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Chefs Weigh In on What Makes a Perfect Burger

As part of Burger Week 2015, Eater asked local chefs what they thought made a perfect burger and here's what they told us.

The Macintosh

What makes a perfect burger?

John OndoLana: The meat to fat ratio. The type of meat. I like to do a mix of ribeye trimmings and short rib.

Josh Keeler, Two Boroughs Larder: We started putting a crisp crust on our burgers, and I think that's the key to a good burger. I'm not a big grill person fan — they have a tendency to be overgrilled and overcharred, because they flare up so much. I prefer a burger that's cooked in a pan or a flat top just because it lessens that flame or that gasoline flavor. I think a really good burger has to do with the fat ratio. If you overpack a burger or make it too dense, it's bad. I think you need to have air in your patties and a really nice crust. A really good bread is key. For a while everyone was putting burgers on really dense heavy bread, and a burger is heavy enough as it is. I think what people like about In-N-Out is their buns are really soft. You can squish the whole thing together.

Katie Lorenzen-Smith, Tavern & Table: Bun to meat ratio.

Timothy Montgomery, Bay Street Biergarten: What makes a perfect burger is the flavor of the beef, and freshness of the bun, and toppings. A burger should develop a nice sear to trap all the juices inside. Pressing a burger releases all of its flavor and makes the burger dry and ends up crumbling. The toppings are just as important as the cooking process. Using fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and onions help bring a crisp texture and flavor depth that makes your burger scream fresh. To add more depth a spread or sauce needs to compliment the other toppings without making the burger too messy or all you have is a excessive use of napkins. Innovative burger toppings just makes the flavor depth more interesting you just need to keep them in check because there is such a thing as "too much of a good thing."

Craig DeihlCypress: The number one thing is the meat, but there's a lot of factors to a good burger. One is the meat — I prefer dry-aged because you get a richer, deeper, meatier flavor. Two is the bun and the meat to bun ratio. The big fluffy brioche buns don't work for me. I prefer thin, and even just going to the grocery store to buy a pack of regular hamburger buns because you get a much better meat-to-bun ratio.

Jared Whitehead, The Alley: A perfect burger — there are many schools of thought about what makes a perfect burger.  Some see burgers as a sacred institution — the purest form of sandwich bliss.  Others see a drive thru window and a quick somewhat satisfying bite.  For those of us in between, such as myself, a perfect burger is a vehicle for creativity and flavors but also, if stripped down to just meat and bun would be just as flavorful and satisfying. My perfect burger would be grass-fed bison or venison, cooked medium rare over charcoal with homemade aioli, melted sharp cheddar cheese and salt and pepper.

Adam Miller, Amen Street: Simplicity with me: great bun, perfectly seasoned patty (s&p, spice isn't seasoning), cheese (don't have a favorite, I just want it), and burger sauce of some sort (I actually prefer mayo, ketchup, & mustard).

Nate Whiting, 492: Simple purity — it's a burger not a meatloaf. First, it’s about the beef, and not about all the spices and goodies that are often ground into the meat. Everyone has their secret ratio and favorite cuts, my best advice is addition by subtraction. Fresh, high-quality ground beef and salt and black pepper. While monster nine-ounce burgers have their place, I prefer a thinner patty, about five ounces To me, a great burger should have an equal amount of "crumble" and "stability". Meaning it should hold together enough to allow you to cook them correctly, (from edge to edge) and the guest should be able to take a bite without it falling apart.

As with many cooks, I like both the charcoal-grilled as well as seared on a griddle/pan for a variety of different reasons. So my fellow culinary nerd friends and I devised a plan to get the best of both. Because fat absorbs aromas so well, we first charred beef fat directly on hot hardwood charcoal embers, then we smoked it for several hours. We then chilled the fat and then ground it into the meat. Achieving an inside out char grilled flavor evenly distributed throughout the meat. (Yes, its a lot of extra work.)

Other Essentials: warm, tender bun, Heinz ketchup, French’s yellow mustard, and Mt. Olive pickles — accept no substitutes.

Emily Hahn, Warehouse: The perfect burger for me has crisp, not wilted, lettuce, ripe and seasoned slice of tomato, and a nice thin slice of red onion. I always appreciate a freshness with any sandwich and the above is a must.  It is also a deal breaker if the amount of cheese is too much or too little.  A nice sharp cheddar is my favorite.  And the bun, oh the bun can make or break a burger.  The bun must be a vessel for the patty and goodies, we use Brown's Court English muffin for ours which holds up very well. I can live without bacon and egg, but certainly don't turn my nose up to it!

Joe DiMaio, Stars: What makes a perfect burger for me is the cohesiveness between the amount of bun, meat ,and toppings. Can't have to much meat and no bun to hold it up and no meat with to much bun to weigh it down. Oh and gotta have true American cheese — none of that fancy cheddar.

Will Fincher, Obstinate Daughter: A perfect burger has to be juicy and minimally topped. The bun should be nicely toasted to hold up the beef. The patty itself should be seared on the outside to lock in all that beefy goodness. You gotta cook burgers at a high temperature or it's just a waste.

Bradley Grozis, Wild Olive: The burger has to be cooked to the right temp, and I am partial to grass-fed beef. I like mine medium, and I like the meat to be 80/20. That's important for a nice, juicy burger.

Bryan CatesBasico: The proper cut of meat or cut combination. I prefer chuck roll for burger grinding. It has the best fat-to-meat ratio and makes for a well-balanced succulent burger. At Basico we use Painted Hills chuck roll that has been dry-aged for 30 days before grinding. Dry-aging concentrates the beef flavor and gives it a rich nuttiness. Burgers are two three-and-a-half-ounce patties. It would be a disservice to the meat to do anything but grill it. We top our burger with a a few leaves of hydroponic Bibb lettuce, a special blend of green chilis fashioned into a smooth puree, and a dollop of warm queso blanco, all resting on a Brown's Court bakery brioche sesame bun.

