These Toppings Are The Secret to Making a Good Burger Great

Advice from chefs on what to put between your meat and bun.

By Paula Forbes

June 29, 2018

A burger with everything on it is my standard order. If I’m being honest, it’s a bit of a panic order—better than asking the server to list burger topping ingredients out loud like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Tomato, lettuce, pickles, onion, ketchup—okay, okay, I get it. Ordering the burger with everything is simple. Easy-going. Whatever you’ve got, I’m game for.

But it’s also a cop-out, because when it comes down to it, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing topping a burger. I know I like cheese. Beyond that, though, I’d rather leave my burger in the very capable hands of its creator. There’s a lot of thought that goes into constructing a great burger. Who am I to interfere?

Realizing my burger topping knowledge is lacking, I talked to some chefs who are known for great burgers. What do they put on burgers, and in what order? Why? How can we make a better burger through toppings? What is the ideal burger with everything on it?

Consider the classic option

First up, a classic take. Atlanta favorite Holeman & Finch serves a burger so popular they managed to spin off an entire restaurant devoted to it, H&F Burger. Chef Linton Hopkins tells me the toppings are inspired by his “favorite combination since I was a kid”: thinly shaved red onions, bread and butter pickles, ballpark mustard, and American cheese. “It does everything a burger should do.” Hopkins does admit to switching things up come tomato season, though, when he adds bacon and tomatoes and mayonnaise. “It’s pure heaven.”

Step outside the box

On the less traditional side, we have the burger at Flora Bar, located in the Met Breuer museum in New York City. Chef Ignacio Mattos builds his toppings off the flavor of the wagyu burger “to make a dish that’s balanced yet full of flavor.” To that end, the burger is served with a house-made pepper marmalade, which “adds a brightness and kick to the burger.” To complement the marmalade, Mattos goes for an unusual cheese for a burger: the ultra-melty Italian semisoft cheese taleggio. “Taleggio softens the palate,” says Mattos, “with a creamy, rich finish.” Lesson learned: Experiment with cheese on your burger.

Pay attention to order

For chef Craig Koketsu—whose burger at New York restaurant Quality Eats is fairly traditional, served with cheddar cheese, special sauce, lettuce, red onion, tomato, dill pickle, and pepperoncini—toppings are all about order. He says “the most important step to building a burger” is to put the cold ingredients under the patty, and hot ingredients above. It’s an idea he got from In-N-Out: “The lettuce, tomato, [and] onion on the bottom bun of the burger, then stack the burger with the cheese on top.” This way, you won’t be a victim to wilted lettuce.

Go wild

And finally, chef Patrick Rebholz of Yardbird in Los Angeles recommends looking beyond the burger for topping inspiration. Mac-n-cheese, onion rings, fried pickles: he’s served burgers topped with ‘em all. Unexpected toppings can “wow your guests,” and help conquer burger boredom. He also recommends a chef trick for a less in-your-face burger upgrade: “Smear a tablespoon of compound butter onto the patty before serving” for added “depth of flavor.” Rebholz is into truffle butter, but the sky’s the limit.

As you navigate the buffet of burger toppings available at cookouts for the rest of the summer, I urge you to contemplate what goes into your personal burger with everything. Are you a tradionalist, or a free spirit? Play around. Ultimately, you’re eating delicious burgers, so what have you got to lose?