You wouldn’t know it from the number of recipes and opinions out there, but the burger part of serving hamburgers is incredibly easy. If you buy freshly ground meat with a decent fat content, season well with salt, form your patties loosely, and cook on a hot pan or grill, you’ll wind up with a delicious, juicy burger every time. Many people mess with this formula, but there’s no need to.
There is room for creativity in burger cookery, though, it’s just better left to Part Two: assembly. That’s when your wildest cravings—for sauces, cheeses, spreads, mash-ups, and toppings—will serve your taste buds brilliantly. If you’re committed, build a theme: chipotle mayo, avocado, jack cheese, and black bean spread equals Mexico (for example). If your style is less regimented, add condiments as your appetite demands, aiming to balance salty with sweet and gooey with crunchy. To give your creativity room to thrive, pick at least a few of the gourmet toppings below and bring them along next time you or a friend fires up the grill for burger night.
A gourmet burger joint standby, caramelized onions are a popular pairing for a reason. They’re rich and soft, two qualities that play off the rich juiciness of your burger, but they’re also sweet, a perfect counterpoint. Make caramelized onions by slowly sautéing onions in oil or butter, stirring infrequently, for at least an hour. Salt well once they’re golden and jam-like. Make these in bulk: they keep well, so you canl have them for cookouts all summer long.
Really, you’re just carrying a pineapple to the party, which makes this a good option for last-minute invites when all you have time to do is run to the store. Cut off the top and bottom, use a paring knife to remove the skin, then cut out the core in the middle and slice into rings about 1/4-inch thick. (You can do this prepwork at home if you do plan in advance.) Right when the burgers come off the grill, plop on the pineapple slices while the meat rests and you yell out “dinner’s ready!” Flip the pineapple slices once, and by the time you’re ready to eat, the sweet-tart, slightly charred fruit should be fit to top your burger.
One of the reasons that take-out burgers taste so good is that short-order cooks are much less stingy with the mayo than home cooks tend to be. Don’t skimp on the best-ever condiment, and as long as you’re game, ramp the spread up with spice and umami by adding in the neighborhood of 3 tablespoons of soy sauce and 3 teaspoons of sriracha to 1 cup of mayo and stirring everything together. Adjust the spiciness level as you see fit by ratcheting up the mayo or sriracha amounts.
The smoky heat of chipotle is a natural fit for the tangy sweetness of ketchup—already a burger’s natural ally. Even better news is that chipotle seems mysterious even if you’ve had it many times before, so if all you do is stir together some chopped up chipotles and some of the adobo sauce from the can with a big pour of ketchup, your condiment will establish you as a true master of flavor.
This rich Greek cucumber-and-yogurt dip might look mild, but tons of freshly grated garlic make it piquant enough to partner with your meat. For presentation’s sake, use well-drained full-fat yogurt and finely grated cucumber, in addition to the garlic and some dried or fresh mint, so that the spread doesn’t slide off the bun. To remain in the Mediterranean, put fresh tomatoes and onions on your burger and top the pile off with feta.
Black Bean Spread & Avocado
Making black bean spread is as easy as combining a can of black beans, some chili powder, lime juice, and a drizzle of oil in the food processor until smooth. But the dip has an outsize effect on your burger, turning it from a simple sandwich into a gourmet torta, and adding filling bulk if one patty just isn’t enough. Spread the bottom half of the bun with the black bean spread, add the burger, and then bring along some avocado to slice on top.
The garlic equivalent of caramelized onions, garlic confit is the result of slowly cooking cloves in a lot of oil, at a low temperature (300°F, covered, for an hour), until they are soft and just barely golden. When the timer beeps, all the sharpness of raw garlic will be gone; in its place you’ll discover a caramel-like sweetness and melt-in-your mouth texture. Smash the cooked cloves, season them with salt and thyme, and mash them onto your burger bun.
Blue Cheese Spread
The ingredient list is going to sound crazily indulgent, but when you put just a smear on your burger and the taste hits your tongue, you won’t remember that you combined a quarter pound each of crumbled blue cheese and cream cheese with ¾ cup of cream (as in this Bon Appetit recipe) to make this divine spread. Use any extras as a dip for chips and veggies. You can also vary the recipe with feta or goat cheese in place of the blue.
One more gourmet topping for the lazy guest: potato chips. This condiment’s value lies in the sheer genius of knowing that a potato chip on the burger is worth 10 on the side. Astound acquaintances with this knowledge, then go further by showing that if you crumble the chips slightly and stick them on the cheese right as it melts, your crispy, salty topping won’t fall off the burger when you eat. If you have a favorite brand or flavor of chips, call them your specialty.
Burger chain Shake Shack may have invented this everything-but-the-kitchen sink condiment, but you can recreate the addictive sauce at home. If you’ve taken a bite and thought, this tastes reminiscent of all the classic toppings—mayo, mustard, ketchup, and relish—you won’t be surprised that the ingredient list includes portions of each. Serious Eats has a good recreation; try using grated fresh garlic instead of garlic powder to push the sauce over into ranch dressing territory.
Fancy French chefs often flavor food with what’s known as a compound butter—softened butter with herbs and seasonings mixed in. Like mayo, plain butter adds a lusciousness to your burger that you can’t quite place. Once you add herbs, you’ll find yourself enjoying a hit of freshness, too. Try one of these flavor combinations in your herb butters: chive, lemon zest, and green peppercorns; tarragon, parsley, and marjoram; or mint, basil, and lime zest.
There’s nothing more on trend than showing up with a glass jar of vegetables you pickled yourself, and on grill night this offering is especially useful, since the sourness and crunchiness of most pickles greatly behooves a burger. Choose sweet slices of bread-and-butter pickles, or bathe whole cucumbers in brine for traditional dill pickles. Shallot rings and jalapeno slices are delicious too, and a welcome change from cukes. If you don’t have time to DIY, seek out a local pickle maker: there are many small vendors these days.
Slow-roasted peppers add color and sweetness to your burger. Pick up a variety of colored bell peppers, cut them into strips, toss with olive oil, and roast them at around 300°F for an hour or two, until meltingly soft. Add a few hot peppers to the mix to heighten the character of the dish. When you pair these peppers with burgers, consider combining them with the blue cheese spread or garlic confit for a savory result.