooked exactly the way they requested it.
There’s a special place in my heart for every temperature beef is served at, from the rawest tartare to the darkest brown. So for me, cooking to order isn’t so much a matter of preference—it’s a mark of thoughtfulness, a bit of humanness in an impersonal process, a willingness to bend and accommodate.
7) Thou shalt be seared or charred
We’re in the upper leagues now, you know. A Tier 6 burger is extraordinary. A diamond in the rough. But it can yet be improved: a gentle sear or char on the top and bottom of the patty adds yet another layer of textures and flavors to an already impressive spectrum. The Maillard reaction, which brings us the golden-brown flavor of french fries and bread crust, is the perfect final touch for a well-made burger.
Charring a burger without overcooking it isn’t necessarily rocket science, but if your local pub manages to do it, that’s something special. Most people will never eat a Tier 7 burger. If you find one, make sure to send your compliments to the chef.
8) Thou shalt not have wilted or out-of-season trimmings
This is the first commandment that doesn’t deal directly with the beef. If you’re eating a great burger with a mealy tomato or wilted lettuce on it, you can pick off the offending topping and continue enjoying your burger. It’s a little inconvenient, but still a good experience. If the patty itself sucks, then the whole burger sucks. You can’t remove the beef without turning the dish into something that isn’t a hamburger.
Good onions and pickles can be had year-round, so these are rarely a problem. Heinz and Hellmann’s will continue making excellent condiments until the end of time, so insofar as a condiment can be considered a trimming, the big brands are a safe bet (although there’s certainly a place for homemade ketchup and aioli if you can pull them off). But good tomatoes can only be had in late summer or fall, and lettuce turns limp and bitter if you look at it the wrong way. So with the more finicky toppings, you either have to nail ’em or leave them out altogether.
The last high-tier burger I had, at a tiny café south of Denver, was far from traditional. Its trimmings were grilled onions, pesto, balsamic vinegar and raclette cheese. And it was exceptional. None of those ingredients are seasonal or require expert handling, but there’s no dishonor in making a burger this way.
9) Thou shalt have toasted buns
This is the one burger commandment that seems to have caught the world by storm. Any C-list YouTuber with a cooking show will tell you to toast the bun when making a burger. They’re right. All burgers are improved by toasted buns, which lend them a gentle crunch and help them hold up better under an onslaught of juicy toppings. Just keep in mind that if your burger is dry or chewy or flavorless, toasted buns won’t save it.
The best way to toast your buns is by sautéing them in butter until golden-brown. This is because butter is delicious. But failing that, a regular toaster or grill will do the trick.
The effect of this commandment is somewhat dampened when a non-traditional burger bun is used, like a ciabatta roll. To be honest, I’ve never had a burger that was better because it took shelter in a pretentious miniature Italian loaf instead of a traditional bun. If your burger is good, I say let the bread get out of the way—save the yeasty, chewy, crusty, high-class stuff for a dish where it can really shine.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t make your own buns if you have the inclination. It’s just not a commandment.
10) Thou shalt be fresh-ground
I once had the pleasure of visiting a restaurant where, thanks to the placement of our table, I was able to see into the food prep area. And back there on a metal table was a beautiful thing: a meat grinder.
It’s a simple device, really. You put chunks of whole beef in the hopper and turn the crank, and out the other side come strands of freshly ground, perfectly marbled hamburger. It only takes a minute. But the presence of a meat grinder said more about the restaurant than anything on the menu. If they cared enough to grind their hamburger fresh, I felt it was safe to assume they’d be conscientious, nay stellar, in every other way. And they were. It was the best burger I’ve ever had.
A Tier 10 burger may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it doesn’t have to expend your life savings. What makes a burger truly great has little to do with Japanese beef, gold leaf, foie gras, or black truffles. It’s about fresh ingredients, thoughtfully chosen and gently prepared. And it can come in under $20—it’s hardly a struggle meal, but neither is it an indulgence restricted to the rich and mighty.
In my dreams, there is a Tier 10 burger available in every city in America, and it marks occasions from high school graduations to retirement parties. It’s something everyone can appreciate. In fact, we’re proud to call it American food. When someone says “let’s grab a burger,” we don’t think of a two-lane drive-through and a dollar menu; we think of an unassuming neighborhood deli with a little blackboard on an A-frame out front and a chef that’s been working there as long as we can remember. We think of a coveted corner table where you can see the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, and in the center of that kitchen is a meat grinder. It’s a dream that will never come to pass.
But then, even a Tier 0 burger is pleasant enough to be worth five bucks.