The Burger Lab: How To Make The Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger
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What is it dear? I'm arranging bacon, I said to my wife, with a sort of this-had-better-be-important tone.
At least that's the scenario that played in my mind last week when I spent several days in a row playing with bacon. My wife doesn't often visit me in the office, which may be a good thing, as it'd be slightly awkward for me to explain to her exactly why I'm doing things with my cured smoked pork belly that I didn't even start doing with her until after the fourth real date.
If there is one universal culinary truth, it's that bacon is easy, which probably explains why I don't often order it on my burger. It takes the fun and the challenge out of the whole thing. Pretty much any burger's gonna taste good with a pile of crisp bacon on top of it, right? Well today we're throwing decency to the wind.
I don't often eat bacon on my burgers, but when I do, I want them to be the baconiest bacon burgers I can eat.
Before we jump in, let's get one thing straight: I want a bacon cheeseburger, which means a hamburger patty made of ground beef, with bacon used as a flavoring. You can make a sandwich that is pure bacon overload excess, and I've already done that very thing with my Bacon Attack! burger back in 2009 (a ground bacon patty served with bacon and bacon fat mayonnaise on a bacon fat and bacon-studded bacon bun). But today, we're going for that familiarly delicious beef-bacon interplay. Capice?
This recent bacon cheeseburger binge started all because of a simple question posed on Reddit:
this has been something that has been mildly infuriating to me, but I have noticed that most restaurants that I have been to tend to place their bacon in an X on top of the meat instead of placing the bacon strips parallel to each other to get more coverage.
Is this purely for aesthetic reasons? is this something that is widely taught in culinary school as the "proper way." It just seems like it would make more sense to put the strips parallel so you can get more bacon per bite.
Legit question, right? Even better was the top response, which explained a completely novel way of arranging bacon by essentially forming each slice into a triangle before you cook it, adding stability and improved coverage to the mix.
Ideas that sound great don't always work out so well in real life,* so I considered it my ethical duty as a man of science to cook bacon cheeseburgers at the office the next day for some serious testing. I made a half dozen burgers, using bacon arranged in different shapes to try and find the best balance of structure and stability. All bacon was cooked in the oven (the best way to cook bacon (with runner-up status going to the microwave)).
*Which is how I ended up with a bag full of feathers, a set of hedge clippers, and an industrial-sized tub of rubber cement in my closet. Different story for a different day.
Formation 1: X Marks The Spot
The arrangement of choice for mid-range fast casual and chain restaurants that serve large burgers.
Ease of Construction: Super simple.
Coverage: Poor. The bacon covers only a strip of each quadrant, leaving many bites bacon-less around the edges.
Stability: Fair. The bacon pieces will generally stay in place, but if you bite at the wrong angle or the bacon is a little tough, you run the risk of pulling out a whole slice lengthwise, further compromising the stability of the burger.
If you want to get extra fancy and fix up some of the coverage issues, adding an extra "X" at a 45-degree angle to the first can help:
But then the issue becomes that four-slice-thick intersection at the middle that completely throws off the burger.
This one's a pass.
Formation 2: Three In a Row
Three shorter slices of bacon arranged side-by-side. You find this arrangement most commonly on fast food burgers. At least in their press photos. For a look at what they usually look like when you actually order them as a civilian, take a gander at this sad sight here.
Ease of Construction: Simple
Coverage: Good, at least at the start. The side-by-side arrangement has a habit of slipping around.
Stability: Poor. Side-by-side bacon often pulls out when you bite into the burger, or slides out the sides. It's a hefty price to pay for more even coverage.
We'll skip this guy too.
Formation 3: The Triforce of Power
This is the one I saw on Reddit. The idea is that you fold the bacon into triangles before cooking so that they retain that shape when they're done. While the original poster recommends going with three slices of bacon per burger, I find that stacking these triangles becomes too bulky. Instead, arranging two into a butterfly wing-shaped pattern and overlapping them in the center works better.
Ease of Construction: A bit of a pain having to individually shape each slice and if you are cooking them on a sheet tray, each individual slice takes up a lot of space, making it difficult to cook enough for more than a few burgers at a time.
Coverage: Excellent. Even and wide.
Stability: Moderate to good. If the bacon is crisp, it has a tendency to break easily at the creases, increasing likelihood that it will fall out the sides or put pressure on other toppings.
A strong candidate, but not the absolute best.
Formation 4: The Weave
I'm not sure where the bacon weave originated, but I first saw it in an episode of Epic Meal Time. It's essentially a quilted blanket of bacon that can be used to wrap other foods. I made a bacon weave, cooked it, and cut it to fit my burger.
