With Hamburgers, It’s What’s (Not) on the Inside That Counts

March 21, 2018

Earlier this month, we chatted about pea burgers—an ultra-green update on the more classic bean burger. Like most veggie burgers, these buddies came with a host of mix-ins: bread crumbs, egg, onion, scallion, garlic, mint, cheese, the kitchen sink! Not only do these ingredients bulk up and bind the vegetables, they also season and enrich. To which the peas (and beans and sweet potatoes) of the world say: thank you!

But with beef, the original burger, it gets more complicated. According to Merriam-Webster, a hamburger is: either “ground beef: a patty of ground beef” or “a sandwich consisting of a patty of hamburger in a split, typically round, bun.” So, just ground beef—that’s it? Well, that’s the question: Which side are you on?

Pro Mix-Ins

  • A few years back, we published a piece making the case for mix-ins. The cheat sheet: more flavor. “It doesn’t take much to make your burger just a little better. In fact, it’s as simple as adding one extra element,” Samantha Weiss Hills wrote. She suggested additions like bacon, pickles, fresh chorizo, cheese, and ginger.
  • In Minneapolis, the signature Juicy Lucy burger is mix-in-mandatory—American cheese, sneakily stuffed in the center. In Mississippi, a slugburger is fleshed out with bread crumbs or soybeans.
  • Hamburgers’ humble ancestors comprised more than just beef. The immigrants traveling from Hamburg, Germany, to North America ate what was then known as Hamburg steak, often extended with eggs, minced onions, and/or bread crumbs.

Anti Mix-Ins

  • As delicious as the above suggestions are, they’re not hamburgers—they’re [inset adjective here] burgers. Does bacon in a burger sound amazing? For sure. But it’s a bacon burger. A molten-cheese middle? Sign me up. But it’s a Juicy Lucy. Since burger is just an abbreviation for hamburger, they share the same definition. Which is...
  • “A patty of pure ground beef with no salt, seasonings, flavorings, or additives of any kind mixed into it,” according to J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt in The Food Lab. If salt is mixed in, he explains, the texture becomes firmer, smoother, sausage-like.
  • While the Hamburg steak included mix-ins, it was just that—Hamburg steak—not a hamburger. This contemporary word connotes something entirely different. While the history is worth knowing, it also highlights these two different terms, which indicate two different dishes.

Are you pro or anti mix-ins? Tell us why in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • 702551
  • Smaug
  • Chris
  • Seattle Shannon
    Seattle Shannon
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


702551 March 21, 2018
Already the discussion here has illustrated the divergence caused by linguistic entropy. Now the discussion topic focuses on language rather than food.

If you want to stick a slice of tomato between two cabbage leaves and call it a hamburger on a food blog, fine. More power to you, hope you strike it rich with Internet gold: a lot of Almighty Pageviews. I've given you one pageview, hope it was worth it.

If you want to market this as a commercial product to mainstream America and make lots of money for your corporation, good luck with that.

I know a lot of writers really love writing about words, especially their own (and occasionally someone else's). Especially here in the 21st century, this seems to take a greater importance than the actual topic at hand.

As readers/writers/speakers of American English, we need to accept that our language is particularly fluid.

Whether or not this particular topic would be better suited for a language blog versus a food blog is another discussion.

Smaug March 21, 2018
You can't put the genie back in the bottle, and neither can Merriam Webster. If people call it a hamburger, it's a hamburger, like it or not.
Chris March 21, 2018
i'm against food snobbery in all its forms and all the variations on "it's not chili if it's got beans" arguments are just that. "is it ground meat on a bun?" and "does it taste good?" are the only qualifying questions to ask and if the answer to both is "yes", then burger it is!

furthermore, i dare you to travel back in time and tell my grandmother that what she put in front on you (on white bread, sometimes) wasn't a burger. i will warn you, however, her kitchen utensils were known to leave permanent scars.
Smaug March 21, 2018
It's not so much a matter of snobbery as of trying to prevent linguistic entropy. A brief perusal of this site will show that chili is virtually anything reddish with some liquid in it, pizza is anything flat with some stuff on it, Key Lime Pie is any dessert with any kind of lime in it. These linguistic "expansions" are nothing of the sort, you're just losing perfectly good words by rendering them meaningless. You can't stop it, but you don't have to like it.
Seattle S. March 21, 2018
Pro! While this will undoubtedly provoke strong reactions, we recently had Martha Rose Shulman's (NYT) mushroom beef burgers. Half beef, half roasted mushroom mix, plus an egg and a little Worcestershire. Loved by all, including my veg-phobic son. It was not just, "Hmm, this is good for a not-burger."