Weeknight Cooking

Building the Perfect Cheeseburger

April  2, 2015

You know you love your great aunt's banana bread, but you probably don't know why you do. In Modern ComfortAshley Rodriguez from Not Without Salt figures out what makes our favorite classics work, and then makes them even better. 

Today: How to make the perfect cheeseburger, from bun to beef and everything in between.

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One of the most common questions asked to those of us who love food is, "What would you choose for your last meal?" My answer is always the same: a classic cheeseburger, crisp fries, and a bittersweet chocolate shake

So you can imagine that when it comes to a classic cheeseburger, I have opinions—strong ones, in fact.  

First, the bun. It should be soft, and sesame seeds are okay but not necessary. What I don’t want is to have a battle with my bread. This usually means there is butter and egg involved in the dough to make it tender. At the store I look for a potato or brioche bun. (Of course I’m never opposed to a homemade bun either.)

The patty itself is important, very much so, but I don’t put as much emphasis on the meat as others may. My perfect burger is just as much about the fixings as the meat, so I’m not concerned with grinding my own. I do seek out meat with a good bit of fat (15 to 20%). I season it simply with salt and pepper and then I add even more fat and flavor by grating in cold butter. The garlic, onion, and spices often found in burger recipes tend to take away from the natural flavor of the beef, but the addition of butter is really key. When the cold, thinly grated butter hits a screaming hot griddle, its steam creates pockets that tenderize and season the beef in a way that you’ll really appreciate when you bite in. 

A grill is the classic way to cook a burger, of course, but I find that my cast-iron pan creates a thick, deeply caramelized crust on the meat while the interior stays juicy and pink. Bacon is highly encouraged but not necessary. If it does make it onto your burger, just be sure it's very crisp

My cheese of choice has always been a bit controversial. You see, I’m a fan of American cheese on a classic burger. I love how easily it melts both onto and into the burger, adding a soft creaminess without stealing the show. 

I’ve now found my own combination for the perfect creamy, easy melting burger cheese. I blend sharp cheddar and Fontina with a bit of mayonnaise to create a rich, tangy sauce that melts and softens the moment it hits the hot patty. You can use whichever cheese you prefer, but I find that this mixture adds the right amount of sharpness without being overpowering.

A few more things to note about my burger: Special sauce belongs on both sides of the bun; the lettuce is iceberg and must be cold and crisp; dill pickles and thinly sliced yellow onion add a biting, raw heat; and when the season is right, I slap on a thick slice of tomato. When tomatoes are not at their peak, I roast thick slices in a 400° F oven for 30 minutes (flipping halfway through roasting), until they are sweet, caramelized, and reminiscent of a fine ketchup. 

If you have similarly strong opinions on the subject of a classic cheeseburger, I suggest you start preheating your cast-iron now—you are going to love this rendition. 

My Classic Burger with Special Sauce

Serves 4

For the beef patties:

8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, divided
1 pound 12 ounces ground beef (15 to 20% fat)
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 soft burger buns
4 small, inner iceberg lettuce leaves
4 tomato slices (fresh or roasted)
Crisp bacon slices, for topping
4 yellow onion slices
Thinly sliced dill pickles, for topping

For the cheese sauce:

8 ounces cheese (I use a mix of Beecher’s Sharp Cheddar and Fontina), cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 cup (60 grams) mayonnaise

For the special sauce:

2 tablespoons dill relish
2 teaspoons yellow mustard 
1⁄3 cup (80 grams) mayonnaise
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons ketchup
1⁄2 teaspoon soy sauce
1⁄2 teaspoon honey

See the full recipe (and save and print it here)

All photos by Ashley Rodriguez

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Author of Date Night In (2015) and creator of the blog, Not Without Salt.


Phyllis G. April 8, 2015
yes yes yes yes to all of it
frizz April 5, 2015
I seem to be accidentally following you around the internet, Ashley! I see your pictures and recipes only to find out later that the common thread is you. Looking forward to trying this burger on a warm Seattle day.
Cynthia C. April 2, 2015
Total perfection.
Alexandra P. April 2, 2015
This is brilliant in every way.
Dan May 15, 2015
Cooper sharp American cheese is tasty, with more zing than regular American.