A Hamburger Today

The AHT Guide to Hamburger and Cheeseburger Styles

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From Stand, in New York City. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

We toss around references to different burger styles on this site all the time, but it occurred to me that we've never really set them out all in one place for easy reference. I'm doing that now. Here's a list of all the burger styles we could think of. If there's something here we're missing, chime in with a comment. Here goes, in no particular order our guide to hamburger and cheeseburger styles...


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pub burgers

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From a review of Molly's Shebeen pub by Danny of "Food in Mouth." [Photograph: Danny/Food in Mouth]

Large patties usually no smaller than 8 ounces, often 10 ounces or more. Typically ovoid in shape rather than flat. Most often seen in pubs (hence the name), where they're often broiled. Until the 2000s, most of New York City's most-loved burgers were pub burgers--Donovan's, McHale's (RIP), Molly's, and, yes, the Corner Bistro. [More,--much, much more--after the jump.]

fast food burgers

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From The McDonald's Big Mac: The AHT Review by Nick Solares. [Photograph: Nick Solares]

Do I really need to define this one for you? I didn't think so. I include it only to offer a comparison to ...

fast food-style

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Shake Shack's Shackburger is fast food in style but not in spirit, with notoriously long lines, not in reality. [Photograph: Robyn Lee on Flickr]

We've always used this term on AHT to denote burgers that seem to take their inspiration from fast food burgers but that are somehow better--either in terms of ingredients or preparation or both. Fast food–style burgers will be made with fresh-not-frozen beef; use the freshest, crispest produce; and generally come from a sole location or, at most, a small, local chain. Burger Joint and Shake Shack in NYC; Taylor's Automatic Refresher in Saint Helena, California, and San Francisco; All-American Drive-In in Massapequa, New York--these are all fast food–style burgers if not necessarily true fast food burgers.

I'd almost even include In-N-Out under this rubric, even though it is technically a fast-food joint. Its philosophy and awesomeness are so far above what I normally think of as fast food that it transcends the category.

sliders

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Sliders from White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey. [Photograph: Nick Solares]

Many people think a slider is just a name for a mini burger. Many people are wrong. I've already written at length on this in my post "A Mini Hamburger Is Not a Slider," so I will just quote myself here:

People, a slider is something very specific. It is not just a mini hamburger. It's a thin, thin slip of beef, cooked on a griddle with onions and pickles piled atop patty. The steam from the onions does as much cooking as the griddle. The buns are placed atop the onions, absorbing the pungent aroma and flavor.

A slider is at once a hamburger and, yet, something more. (Maybe because you eat a bunch of them at one sitting.)

Speaking of which ...

mini hamburgers

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A mini cheeseburger from Matchbox in D.C. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Any diminutive burger that does not meet the definition of slider (see above), often because it has been grilled or broiled rather than steam-griddled and almost always because it lacks the bed of pungent onions.

There was an annoying trend, roughly from 2006 to the middle of 2008, whereby every damn chef was putting mini burgers (often misidentifying them as "sliders") on his or her bar menu. It seems to have ebbed as of late.

Steakhouse Burgers

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A cheeseburger from the Nick & Stef's Steakhouse in Los Angeles--one of the few steakhouse burgers we've had a good experience with. [Photograph: Damon Gambuto]

The steakhouse burger is defined more by where it's served than by any other unifying characteristics. Though there are some general observations you can make, however. Steakhouse burgers are usually made from the beef trimmings of the various steaks on hand and as such are ground from prime, aged beef. They're almost always massive, hearty burgers on par with pub-style burgers. And they're often broiled. You'd think this all would make for some fine burgers, but you'd likely be wrong.

Almost none of us at AHT have ever had a good steakhouse burger experience (except for AHT LA reviewer Damon Gambuto, who had a fine one at Nick & Stef's). Steakhouses seem to always miss on the cooking the burgers properly to temperature, and burgers there are mostly an afterthought rather than the main show. You go to a steakhouse for steak, not a burger. Even worse is when steakhouses try to put some thought into the burgers and end up with some sort of overpriced, mushy ill-conceived Kobe/Wagyu burger. A Kobe burger is always, always a bad idea. Which brings me to ...

