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Burger recipes and cooking tips from J. Kenji López-Alt.

The Burger Lab: What's The Best Bun For My Burger?

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

The Overall Winner: Martin's
The Non-Potato Bread Winners:
#1: Sunbeam
#2: Arnold
#3: Gold Medal

For big, thick burgers, a hearty (but soft!) bun bought from a local bakery or made at home will do you well (try out our recipes for a clone of the Spotted Pig's awesome bun), but for thin, griddled, classic diner-style burgers, nothing beats a store-bought bun. There are some battles not worth fighting, and soft burger buns at home is one of them. Why bother when they're so cheaply and readily available, and perfectly suited for the task?

The ideal soft burger bun should be pillowy, squishy, and tender, with a tight but soft crumb and a distinct sweetness. It should hold up nicely to the burger's juices, but should never be tough or cottony. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you don't want a burger that disintegrates half way through your meal.

The Contenders

We picked the 7 most common nationally available brands for our lineup, as well as including our write-in wildcard favorite, Martin's Potato Rolls, sold mostly on the East Coast. For competition, we also included the only other brand of potato rolls we could find: Pepperidge Farm's Golden Potato. Finally, we included one generic brand from the local supermarket to see how it would compare to the mass-market brands (Super A). Here are the contenders, in alphabetical order:

  1. Arnold
  2. Gold Medal Bakery
  3. Martin's
  4. Pepperidge Farm
  5. Pepperidge Farm Golden Potato
  6. Sunbeam
  7. Super A
  8. Market Pantry (Target)
  9. Whole Foods
  10. Wonderbread

When there was a choice, we always chose the unseeded version of their hamburger bun (some of them were called "sandwich buns"). We tasted each bun in two ways: plain, and toasted with a cheeseburger. For the plain buns, tasters were asked to evaluate flavor and texture. Is it sweet enough? Buttery, or bland? Does it become cottony in your mouth as you chew it, or is it sufficiently soft?

Each bun was also toasted and used to assemble a cheeseburger. Tasters were asked to evaluate how well it stood up to the onslaught of burger juices, as well as whether or not the flavor of the patties was compatible with the flavor of the cheese and the burger. Does it balance out the meat, or detract from it? Does it disintegrate halfway through the burger? Or perhaps it's too tough so the burger gets squashed as you eat it? These are the pressing questions we ask ourselves on a typical work day.

The Results

No huge surprises here: Martin's was the overall winner, although we were mildly surprised by the fact that both the sunbeam and the Arnold brand buns scored within .2 points (out of 10) of the Martin's. So all is not lost if Martin's isn't available in your area!

The most interesting result to come out of the tasting came when I compared a graph of the overall score of each burger bun against a graph of the perceived texture of the buns. There was a near perfect correlation between how soft the buns were and how much we liked them. Check this out:

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There was no such similar correlation between flavor and overall ranking, which indicates that for burger buns, texture is the overriding factor when comparing quality.

Here are the final rankings, with our tasting notes.

Martin's (6.7/10)

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The gold standard of burger buns, its signature yellow crumb, buttery-sweet flavor, and soft but substantial texture make it the ideal partner for beef and cheese. "Sweet and pillowy," said one commenter, while another simply stated, "HELLO MARTINS. I WOULD HAVE YOUR BABIES." Are you listening, Martin's?

Sunbeam (6.6/10)

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The buns are quite small—about the same as Martin's rolls in size—so if you plan on burgers much wider than 3 1/2 to 4 inches, you should pick the Arnold buns below. A surprise winner for us; people weren't too keen on its "mild bready flavor," but its softness won tasters over once the burger was slipped into it. It squishes down until it's just "a little something between the meat and your fingers," but never disintegrates.

Arnold (6.5/10)

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Slightly larger than the average bun, but not unwieldy or too thick by any means. The flavor is "inoffensive and slightly sweet," and the look is "very generic white bun," but used in a cheeseburger, the "bottom bun layer soaks up all the burger juices in a good way." "Nice balance, nice chew."

Gold Medal (5.8/10)

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The only seeded option we had to use, they were also the largest bun of all. They may have actually been more appropriate for a large, grilled backyard burger, although some complained that "the bun dissolved a little with the burger." Others really liked it, describing it as "thick, but squishy and fluffy." The sesame seeds were a dividing factor.

Pepperidge Farm Golden Potato (5.3/10)

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The other brand of potato roll in the lineup, they didn't fare nearly as well as Martin's. Like the regular Pepperidge Farms buns, these ones are significantly larger than either Martin's or Sunbeam. "Kinda weird tasting" and "soapy aftertaste" were used to describe its flavor—every single taster reported an odd aftertaste—but its texture was "squishy and soft" in a good way.

Market Pantry (Target) (5.2/10)

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The house brand at Target, it's a little taller than a standard supermarket bun. "Slightly sour but pretty neutral taste," was the overall impression on flavor, but texture is where it suffered. "Crumb a little stiff" and "dry crust" were the big problems.

Pepperidge Farm (4.7/10)

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Pepperidge Farm produces a fairly large roll with the most substantial "real bread" look of all the ones we tasted. But that doesn't mean it tastes like real bread. "Doesn't taste like much, but doesn't taste too processed," describes the overall flavor impression. Several found that the outer crust had a stiff, papery quality. "Soft but dry," it was called, though it fared a little better with the burger in it. "No character, but inoffensive."

Wonderbread (4.5/10)

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The classic polka-dotted bag brand, and one that we thought would be a favorite. In comparison with other buns, though, it just didn't stack up. Flavor was "pretty neutral and fine," but the real problem was in the "gritty crumb," which crumbled in a weird way when eaten on its own, and disintegrated to almost nothing when the burger was put it in. For a brand known for its soft-textured, insignificant sliced bread, its burger buns are surprisingly stiff.

Super A (4.2/10)

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Looks like going with the national brands is the way to go. Our one generic label brand dropped quickly to the bottom of the heap. "Weird, funky aftertaste," and "weird bubblegum flavor," or just plain "yuck" were used to describe its flavor, while the crust was "too chewy," and "a bit dry and thick."

Whole Foods (3.8/10)

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Once again, Whole Foods 365 brand dragged its way over the finish line in dead last place. Whatever else they do right, they just can't seem to make any decent packaged products. It is significantly taller and denser than any of the other entries, it "dwarfs the burger meat" with a full "inch and a half thick top" with a very cottony, dry texture. Some were ambivalent, claiming it to be "kinda thick and dry, but not awful," while others (namely, me) didn't mince words: "I hate this bun with a passion."

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