Key to a stellar hamburger is as simple as flavorful toppings

  • From caramelized onions to marinara to pub cheese, learn how to recreate toppings guaranteed to amp up the flavor of your burgers using recipes in today’s feature. TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Published: 5/29/2018 6:04:32 PM

Anyone can make a hamburger, and they all taste pretty much the same. Now that grilling season is officially here, the ground beef will be hitting the grill. So how can you make yours stand out?

Here’s a mantra to remember: It isn’t the burger, it’s what you put on top of it. A hamburger is just a hamburger, but a bacon-cheeseburger is an event.

The right toppings can be transformative; they are like the perfect diamond broach on a simple black dress. They are like the chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry on top of a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The best hamburger I think I’ve ever had was at the Deluxe Burger Bar, in College Station, Texas. The hamburger itself was fine — it was a hamburger, and they all taste pretty much the same — but the toppings were superb. It was called a Fiesta Burger, or some such, and it was topped with guacamole, salsa and maybe slices of jalapeno.

With the Fiesta Burger, or whatever it was called, as my guide, I set out to create a burger bar of my own. I whipped up a whole bunch of things that go great on top of a hamburger, with the idea of setting them all (or at least some of them) out for my next grilling party.

But first, I wanted to avoid the obvious. No ketchup, no mustard, nothing out of a bottle that is specifically meant to go on top of a hamburger.

That said, I did use one sauce that came directly from a jar. Gochujang is a hot and subtly sweet Korean sauce made from fermented red chiles and fermented soybeans. It is best known to Americans as the paste in Korean favorite bibimbap that underlies and unifies the diverse flavors in the dish.

If my nose for trends is accurate, and it usually isn’t, gochujang will be the next sriracha — suddenly ubiquitous. It goes well with many things, such as stews, braises and soups, and it happens to be an exceptional accompaniment to hamburgers.

I also used ingredients from jars exclusively in another topping that is every bit as good with hamburger as gochujang. Horseradish-mustard sauce is a simple but unbeatable combination of two parts of mayonnaise with one part each of Dijon mustard and prepared horseradish.

The sauce was invented a few decades ago by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, who are still known as the Too Hot Tamales. The sauce has been featured on these pages before (as have several of the other toppings), but I mention it again because it is so spectacularly piquant and good with hamburgers.

A quick marinara sauce may seem like an unusual topping, or at least I hope it does, but it makes perfect sense — and it’s terrific. You can make the sauce in less than an hour, and it adds a rich, tomato tartness to the meat. Consider it a less-sweet form of ketchup or, better still, you can think of the burger as a large, flat meatball topped with an Italian tomato sauce. It works wonderfully.

Staying in Italy for the moment, I also had great success with a green sauce, a salsa verde. This bright-edged sauce is fast to make — because you don’t cook it — and is bursting with flavor from parsley, chives, mint, capers, anchovies, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. It is a natural companion to any grilled beef, and what is a hamburger if not grilled beef?

A similar sauce, chimichurri, comes from South America, and is even faster to make (though it does require some refrigeration once it is put together). Also great with any grilled beef, it builds on a base of parsley and cilantro with garlic and a chile pepper, plus olive oil and red wine vinegar.

The put-a-fried-egg-on-top-of-everything fad has, thankfully, faded away. But people were topping hamburgers with fried eggs before the fad ever started (maybe that’s even how it started) and they are still doing it now. It is the hamburger version of steak and eggs, and you just can’t beat the flavor when the bright yellow yolk runs down the side of the burger.

Just about everybody has had a cheeseburger, of course, but I wanted to try a hamburger with a very special kind of cheese, a pub cheese. Though it is made from cheddar and cream cheeses, pub cheese is more of a spread than a cheese because of its (not so) secret ingredient: beer.

Pub cheese on a hamburger tasted exactly as I’d hoped it would. It tasted like a cheeseburger with beer. And is there anything better than a cheeseburger with beer?

Blue cheese is often put on burgers to make a sophisticated cheeseburger, but a lot of places use too much; the pungent blue cheese almost drowns out the taste of the meat.

So I decided to swipe an idea from steakhouses: I used blue cheese butter. By mashing blue cheese together with butter, you get a spread that tempers the power of the cheese while spreading it easily and evenly over the burger patty.

Tzatziki was just as successful on a hamburger. A light and creamy yogurt-based sauce from Greece, with plenty of cucumber and dill, tzatziki trills with shining high notes that make a marvelously good counterpoint to the stolid meatiness of the burger..

Onions are used fairly universally on hamburgers, but few people take the trouble to make them the restaurant way. Rather than serving a raw and astringent slice of onion, you can top a burger with the rich, sweet and intensely mellow flavor of caramelized onions. All it takes is a little bit of oil and perhaps a half-hour of your time. Other than a few occasional stirs, you can go do something else while your onions are slowly transforming into something sublime.



1 cucumber about 12 inches long, peeled

½ tsp. kosher salt

1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt, see note

1 garlic clove, minced

½ tsp. dried dill or ½ T fresh dill, chopped

½ T extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp. red wine vinegar

Note: For best results, use full-fat (whole milk) Greek yogurt. Two percent fat is acceptable, but do not use nonfat yogurt.

Grate the cucumber into a mesh strainer. Sprinkle with salt and let sit in the sink or in a bowl to sweat out the moisture for 30 minutes. Squeeze out as much of the remaining moisture as you can with paper towels.

In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, dill, olive oil and vinegar. Add the strained cucumber and stir until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Store in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours to allow the flavors to combine.

Caramelized onions


1 T olive oil

1 onion, sliced thin


Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat. Add onions and season with salt to taste. Cook slowly, stirring frequently, until onions turn a rich amber color. This may take 30 minutes.

Pub cheese


14 oz. cheddar cheese, preferably Irish

4 oz. cream cheese

½ cup mild beer, such as lager

1 garlic clove

1½ tsp. ground mustard

1 tsp. paprika

Break the cheddar into chunks and place in food processor. Pulse to break the cheddar into small pieces. Add the rest of the ingredients and puree until completely smooth. Scrape down the sides and puree again, if needed.



1 garlic clove

1 red chile

1 small bunch cilantro

1 small bunch parsley

3 tsp. red wine vinegar

2 T olive oil

Place garlic, chile, cilantro, parsley and red wine vinegar in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add oil and process again. Season to taste and refrigerate until serving.

Easy guacamole


2 ripe avocados, peeled and seeded

½ small red onion, finely diced

¼ tsp. garlic powder

2 T chopped cilantro

¼ tsp. salt, or to taste

Pepper, to taste

Juice of ½ lime

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mash together with a fork until thoroughly mixed and it is the texture you want.

Marinara sauce


½ T olive oil

1 T chopped onion

1 (14.5-oz.) can whole tomatoes

Pinch of dried oregano


Heat oil in a small pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until soft, three to five minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice and the oregano, using a potato masher or a large spoon to crush the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, lower heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until it forms a thick sauce, 45 to 50 minutes. Salt to taste.

Blue cheese butter


4 T salted butter, softened

1 ½ tsp. blue cheese, crumbled

Mash butter and cheese together with a fork. Refrigerate before serving.

Salsa verde


1 small bunch parsley

1 small bunch chives

1 small bunch mint

1 tsp. capers

2 to 3 chopped anchovy fillets

1 garlic clove, crushed

Juice of 1 lemon

3 T olive oil


Chop the parsley, chives and mint, and mix in a bowl with the other ingredients. Season to taste.

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