Kobe/Wagyu Beef Burgers

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[Photograph: Yogma on Flickr]

And here I will repeat, a Kobe burger is always, always a bad idea. When cooked rare to medium-rare, as most chefs who put these on their menus usually recommend, the texture inevitably renders as mushy. It's like moist cat food on a bun, with the meat oozing out the sides and back as you try to eat the burger. Why turn a glorious piece of beef into minced meat?

Kobe burgers are most often seen in mini-hamburger form, usually as an "appetizer" plate of three burgers, because A) this expensive beef is more affordable in smaller, sharable portions and B) the Kobe/Wagyu and the min-burger/"slider" trends seem to have peaked at the same time. Thankfully, both manias seem to have abated and you don't hear as much about these ill-conceived lil' ditties anymore.

fancy-pants burgers

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The burger at Westside Tavern in Los Angeles. [Photograph: Damon Gambuto]

Price is a pretty good indication you're eating a fancy-pants burger. But since price varies from city to city, it's difficult to set a hard-and-fast dollar border. Let's just say that if it costs double what a McD's QPC Value Meal does, you're probably in fancy-pants land.

If that's not enough of an indication, you know you're heading into rarefied air when any one or more of the following is involved:

megaburgers

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[Photograph: Mallie's Sports Grill and Bar]

Any burger whose sole purpose is to break a record--most often weight, but sometimes price. Typically the result of tired publicity stunts, megaburgers have rapidly increased in number in the last few years thanks largely to social media--it's almost guaranteed the blogging-Twittering-Facebooking masses will blab about you and your three-ton burger that you need a forklift to flip. (See: We took the bait yesterday.)

extreme burgers

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A Hamburger Today's own extreme burger monstrosity, the Double Bacon Hamburger Fatty Melt. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Similar to megaburgers (see above), but here the point is less about sheer size than it is caloric overkill, stuffing as much gut-fattening, artery-clogging shit on and about the hamburger sandwich as possible. Examples include our own Hamburger Fatty Melt; any variation on the doughnut burger, including Paula Deen's Lady's Brunch Burger; or almost anything served at the Heart Attack Grill.

stacked burgers

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee on Flickr]

Anything with two or more patties. Popular examples include In-N-Out's Double Double, Wendy's Double, or Burger King's Stackers. Props to any stacked burger that uses an interstitial bun, like the Big Mac.

deep-fried burgers

An excerpt from George Motz's "Hamburger America" burger documentary.

Just what it sounds like, folks. Forget the griddle, throw water on the grill. The patties of these burgers take a dunk in hot, hot oil. Dyer's Burgers in Memphis is perhaps the most famous deep-fried burger emporium, thanks largely to George Motz's Hamburger America spot on them (above).

Variations exist that include entire burgers--bun and all--being dipped in batter and deep-fried, but they're rare. Tasty, but rare. Jump on that shizz if you ever find one. This variant could also be filed under "extreme burgers."

Regional Burger Styles

20090917-hamburger-america.jpgWhile some form of the burgers above can be found in pretty much any small- to large-size U.S. city, there are many burger styles that represent unique local flavors or philosophies--or that simply sprang up for one reason or another and inspired nearby but not nationwide imitation. These are the varied and glorious regional burger styles that represent the ingenuity and brashness for which the U.S. is known.

When it comes to the documentation and glorification of these variations, we owe a standing ovation to two men and their perambulations. They are John T. Edge and George Motz. In Hamburgers & Fries and Hamburger America, respectively, Edge and Motz have done the Lord's work. Edge's book Hamburgers & Fries documents the history of many of the following styles with humorous local color commentary. And Motz's Hamburger America (there's a film and a book of the same name), while treading some of the same ground, complements Edge's earlier work with its lovingly photographed and filmed burgers and you-are-there storytelling.

