The Food Lab: How to Make a Burger King-Style Whopper Fit for The King

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-35.jpg

A burger truly fit for The King. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

As far as the Big Three fast food burger chains go—that'd be McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King—I have a clear hierarchy in my mind. Wendy's wins by a red-haired country mile for serving burgers that actually taste like, well, burgers. McDonald's has its own unique flavor profile that keeps it afloat (when you crave a real burger, McDonald's won't do, but on the other hand, when you crave McDonald's, no other burger will either). But Burger King? I never really got Burger King.

I know, I know. Flame-broiled patties. Smoky flavor. Bigger sandwiches. Yadda yadda yadda. To me Burger King was always the weird cousin of the fast food world. Some family members—like my mom—actually enjoyed the company of that cousin while others secretly wished they would just go off and live life as a hermit.

Behold the King's Sandwich, in all its glory!

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-00.jpg

As with any time you actually look at your fast food burger in real life and compare it to the beauty shots, it's a little disappointing, right? Burger King may be the Home of the Whopper, but more often than not it looks like they accidentally placed that home on top of the Whopper before handing it over to you.

Still, Burger King is popular for a reason, and it's because it does what no other major fast food chain tries to do: Bring the flavors of an all-American backyard cookout to the drive-thru. Forget special sauces, middle buns, smashed patties, or unusual toppings. The Whopper is as 'Murican as it gets: flame-grilled beef, American cheese, tomato, onion, iceberg lettuce, and dill pickle, a dollop of mayo, a squirt of ketchup, and a sesame seed bun. There is absolutely nothing novel about the Whopper, and that's what makes it so comforting a flavor to so many people.

Sounds like the ingredients of a great sandwich to me, so I decided to recreate it, upgrading the ingredients and the technique every step along the way while still making sure that my sandwich stayed true to the spirit of the original,

The Whopper, Deconstructed

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-10.jpg

Whopper, deconstructed

To get a good idea of what's in between the buns, I ordered Whoppers in a few different configurations: with and without cheese and with and without ketchup and mayo. I took one of the condiment- and cheese-free whoppers and fully deconstructed it so I could get a look at the ingredients. Upgrading them one by one seemed like the right way to go.

Upgrade #1: The Beef

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-03.jpg

Whopper patty

A Burger King Whopper patty starts out as a four-ounce disk of frozen ground beef that gets placed on a tank tread-like conveyer belt, which carries it through a cooking device that flame-broils it on one side. This sizing is important: It was originally conceived as a way to one-up McDonalds' popular Big Mac sandwich with the promise of more meat, which in turn inspired McDonald's to retaliate with the Quarter Pounder. Sort of like the whole Beach Boys' Pet Sounds versus The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper rivalry, except way less inspired and a little bit more beefy.

I say "a little bit" because quite honestly, the meat in a Whopper sandwich may as well be named "Generic Textured Animal Protein A." There's very little beefiness to speak of, though there's plenty of singed fat and acrid smoke flavor from being licked a little too closely by gas-fueled flames.

Because the meat in a Whopper patty is so tightly packed and cooked very well done, the beef exudes protein-rich juices onto its surface that then dry up like this:

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-protein-bubbles.jpg

Up close and personal

This is a close up photo of a Whopper patty straight from the takeout window. If it looks like the surface is covered in little deflated bags of coagulated meat protein, that's because that's exactly what it is. Safe to eat? Sure. But we can do better.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-16.jpg

Better beef

It was important for me to start with the same size beef patty if I wanted to keep the overall balance of the sandwich in-line with the original Whopper, but that presented a problem to me. See, with four ounces of beef pressed into a patty slightly larger than a wide seeded bun, you end up with a thickness somewhere between a quarter- and a half-inch.

With a ripping hot flattop or griddle, you can manage to get a nice sear on a patty that size before it completely dries out, but on a grill cooking via radiation and convection? Forget about it. It's impossible to get a good sear on both sides of the patty before it turns into shoe leather (taking a bite out of a Burger King patty can confirm this for you).

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-19.jpg

Cook 90% on first side

Without a nice dark, lightly singed crust, you don't get much of that signature flame-grilled flavor, but at the same time I don't want my Whopper to be dry. What's the solution?

The trick is to cook the patty almost all the way through on a single side only (either a charcoal or gas grill on the highest heat setting will do). That way you invest most of your time in really deeply browning that side and developing its flavor.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-22.jpg

Just a kiss

By the time the first side is well charred, the burger is almost completely cooked. It only needs a little kiss of flame on the second side to finish it off. Just enough time to melt a slice of cheese (super-melty American, please!). Whoppers don't come with cheese by default, but I'm firmly convinced that's just because Burger King wants to up-sell you, not because anyone legitimately thinks a burger is better without the cheese.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-24.jpg

Cheese please

Now let's take a closer look at those toppings.

Upgrade #2: Pole-to-Pole Onions

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-04.jpg

Onion

A Whopper's onions, aside from being wan and lifeless, commit one of my cardinal burger sins: They're sliced orbitally into rings. Not only does this create a harsher onion flavor (onions should be sweet and lightly pungent companions, not stinky eye-burners), but it also creates structural instability. How many times have you bitten into a sandwich with an onion ring in it only to have the whole onion pull out like a worm, dragging other toppings and condiments along with it?

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-12.jpg

Better onion

I spent a good deal of time investigating onion application on burgers and came to the conclusion that onions thinly sliced pole-to-pole offer the best flavor and texture. That's what I'll use here.

