“Burgers are a blank canvas," said Paul Malvone, chef and co-owner of Boston Burger Company. When it comes to favorite toppings, this burger expert says the sky's the limit. "So many variations can be added to a burger to make it one of eating's greatest experiences."
Want a little inspiration for your meaty masterpiece? We talked with 15 top chefs about their favorite burger toppings.
Consider creative condiments
Ketchup and mustard are expected, but when it comes to burgers, some chefs dress to impress. Food Network megastar Giada De Laurentiis loves to top her burgers with a creamy avocado spread and balsamic onions. “This burger is the perfect mash up of California and Italy,” she said. “Between the avocado spread and balsamic onions, you'll never miss the ketchup."
Malvone makes his own special sauce for his Boston-area restaurants—and always plans for extra on the side. “I love to put a saucy topping on and maybe have a little extra to dip as well,” he said. “A nice cool homemade thousand island dressing makes for a great topping bursting with a lot of flavor. It’s creamy with a little sweet to complement the salt from a well-seasoned burger.”
It’s ooey, gooey, and one of the most popular add-ons, but is cheese a given when it comes to burgers? “I mean at this point, isn't it kind of like those letters they just give you for free at the end of Wheel of Fortune?” asked Adam Richman, host of Travel Channel’s Man v. Food and Secret Eats with Adam Richman, and author of Straight Up Tasty. “Generally, I prefer old-school American cheese for dinner burgers, and Swiss or bleu for thicker burgers.”
“Swiss has a great melty factor,” said Marc Murphy, chef and owner of New York's Landmarc and Ditch Plains), Chopped judge, and author of Season with Authority: Confident Home Cooking. He also loves to top that melted cheese with the house-made bread-and-butter pickles that can be found at his restaurants. "They really elevate your burger game with the perfect crunch and flavor,” he said.
Paul Wahlberg, executive chef at Wahlburgers and Hingham, MA's Alma Nove, is also a bit old-school. "I’m all about keeping it simple—like the backyard BBQs from when I was growing up," he says. “What makes the perfect burger for me is a cheese with a really good melt. My Dad always used 'government cheese,' similar to American; then fresh, dill pickles, lettuce and tomato, some onion, ketchup, and yellow mustard. You can never go wrong.”
Emily Hahn, executive chef at Warehouse in Charleston, SC, is also a fan of the basics. "I need pickles, Duke's mayo, and cheese—double cheese, actually—and I can't live without ketchup on my burger,” she said. “I think it's a major cop out when people think one piece of cheese makes a cheeseburger. It has to be cheesy and melty and gooey. The more fake and processed the cheese, the better!"
Don’t cry over this favorite
Onions are a topping available in every burger joint. However, these three chefs elevate this old standard with the addition of a little olive oil.
"I love caramelized onions,” said Matt Hyland of Brooklyn pizza spots Emily and Emmy Squared. “They are sweet, rich, and compliment a well-seasoned dry-aged burger. They also create a nice textural contrast to my second favorite topping, pickles!"
Roger Mooking, host of Cooking Channel’s Man Fire Food, agrees. “My favorite burger is a lamb burger topped with five-spiced caramelized onions, Kewpie mayo, and onion sprouts. All the flavors just work together in a perfect balance of decadence, simplicity, and robustness.”
Caramelized onions and cheese are a perfect combination for Leah Cohen, owner and chef of Pig & Khao in New York's Lower East Side. “I love cheese because it adds a creaminess and an oozing element to the burger,” she says. “The caramelized onions add a hint of sweetness and umami to the burger.”
Pack on the protein
Burgers are packed with protein, but some chefs always find room for a little more. Brian Epstein, co-owner of Brian’s 24 in San Diego, loves his burgers with the addition of peanut butter and bacon. “The sweetness of the peanut butter plays off the salty, smoky bacon, and the creaminess adds an extra dimension that you just don’t get with other sauces,” he said. “We have it on our menu, and tell customers that they’ve got to try it!”
Another egg-cellent choice? Eggs! “My favorite topping for a burger is an over-easy egg and fried onion straws,” said Denise Covert, executive chef at Backyard Kitchen and Tap in Pacific Beach, CA. “I love when you bite into a burger and it has a crispy crunch along with the runny egg yolk, which then absorbs into the bun. Those two things, mixed together, give the burger the ultimate flavor bite.”
Keep it simple
While there are a lot of ways to dress up your burger, many chefs prefer the traditional approach. "I go classic when it comes to burgers: American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, and mustard,” said Katie Lee, host of Cooking Channel’s Beach Bites with Katie Lee. “Simple hamburger pickles are a must. I like the crunch and the vinegar cuts through all the juicy fat of the burger."
Josh Capon, executive chef and partner behind New York restaurants Lure Fishbar, B&B Winepub, El Toro Blanco, and Bowery Meat Company in New York City, also enjoys straightforward components. "A rich patty needs nothing more than simple sliced tomatoes, pickles, and American cheese," he said. "These ingredients lighten, as opposed to weighing down and taking away from the quality of the meat."
"Pickles—it's as simple as that,” adds Mark Rosati, culinary director at Shake Shack. “Hamburgers, especially cheeseburgers, are rich in flavor by nature. That's why I love adding pickles; you get this wonderful acidity and bite that helps cut through the richness and bring balance to the overall experience. They also offer a great crunch for added texture!"
“I’m also sort of weirdly old-school, and a firm believer in good mayo, French’s yellow mustard, and the cheapest dill pickles you can find on a skinny hamburger,” said John Currence, chef/owner of City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, MS. “I’m so tired of these oversized burgers that have too much stuff piled on them so you can’t eat them. The minute you go messing with the burger and you start putting stuff on it like fancy mustard, homemade pickles, and blue cheese, it’s a totally different animal than what the American hamburger was originally conceived to be.”
What do you love on your burgers? Tell us in the comment section below!