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A Flavor Chemist Explains Burger Toppings

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Jun 22, 2015
A Flavor Chemist Explains Burger Toppings

This week's episode of The Sporkful podcast is up! Listen through the player or iTunes/Podcasts app. (And please subscribe!)

A great burger is a thing of beauty. But it's also the product of a complex array of variables: meat, bun, toppings, cooking method, and more -- like an equation for handheld deliciousness. (Not to be confused with the Burgers equation from fluid mechanics, which is far less delectable.)

This week on The Sporkful, we're exploring the science and art of burgers.

First I get a lesson in flavor chemistry from the man behind Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Pizza and the McDonald’s McGriddle sandwich.

Tom Ryan (below, in the kitchen) is now the chief concept officer at Smashburger, where he is shaking up conventional burger wisdom.

Ever been told never to press down on your burger?

"We smash the burger on a hot grill for the first 10 seconds," Tom explains. "The pressure that’s created on the bottom of that [burger] does three critical things."


Basically, that cooking method 1) caramelizes the bottom of the burger, 2) locks the juices within a crusty outer shell, and 3) maintains tenderness:


The best part? As the burger cooks, the juices recirculate internally -- essentially basting the burger in its own juices. So when you bite into it:

"It’s like biting into a water balloon of beef flavor," Tom says.


But the meat is only one part of any burger equation. What can science tell us about optimizing our burger toppings? Well that depends, says Tom:

“Do you want [the toppings] to be melded or do you want them to come through as individual vector flavors?”

Take cheese, for instance. Tom says it's more of a background flavor that adds subtle richness, while condiments like ketchup, mustard, dill pickle, and fresh onion have sharper flavors that display immediately when you bite in.


Long story, short -- Tom isn't convinced my cheese on the bottom strategy will be revolutionizing the burger world anytime soon. But he does stress that getting the right toppings in the right order is important for a good burger:

"The way you do order [toppings] does make a profound difference," he says.

That doesn't mean there's one perfect way to top your burger. After all, it depends on your taste. The key is to understand the importance of the order, so you can make an informed decision and attain your own burger nirvana!

If you’d like to try a burger smashed with the same technique that Tom describes, there are other places making burgers that way: Five Guys and Shake Shack, among other places. Or trying making one at home! Our friend Kenji Lopez Alt from Serious Eats has a great piece on how to do it just right.

Kenji also cracked the code of the sauce that Shake Shack puts on their burgers. (Shake Shack is a NYC area chain that’s growing very fast.) Kenji figured out that it involves mayo, mustard, ketchup, cayenne pepper, and whole pickles pureed into the sauce. I’ve been putting it on all my burgers this summer and it’s ridiculous.


Well, eaters, let's hear it for science! Tom and his colleagues are making important strides in the field of burger deliciousness.

But what about the art underlying these gastronomical poems forged in beef, cheese, and bun?

Enter David "Rev" Ciancio. (For him, burgers are actually a religious experience. Here he is with his halo:


Rev ate more than 600 burgers for his blog, Burger Conquest and now he's part of the team at Schweid and Sons, a gourmet ground beef purveyor.

He grew up on sliders and tavern-style burgers in Detroit (his Mom's favorite meal), but he also learned a lot about burgers from backyard grilling with his Dad and his Step-Dad:

"My Dad liked the meat like it was -- give him a piece of cheese and a bun and he’s happy," he says. "My stepfather was all about let’s pour some vino on this, let’s crack some pepper. So I have an obsession with my spice cabinet as much as I do the butcher shop."

So what elevates a good burger to a work of art? Well, a lot of things, actually -- but here a few fundamentals Rev looks for:

-freshly ground meet (preferably in-house)

-the right ratio of fat to lean meat

-gentle patty formation (no mashing!)

Oh and one other little detail: Cheese!!!

"Cheese needs to be on every bite," he says. "I can’t think of a burger that I really really like that doesn’t have cheese on it."

Got that, burger artists?

OK maybe that's a lot to keep straight. So here's what you really need to know about the art of burgers:

"A perfect burger should be seared on the outside and, to quote Judas Priest, screaming for vengeance in the middle," Rev says. "You don’t want to bite into a dry sponge, you want to bite into a pillow -- a cloud."

This week's episode of The Sporkful podcast is up! Listen through the player or iTunes/Podcasts app. (And please subscribe!)

Connect with me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook!

Interstitial music in this episode by BWN Music:

- "Incidentally" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt

- "Stacks" by Erick Anderson

- "Fresh Air" by Erick Anderson

- "Hip Hop Slidester" by Steve Pierson

Photos: Flickr/CC: Roboppy, Flickr/CC: Patsy, Flickr/CC: tavallai, Flickr/CC: mosespreciadoFlickr/CC: Wally GobetzFlickr/CC: 5chw4r7zand courtesy of Burger Conquest

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