Upgrade #3: Ripe Tomatoes

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-05.jpg

Tomato

To their credit, Burger King starts with whole tomatoes in-shop and slices them, applying two slices to each burger. Unfortunately, like most fast food tomatoes, they're mealy, commodity-grade specimens that offer nothing beyond watery flavor. This is an easy upgrade.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-13.jpg

Better tomato

I went with some fresh beefsteak tomatoes fully ripened on the vine from the farmers market. If I were making this sandwich in the winter or spring, I'd go with the absolute best vine-ripe supermarket tomato I could find, or better yet, just skip the tomatoes entirely (no tomato is better than a bad tomato)

Upgrade #4: More and Better Pickles

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-06.jpg

Pickles

I like that Burger King is relatively generous with their pickles. A full four to five slices adorned every Whopper I ordered during my research, more than twice as many as the paltry two pickles McDonald's offers you on their sandwiches. That said, the pickles could be a bit fresher and crunchier.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-14.jpg

Better pickles

I tasted my way through a few brands of pickles at the supermarket before settling on Vlasic oval hamburger chips. They have the right balance of intense salty, vinegary punch while maintaining their crispness even as you eat the sandwich. I like Total Pickle Cover (TPC) on my burgers, so I use as many as it takes to form a single, even, burger-sized layer.

Upgrade #5: Shredded Lettuce

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-07.jpg

Lettuce

If there's one single topping on the Whopper that made me scratch my head and go what were they thinking?, it's the roughly chopped iceberg lettuce. A single crisp leaf, I get. Shredded lettuce, I get. But oddly-shaped shreds that turn limp or fall out as you eat? No thanks.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-11.jpg

Better lettuce

I opted for shredded iceberg. It not only adds crunch and freshness, but also provides a good medium for absorbing burger juices as you eat. That's not important for an actual Whopper patty, but vitally important for our upgraded juicy-like-real-beef version.

Upgrade #6: The Bun

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-08.jpg

This bun is perfectly fine

I quite honestly have no problem at all with the Whopper's bun. It's soft, it's squishy, it's slightly sweet, everything a fast food-style hamburger bun should be. The only upgrade it needs is toasting on the grill instead of in a toaster.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-17.jpg

So is this one

I used these Sarah Lee seeded buns as they were the closest in size. If you live on the East Coast, I'd suggest Arnold seeded buns.

Upgrade #6: Stacking Arrangement

And now we get to my biggest gripe with the Whopper beyond the beef: the way it's stacked. A Whopper starts with beef at the bottom, then gets topped with everything else, including mayo and ketchup. You end up with a very top-heavy sandwich. This is troubling in a few ways. First, it's much less stable. Pick up the burger, and the bottom and burger patty flex a little bit under their own weight. Meanwhile, the top bun stays flat, thus loosening the sandwich's grip on its toppings. Lettuce and onions spill out onto your plate, taking along a good amount of mayo with them.

Meanwhile, those pickles that were crisp when you started? With direct contact to the top of the burger patty, they quickly turn limp and soft. In fact, all of the toppings suffer from being on top of a hot beef patty where the heat rises and wilts them.

I know they're called "toppings" and should thus go on top of a burger, but I have always very strongly contended that burgers should have bottomings, not toppings. It's one of the major contributing factors that makes In-N-Out Burger the king of West Coast fast food.

I go with this order:

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-25.jpg

Mayo underneath

In a real Whopper, ketchup is added in three small circles on top of the pickles, on top of the patty. Mayo is spread right next to the top bun. I'm not a big fan of this arrangement.

I start with some mayo and ketchup on the bottom bun (ketchup I could honestly do without, but it's part of a Whopper's profile, so it stays for now). This not only provides an instant boost in flavor and moisture by being the first thing your tongue hits after the bun, but it also forms a sort of mortar upon which to affix subsequent toppings.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-26.jpg

Bottomings, not toppings

Next go the shreddies: the lettuce and onion. Because they're so finely shredded, they easily form a tight, tangled bundle that serves to stabilize the whole sandwich while also providing a home for any juices that drip down from the tomatoes, pickles, and burger patty.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-27.jpg

Ready for the patty

Next up, the pickles and tomatoes. There's a good case to be made for putting the pickles under the lettuce and to be honest I sometimes go that route, but not this time. That final layer of tomato slices forms an elevated dais. Think of it as the throne upon which your burger king rests his (or her) loins.

Some more mayo and ketchup on the top bun to mortar it in place and we're in action.

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-35.jpg

Fit for The King

Now isn't that something? If you've ever wondered what it would be like to eat food that tastes as good as the photos they put into fast food ads, this is your chance because it's every bit as delicious as it looks. Fresh ground juicy beef with rich char-grilled flavor, toppings that are balanced and crunchy, and an overall sandwich experience that adds to rather than detracts from each individual element.

Just for point of comparison, your choices are this:

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-00.jpg

Or this:

20150728-homemade-whopper-food-lab-35.jpg

By royal decree, I now declare you official King of the Burgers. May your lands run with the juice of a thousand patties and your subjects' cheeks run with the tears of salty, beefy merriment.

Looking for more fast food de- re-constructions? Check out my guides to Building a Better Big Mac, recreating a Shack Shack Burger (a.k.a. The Fake Shack), and the ins-and-outs of an In-N-Out Double-Double Animal-Style.