Ease of Construction: Challenging. At least the first time. Once you get the hang of the folding and placing (see the step-by-step slideshow here!), it becomes pretty simple.
Coverage: Excellent. Every square inch of burger it covered by an even double layer of bacon.
Stability: Excellent. The interwoven pattern keeps the bacon firmly in place even as you bite your way through the burger.
Bacon weave it is, and a 12-strip weave was just about perfect. By cooking the strips into a six- by six-strip square, I could then cut it up into four quadrants that fit nearly perfectly on top of a burger, with only the edges hanging out. You can trim those edges down to the exact size of the patty, but I've never met anyone who would complain about crisp bacon edges hanging out of their burger.
My go-to burger style tends to be a relatively small-ish ball of beef (say, three or four ounces max) cooked smashed style in cast iron so as to maximize that flavorful surface browning. But with a bacon cheeseburger, I need a bit more heft to my beef so that it doesn't get completely overwhelmed by the bacon.
In this case I settled for six-ounce patties (which I of course formed with a small dimple in the center so that they cook up flat). You can grill the patties if you want, but we've got a better cooking medium right on hand. Check it out:
One thing you'll notice when cooking a bacon weave (other than the fact that the dogs will hang out closer to the kitchen) is the amount of fat it gives off as it cooks. My goal is to use that fat in as many useful ways as possible, starting with searing the burger patties in it.
You may have heard that burgers and steaks should only be flipped once during cooking. You may have also heard me calling it out as the total B.S. that it is. Fact is, flipping patties every 20 to 30 seconds allows you to cook them in about a third of the time, with the same level of crust formation, and a more evenly cooked center to boot.
We've gone and got ourselves double bacon flavor in there so far—bacon weave and bacon sear. What else can we work in? Bun toasting seems like an obvious next step.
I tried cooking some good Martin's Potato Rolls in a skillet with bacon grease, but in the end I found it much easier to get even toasting by brushing the rendered bacon fat on and finishing the buns under the broiler for even browning.
The next obvious step: sauce. It's possible to make real mayonnaise out of rendered bacon fat by cutting it with a bit vegetable or canola oil and emulsifying it with egg yolks just like a standard mayo, but the results are pretty heavy in texture and flavor, to say the least. A dab of bacon fat mayo quickly took my burgers back into the realm of too much bacon.*
*It's a realm that many would not believe exists, or perhaps think exists only as a concept, but I can assure you that it is all too real a place.
Instead, I decided to add bacon fat to a Thousand Island-style special sauce that I mixed up with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, sweet pickle relish, and a whole lot of black pepper. The sweet and tangy sauce works well with such a large, heavy burger, and with the bacon, keeping the bacon's flavor present but not overpowering.
For these particular burgers, I actually made my own melty cheese slices with a sharp cheddar base. It's an easier process than you'd might think, and it results in cheese that tastes like cheddar (or whatever you start with!) but melts like American. Neat, right?
Of course, regular old American Singles will do you just fine if that's the route you want to go.
With that step I figured I was done, until I glanced down at what was leftover in the cast iron skillet I'd been browning my burger patties in: a whole lot of flavorful bacon and beef drippings. It'd be a shame to waste 'em, so I did the only logical thing: I added onions.*
*There are only three things in life I can think of that onions don't improve. I'm married to one of them.
Because there are already so many nicely browned bits coating the bottom of the skillet, the onions will pick up color and flavor in record time—just about the length of time it takes for your burgers to rest properly and for the buns to toast under the broiler.
With all the toppings in place, construction is a simple matter of putting things together. From the bottom up, we've got:
- Bacon fat-toasted bottom bun.
- Bacon-ized special sauce.
- Dill pickle slices (because pickles).
- Bacon-seared burger patty.
- Melty Cheddar cheese slice.
- Bacon fat-caramelized onions.
- Bacon weave square.
- Bacon-ized special sauce.
- Bacon fat-toasted top bun.
It sounds like an awful lot of bacon, but in the end, the flavor comes off as quite balanced—each mouthful comes across as primarily beefy, with the sweet onions and tangy sauce playing nicely with the salty meat and gooey cheese before the layers of bacon flavor start to slowly kick in with their sweet smoky flavor. Altogether quite enjoyable, if I do say so myself.
Now I just need an excuse for those nights when my wife catches that whiff of bacon on my collar. I've told her that I started buying cured pork-scented air freshener, but I think she might be onto me.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.