OK, without further ado, let's go....

smashed burgers

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To produce the gloriously ragged crunchy crust of a smashed burger, you start with a smallish meatball, place it on the griddle, let it cook for a bit, and then smash it down with the spatula. [Photograph: Gothamist]

Click me bigger: And this is the result. [Photograph: Jason Perlow]

In truth the burger style we've taken to calling "smashed burgers" can probably found wherever greasy-spoon short-order cooks are serving up sandwiches made from fresh-ground beef cooked on a superhot griddle. But I've seen this technique applied most consistently in mom-and-pop lunch counters in the Midwest, so it's classified here under "regional styles."

This is another subject I've written about at length, so another self-quote concerning "smashed burger technique":

[Cooks start with] a four-ounce-or-so ball of fresh beef, [let] it cook a bit on a hot, hot griddle, and then [give] it a good WHACK with the back of a spatula.... The technique leads to a crisp-crunchy crust with an artfully irregular shape, and best of all, creates more surface area for a Maillard-like reaction to occur.

Invaluable resource: Nick Kindelsperger investigated the application of the smashed burger technique to home cooking and has some great tips.

steamed burgers

Prevalent in a small part of Connecticut, the steamed cheeseburger is prepared in a microwave-size steaming chamber that holds several small trays. Half the trays cradle the beef while the remaining trays contain a molten white cheddar mixture that is poured onto the patties post-steam. Both Motz and John T. Edge have done extensive research on steamed cheeseburgers, with Edge going so far as to call the part of Connecticut--"the peculiar triangle of south-central Connecticut, bound roughly on the west by Meriden, on the east by Middletown, and on the south by Wallingford"--a "cheeseburger microclimate." For there are a number of steamed cheeseburger joints in the area, notably Ted's Steamed Cheeseburgers in Meriden.

They are, perhaps, an acquired taste, as our own Nick Solares did not like them, but Motz sings their praises and even has a steamed cheeseburger chest of his own.

cheese-stuffed burgers

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The cheese-stuffed burger at Philadelphia's Good Dog. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Though it probably didn't take a genius to eventually try to stuff cheese inside a burger, the folks in Minneapolis seem to have perfected the practice. There, at Matt's Bar, it's called the Jucy Lucy. Variations of the name appear at other Twin Cities bars, like at the 5-8 Club, where it's the Juicy Lucy. But they all follow a similar formula--American cheese stuffed between two patties, all cooked on a flat-top.

If you've ever tried to duplicate one at home, it's trickier than it would seem. You've got to seal in the cheese securely so you don't have a blow-out, and, as the cheese melts and puffs up the patty, you've got to prick it quickly with a toothpick right after you flip it to let the steam escape. It's better to leave it to the experts.

Though the concentration of cheese-stuffed burgers seems to be highest in the Twin Cities, we've caught wind of similar burgers elsewhere, like at the Good Dog in Philadelphia (pictured above).

As some bonus cheese-stuffed burger collateral, here is a video of the best three seconds in burgerdom. Cheese oozing from a Jucy Lucy at Matt's Bar in Minneapolis:

green chile cheeseburgers

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[Photograph: Uberculture on Flickr]

Indigenous to New Mexico, where grows the Hatch green chile, these burgers are topped with chopped roasted peppers trapped in a gooey, oozy matrix of melted cheese--usually white cheddar as happens to be the case at the Bobcat Bite in Santa Fe. If you haven't been already, you may know the Bobcat Bite, once again, from George Motz's burger biopic.

onion burgers

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Onion burgers from the 2008 AHT-Gothamist QBQ burger bash. [Photograph: Jared Miller Photography]

These are a variation on smashed burgers with a little bit of slider thrown in. Edge points toward the Depression as the harsh inspiration for these burgers, as throwing half an onion, sliced into rings, into the mix helped make the meat go further.

The meat is placed on top of the onions and pressed down into them until they fuse. In the process, the onions become almost caramelized as they cook on a hot, hot griddle. El Reno, Oklahoma, seems to be the focal point of this style, with Johnnie's Grill, Sid's Diner, Robert's Grill, and Jobe's Drive-In, but places like the Hamburger Inn, south of El Reno in Ardmore, do them, too.

guberburgers

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Squint and you can see the Skippy. A guber burger from the 2008 AHT-Gothamist burger bash. [Photograph: Nick Solares]

Burgers with a generous dollop of melted peanut butter ladeled on. The most famous practitioner is probably The Wheel Inn Drive-In in Sedalia, Missouri--again, thanks to George Motz's Hamburger America documentary and book. Although the original Wheel Inn had been close to closing for good due to a road-widening project, a longtime employee reopened it in a new location, serving the same ol' guberburgers.

butter burgers

Although it's a spot for Miller Lite, this Errol Morris–directed beer commercial pretty much captures the butter burger in all its twisted glory.