Joel Lucas, Eli’s Table: Fat content. 80 percent meat and twenty percent fat is the ideal balance for my burger.

Vinson PetrilloZero Cafe: A great blend of meat, perfectly melted cheese, an element of texture, fresh tomato, and most importantly a great quality bun.

Josh WalkerXiao Bao Biscuit: I feel like there's two directions, either burger as a sandwich (sum is greater than individual parts) or burger as a steak (it's essentially about the meat, types used and the grind technique, the perfect cheese or boutique ingredient to finish) — the argument could also essentially be categorized as thin vs fat.

Patrick Owens,Langdon's and Opal: Top quality meat with sea salt and pepper. Cooked over a wood grill, mayo, ketchup, some type of cheese, and a toasted bun.

Mike LataFIG and The Ordinary: Great Mise en place/great execution. Burgers come in many different versions, but preference aside, it all has to work together.

Jason Dupree, 39 Rue de Jean: There’s two parts for me: a) the creator of the burger decides how good or bad the burger and (b) the type of meat you use is important!

Frank McMahon, Brasserie Gigi and Hank's: My perfect burger is made from double ground chuck with an 80 percent meat to 20 percent fat ratio. The meat must be seasoned with salt and pepper, seared to a perfect medium rare temperature, and immediately placed on a fresh bun that will absorb the meat juices without falling apart.

John LewisLewis Barbecue: Special sauce!

Bob Carter, Barony Tavern: The grind of the meat — 100 percent chuck yields the best beefy flavor. The simpler, the better!

Ted Dombrowski, Ted's Butcherblock: Quality, freshly-ground beef, the right amount of fat content and a fresh roll are the three most important components of the ultimate burger burger.

Tony Chu, Aya: A perfect burger is a burger that has the right amount of beefy meat funk, a.k.a. umami. It is moist with a crispy semi-charred surface and made with a soft moist bread with nutty nuances. But the real question is how to make a perfect burger. Making the perfect burger is all about understanding what the cuts of beef really taste like  and blending them to create the ultimate meat profile: gamey, rich, grassy, cheesy, beefy, and nutty.  The burger should be somewhat greasy. The bite of the burger should be soft and moist, yet it should not fall apart and disintegrate in your hands. The burger meat should have some springy bounce. Burger that lacks this texture feels like you’re eating an old tire. Blending different grades of ground beef influences the burger’s texture. Too fine and the burger will feel like beef pate. Too rough and the burger will look like a meatloaf. From my experience, brisket, short rib, and chuck are a good start to the perfect burger. Brioche bun or Hawaiian bun tend to be the best for making the perfect burger. Aged funky cheese works really well burgers to create the umami bomb. My personal favorites are Barber’s 1833 English vintage cheddar and Roaring 40s, a blue cheese from Australia. Top with tomatoes and lettuce. San Marzano tomatoes are the best. The meaty tomato, which grows on the volcano ash in Italy, brings moderate acidity and prolongs the lingering taste of the burger. Balance the tomato with a leaf of Boston lettuce. When this perfect burger is taken to your mouth, it is non-stop ecstasy!

Nathan Thurston, Thurston Southern: It’s all about the grind. It’s essential to select the right meat and grind it fresh before cooking for the perfect burger. The benchmark for a perfect burger is a mixture of ground chuck, brisket, and boneless short rib. However, if time and cost are an issue- the chuck from a well-marbled steer makes a pretty mean burger. It’s intriguing how Mother Nature has provided us ideal lean meat to fat ratio for burgers within the Chuck beef primal. The same goes for pork shoulder yielding the perfect ratio for most sausage preparations.

Chari Skinner, Union Provisions: I would say starting with the burger meat itself, grinding your own meat and adding in the fat content you want is the freshest way to enjoy a burger. The bread is also a key component.

Chad BillingsThe Southerly: First it must start with quality meat, blend is better, chuck, short rib and brisket. I prefer a burger to be seared versus grilled. The bun could be a close second. There are times when a good bun will make a burger just taste and look better. I’m simple, I prefer a good brioche or challah burger bun

Benjamin Dennispersonal chef: Perfect burger for me is a thin patty, griddled burger. I like my burgers cooked through but still juicy. I enjoy it better like that rather than medium or med rare, hence the reason I like it griddled and thin patty.  Cook it in its fat/juices on the griddle.

Aaron Lemieux, Michael’s on the Alley, Victor Social Club, and Vincent Chicco’s: A perfect burger must be perfectly pattied, well-seasoned ,and cooked medium rare (a technique I learned at the burger mecca 39 Rue de Jean).

Josh ReevesMs. Rose's Fine Food & Cocktails: The perfect burger — juicy and cooked to temperature, which means fresh, ground beef. After that, it's all up to the individual's choice of toppings.

Andy HendersonEdmund's Oast: It's all about the bun for me. I love soft buttery bread. We do a brioche bun from Browns Court that I love.

Kevin JohnsonThe Grocery: Charred on the outside, juicy on the inside and limited condiments.

Shawn KellyHigh CottonAs simple as it sounds, getting a burger cooked to the temperature ordered, and seasoned is not as common as one might think.

Forrest Parker, Old Village Post House: Balance and simplicity. Some folks want to focus on just the burger, or whether or not the bun comes from Brown’s Court, Butcher & Bee, or King’s Hawaiian. To me, it’s providing the same level of focus for each component — condiments, cheese, burger and bun.

Russ MooreSlightly North of BroadCooked on charcoal and medium rare.

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