A hunk of meat topped with ketchup? Why stop there. Made In has the A-to-Z guide to the absolute best burger toppings and why they work.
Jimmy Buffett famously liked his “with lettuce and tomato,” but in the land of burgers, it that enough?
From ketchup and mustard to sliced onion and cheddar cheese, we’ve never met a burger we didn’t like. You have to admit—even a classic combo like lettuce and tomato works amazingly well. Still, there are so many other culinary possibilities to explore.
Here at the Made In kitchen, we’re pushing ourselves to explore (read: more) this summer. It’s time to embrace some new, exciting ingredients. After all, our palates have matured. You know, it’s all a part of the adulting process.
Today, we’re breaking down all of the ingredients that pair well with a good ol’ classic American burger. No matter your signature patty style, you’re in for a juicy ride.
What are the best burger condiments?
Of course, everything is subjective. But when it comes to burgers, not really. A while back, ABC News set out to build the ‘ultimate burger’ according to American consumers. Using voters’ top 10 choice toppings, they settled on the following:
- BBQ sauce
You notice quite a few of the usual suspects. But the addition of mayo, BBQ sauce—even mushrooms—proves quite surprising to the average eater.
What are some new burger topping trends?
Now, let’s get a second opinion. According to major chain and fast food restaurants, the typical diner doesn’t want a ton of toppings. Once you pass the 5-ingredient threshold, the burger becomes heavy, cumbersome, and ultimately difficult to eat.
Most importantly, modern consumers are super culinary savvy. As time goes on, more and more people desire unique toppings that go beyond the boring lettuce-tomato-onion signature. This also helps restaurateurs stand out in a sea of hamburger joints.
To meet these demands, today’s on-trend variations usually embrace a ‘theme,’ such as spicy burger, veggie burger, smokehouse BBQ burger, Mexican burger, pizza burger or the ‘meat lover’s’ burger (packed with bacon, pork roll, pepperoni and more).
In this experiment from Eater, researchers looked at 37 recent burgers that debuted in popular U.S. restaurants. Here are some surprising toppings they shared:
- Pepper jack cheese
- Side dishes (such as french fries)
- Other meats (besides bacon)
What is the science behind the best burger toppings?
Burgers are known for that rich, beefy flavor. So, when it comes to toppings, it’s all about complimentary contrast. So, even though toppings like jalapenos or Sriracha sound crazy, there’s actually a real scientific explanation for why they work.
- Fat + Acid – Known as the ‘yin and yang’ of food, fats and acids go hand-in-hand. In cooking, acids include citrus juices, vinegars, alcohols, tomatoes and wines. These ingredients wake up the palate and tend to overshadow a dish. So, when pairing with a fat, juicy, ‘meaty’ patty, that sharpness creates the perfect balance. This is why a slice of tomato goes so perfectly atop a burger. Not only does the ‘umami’ flavored beef mellow out the acid, but the tomato’s texture provides a satisfying bite.
- Sweet + Salty – We see this classic combination in so many desserts like salted caramel ice cream—and there’s a reason! Scientists say that salt isn’t exactly a ‘taste’ all by itself. Instead, salt enhances the flavor of other ingredients. So, mix it with sugar, and your brain goes—‘yes please!’ While there are subtle ways to achieve this balance on a burger, some grillmasters have gone so far as to layer peanut butter with bacon (with scrumptious results!). For those less adventurous, give sweet onions and salty pickles a try.
- Juicy + Crunchy – Human taste buds are surprisingly sophisticated! A key principal of all gourmet cooking is the concept of balance. For every soft, succulent swallow, the brain craves a crispy, crunchy bite for full satisfaction. Since the ideal burger is literally mouthwatering (thanks to its juicy composition), the best toppings complement that texture by giving us something to munch on. This explains why lettuce (despite its relative lack of flavor) is so essential to a great burger. When married alongside ooey, gooey cheese and other melted ingredients, that crispness is oh-so-delectable.
What are some unexpectedly awesome burger toppings?
When constructing your own ‘ultimate’ burger, try to blend these six flavor/texture profiles:
- Umami – typically found in the main protein (beef, chicken, pork)
- Sour – complements the fat for ideal balance (pickles, mayo)
- Spicy – evens out brightness while adding complexity (chili peppers, arugula)
- Sweet – balances sour notes without sacrificing texture (tomato, onion)
- Creamy – enhances the meat flavor and softens acids (any kind of cheese!)
- Fresh – takes the sandwich beyond that ‘beefy’ flavor (lettuce)
With this ideal match-up in mind, take a look at this list of creative takes on the typical burger topping.
7 Surprisingly Delicious Burger Toppings
- Kicked-up condiments – Whether it’s a spicy mayo, tzatzki sauce, BBQ mustard, chipotle crema or cilantro aioli, homemade sauces are having a serious moment these days. Luckily, they pair perfectly with a classic beef patty.
- Pineapple chutney – For that instant dash of ‘sweet,’ a fruity salsa or chutney makes a gorgeous topping. Such a juicy ingredient also helps to infuse moisture when your bun or patty appears dried out. If you’re BBQing, skip the prep work and grill a whole slice!
- Potato side dishes – Maybe Americans are getting lazier—or maybe we’re getting smarter! Instead of serving fries, chips or hash browns on the side, pile them high for an unexpectedly hearty result.
- Brie – While American and cheddar cheeses make ‘safe’ choices, chefs have embraced the super mild, gooey texture of brie for some time now. Just slice off a big hunk, slap it on and let melt through before serving.
- Watermelon – Water—what? Yes, that’s right. This summer staple, when cut to shape, fits perfectly underneath your beefy round. Consider it your tomato stand-in—only sweeter, fresher and full of crisp nourishment.
- Beets – Known for the beautiful earthiness, beets are often associated with salads. But place a slice on a burger, and you get that somewhat bitter, neutral flavor with excellent bite! Some vegetarian folks even build their own burgers with a big ol’ beet as the patty.
- Tahini – A little Middle Eastern inspiration goes a seriously long way. Consider this our answer to the people putting peanut butter on their burgers! Tahini paste is way less sugary, but still nutty and nutritious. It’s an ideal spread you can swap in once in a while in place of mayo or ketchup.
You got your inspiration, now grab the perfect burger pan and get cooking!
Alright burger kings and queens—go to work! And good luck!