A return to the basics of an American classic
National Cheeseburger Day is this Sunday (Sept. 18), and whether you would normally take it with onions, without tomatoes, or as a vegan black-bean burger with soy “cheese,” pickled radishes and Sriracha aioli in a butter-lettuce wrap, take a moment to consider the American icon in its classic form.
While regional styles and personal tastes alter the ingredients and cooking techniques, the cheeseburger in its base form is some combination of bun, ground beef, cheese, fresh vegetables, pickles and condiments. A wonderful cacophony of wet and dry, melty and crunchy, fatty and salty, tart and sweet, the basic cheeseburger—undisturbed by current culinary trends—is a perfect invention.
Whether you drive-thru, make it from scratch or would gladly pay Tuesday for a cheeseburger right freakin’ now, a few key—and fresh—ingredients and a some basic culinary rules are all you need to make it classic.
Too often dismissed as a mere vessel, the hamburger bun plays an essential supporting role. Sponge dough, for which a yeast starter (aka “the sponge) is allowed to ferment before being added to the dough’s other ingredients, has a more developed flavor over white bread; the hamburger bun’s texture has some give while maintaining shape. As a general sandwich rule, the bun’s height—top and bottom combined—should equal the height of everything that comes in between. Ever since McDonald’s popularized their addition on the Big Mac in 1968, sesame seeds are an acceptable option, and I’ll be damned if the bun is not lightly toasted as well.
Now, the beef. Each patty (yes, go double, no judging here) starts as one-third pound, 30 percent fat ground chuck. And make it beef that your great-grandparents would recognize—local, organic and grass-fed. Cook on a flat-top griddle—please, do not squish it with a spatula—adding salt and pepper while cooking (don’t blend in before) and flipping once. The patty will cook down to a true quarter-pounder.
It’s tempting to simply unwrap some American cheese and throw it on when you flip the burger—which, according to one legend, is what a Pasadena cook named Lionel Sternberger (that’s his name, for real) did when he created the first cheeseburger in the early 1920s—but everyone outside the fast-food industry knows cheddar is better. Low-moisture, high-fat, aged medium cheddar will leave a melted, gooey slab that holds its shape while adhering to the greasy patty below and vegetables above.
Next, dressing the cheeseburger’s toasted buns with a secret sauce, a special sauce, or just Thousand Island dressing, is admittedly delicious, but only ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard—the holy trinity of condiments—should adorn a classic cheeseburger. The former two on the top bun, the latter on the bottom.
Last, the vegetables. On top, it’s the fresh produce. For the bold, the unsung hero of a great cheeseburger is shredded iceberg lettuce, piled high. Leafed lettuce—even when done right by In-N-Out Burger, chilled in icy water and generously hand-leafed—too often wilts from the patty’s heat. Next, one half-inch-thick and juicy slice of a ripe tomato, spanning the width of the bun, resting atop a thin slice of red onion. Both provide a pop of color while their respective widths allow each to stand on its own while complementing the cheeseburger with salt and spice. Pickles are slippery and need to be kept separate from the rest of the vegetables. Arrange them in a single layer and trap them between the burger and bottom bun with their partner in tartness, mustard.
There you have it, a blueprint for the classic cheeseburger, submitted for culinary consideration. Though it may not be how you celebrate National Cheeseburger Day, it’s important to pay respect the classics.