It's no surprise that butter burgers reach their apotheosis in Wisconsin, the Dairy State. As if a juicy hunk of meat ain't enough moistness for you, folks around these parts cook the patties in butter and then slather on a hefty dose of the stuff right after it hits the bun. Solly's Grille in Milwaukee is a famous spot for this style.

pimento cheese burgers

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Maybe not authentic enough, but it's a pimento cheese burger that Harry's at Water Taxi Beach served for the 2008 AHT-Gothamist burger bash. [Photograph: Jason Perlow]

If you're not from the South, you may not even have heard of pimento cheese, much less pimento cheese burgers. As I've heard from all my Southern friends, pimento cheese (a mixture of grated cheese--usually cheddar--pimentos, mayo, and spices) is a sort of Southern comfort food that spans all classes and ages. Pimento cheese tea sandwiches are often served at high-falutin' functions--most famously at the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. And it's just as often spread on celery sticks and served as an hors d'oeuvre.

It's not hard to see how this stuff eventually found its way onto a burger:

Hey! You got your pimento cheese on my burger!

No, you got your burger in my pimento cheese!

Two great tastes, folks. Two great tastes.

loosemeats sandwiches (aka Maid-Rites, aka 'taverns')

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[Photograph courtesy George Motz]

A lot of you purists will grumble that this is not a burger, but if it passes muster with George Motz, then it's good enough for AHT. I'll let George describe it. From Hamburger America:

For those not familiar with the popular Iowa hamburger-influenced sandwich, a loosemeats, or Maid-Rite (and sometimes referred to as a "tavern"), is basically a deconstructed hamburger, or a sloppy joe without the slop. The recipe is simple: fresh ground-on-premises beef is steamed and crumbled in a cast iron cooker. Nothing is added but salt.

The "Maid-Rite" that George refers to is Taylor's Maid-Rite, in Marshalltown, Iowa. The Maid-Rite, loosemeats sandwich, or tavern is an Iowa thing.

slug burgers

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[Photograph: Deep Fried Kudzu]

Another Southern thing--this time from a small triangle of an area in northern Alabama, northern Mississippi, and southern Tennessee. According to Ginger of Deep Fried Kudzu, they're called slugburgers in Moulton, Alabama; Decatur, Alabama; and Corinth, Mississippi; and doughburgers in Tupelo, Mississippi. Hamburgers & Fries also notes instances of cracker burgers and tater burgers. What they all have in common is a frugality born of the Depression (much like the onion burgers of Oklahoma), when folks in Mississippi learned to use fillers--bread, flour, potatoes, crackers--to extend their meat supplies.

Deep Fried Kudzu's Ginger has a great photo set on Flickr of slugburgers and the places that serve them and tells me, "I've been telling my friend who works with the Southern Foodways Alliance that they should do a 'Slugburger Trail' just like they have a 'Tamale Trail' and 'Boudin Trail'."

I totally agree. Get on that, SFA!

bean burgers

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[Photograph: Robb Walsh]

The bean burger--no, the patty is not made of beans--is native to San Antonio, Texas. According to etymologist Barry Popik, it was supposedly invented at Sill's Snack Shack in 1953 and consists of a beef patty topped with canned refried beans, crushed Frito's, and Cheese Whiz. In Hamburgers & Fries, Edge mentions that Sills himself says he picked it up from a serviceman at nearby Fort Sam Houston but subbed in the Whiz for the GI's American cheese.

OK. I'm sure there are more burger styles out there, but I'm pooped. Let us know of any we've missed and we'll update this glossary at that time.

Related

A List of Regional Pizza Styles
Regional U.S. Hot Dog Styles

*Just kidding, Daniel! You know we love you.

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