Now that summer is officially upon us, the neighborhood has been awaft with the smoky, telltale aromas of the great American grill.  It’s just June and I’ve already feasted upon a cornucopia of exquisitely grilled meats and vegetables.

When making my weekly grocery list the other day I realized I was thinking way outside the box; listing ingredients for complex and time consuming summer recipes, and wondered how (for months) I’d skipped over the quintessential entrée for grilling: the hamburger.

I tried to recall the last time I’d had a really good homemade burger and didn’t come up with much*.  It seems that we go to burgers when feeding the masses (kids’ birthday parties, July 4th picnics, etc.), which often means preformed commercial patties cooked hard enough to break a neighbor’s window, slapped on a cold bun and a buffet of condiments.  Blech.

“A cheeseburger isn’t any good unless it’s running down your elbow.” – Rhett Riley, my eighth grade South Carolina history teacher.

I learned the anatomy of the perfect burger in my college years working at a beloved little country honky-tonk.  The owner, who was as serious about filling his own belly as he was about filling the bar, had the grace to buy only the best ingredients and instruct me, very specifically, how to assemble the perfect cheeseburger.  I submit to you, the following is the only way to assemble a cheeseburger and if you don’t like yours all-the-way, then eat something else because it’s the combination of these specific, basic ingredients that makes the perfect burger.

The Bun – The bun has to be wide and fresh.  I like the plain ones best but the poppy seed and sesame seed varieties are pretty good too.  Check out your bakery for artisan buns that look good to you.  The bun should be heated on the grill or griddle until it just starts to brown, then placed in an airtight container (or the bag that it came in) to self steam.

The Veggies – The onion and tomato should be thinly sliced at about ¼ inch thickness.  The lettuce should be shredded as well but a little thicker at about ½ inch.  Getting this right is important.  If the veggies are sliced too thickly, the burger will be unmanageable.

The Condiments – Mayonnaise, not salad dressing should be used.  Also, plain yellow mustard and thinly sliced dill pickle chips.

The Cheese – Some may argue with me on this, but American cheese makes the best cheese burger.  It melts smoothly and packs a nice salty taste while keeping a creamy texture.  The cheese goes on the burger the minute it’s taken off the grill but do NOT put it in the bun yet (that makes it almost impossible to assemble properly)

The Beef – I’ve found that an 80/20 meat/fat ratio is best and only buy ground chuck or sirloin.  Trying to go leaner than that results in a very dry, bland burger.  I season my meat very basically using salt and pepper and sometimes a little Worcestershire and garlic powder.  Cook over high heat until desired doneness.

That’s not to say that I don’t like more creative or alternative combinations for burgers, but as for the basic American Cheeseburger, the above is fool-proof.

About a year or so ago my sister-in-law dumbfounded me with a lamb burger that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.  This is a burger made of a grilled ground lamb patty assembled with feta, store-bought tzatziki, onions and tomatoes.

A great way to serve burgers at a cook-out without falling into the hockey puck assembly line trap is to create a burger bar.  Cook the burgers, adding a variety of cheeses to some (blue cheese, cheddar, pepper jack, swiss, etc.) and place in a large, lidded pan.

Create a bar that includes everything under the sun anyone could ever want on a burger: tomatoes, fresh spinach, a variety of lettuce, sliced onions, chili, salsa, bacon, hot peppers, relish, guacamole, spicy mustard, coleslaw, grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, ketchup, yellow mustard, pimento cheese, barbeque sauce, French fried onions, etc.  Provide an assortment of bread: ciabatta buns, onion rolls, sliced French loaves, Texas toast, whole wheat buns, etc.

Make placards with serving suggestions like:

  • Cowboy Burger – Texas toast, chili, jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, guacamole and salsa!
  • Beef & Blue – French bread, blue cheese, grilled onions and tomato!
  • Carolina Burger – Onion roll, coleslaw, barbeque sauce, cheddar and French fried onions!

OK, now I’ll sit back and wait for the assault of comments and emails where you let me know that I don’t know squat about building a burger and you tell me how it’s done!

*the exception being at Emma Belle’s first birthday party.  Seriously, Katy and Chisolm, those were some kick-ass, perfectly seasoned and cooked burgers.

Mandy Richburg Rivers

Mandy Richburg Rivers

Mandy lives in Lexington, South Carolina, is a contributing writer for the Food & Drink section and is currently working on her first cookbook. Mandy is an award winning recipe writer and judges regional cook-offs and other culinary contests.

“I'm just a gal that likes food. Of course I like to eat, but what I've discovered about myself over the years is that there are more ways for me to enjoy food than just eating it. I like to shop for it, read about it, cook it, entertain with it and write about it. And when it's really good, sometimes I'm tempted to throw it on the floor and roll in it."