Traditional or Not, There's Technique at the Heart of Teriyaki Burgers

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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A juicy burger glazed in sweet and savory teriyaki sauce. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

I haven't told my mom I've been working on a recipe for teriyaki burgers, but if I did, I'd probably get the same reaction as if I told her I was practicing how to yodel naked while sitting in a bathtub full of mayonnaise. A sort of puzzled well, that's interesting, but why would you ever want to do a thing like that? stare. See, even though stateside you're most likely to see teriyaki sauce—a sweet and savory sauce made with soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar—in the context of grilled chicken or beef, in Japan it's traditionally used to glaze fish and other seafood.

Of course, that doesn't mean that it doesn't go well with hamburgers. It does. Spectacularly so, in fact. So well that even McDonald's serves up a Teriyaki Burger on its Japanese menu from time to time.

But, as I quickly discovered, you can't just go to the store, buy a bottle of sauce, and start dousing your burger in it willy-nilly. You'll end up with burnt, acrid-tasting sauce, or sauce that just runs off the burger into the grill or, worse, soaks into your bun until it disintegrates.

There's technique at the heart of a good teriyaki burger. Here's how I made mine.

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My first step was to ditch the store-bought sauce. Most sauces labeled "teriyaki" in Western supermarkets are not much more than thin, sweetened soy sauce, often with way too many added flavors, like garlic, ginger, or sesame. A real teriyaki sauce is a much simpler affair that relies on slow cooking and reduction to thicken into a glossy, shiny, flavor-packed glaze. Our homemade version is a fantastic place to start and takes only 20 minutes.

I also gathered up a few other ingredients that would pair well with the flavors of teriyaki. I don't know where folks got the idea that teriyaki-style burgers always need to have pineapple on them, but I personally find pineapple to be too sweet when combined with an already-sweet glaze. Instead, I went with contrasting flavors. Thinly sliced scallions were an obvious choice, as was crunchy fresh cabbage. To season the burger patties before cooking (I used fresh ground chuck), I applied a combination of salt and shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seven-spice blend with chilies, sesame, and dried orange zest.

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Next up, I grilled the burgers over high heat, flipping them several times in the process for faster, more even cooking. Note: I did not apply the teriyaki sauce right from the beginning, which would have caused its sugars to burn over the high heat of the grill.

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Only after the burger was close to its final serving temperature did I start brushing with the sauce. I brushed my burgers when they hit 110°F as measured with an instant-read thermometer. That way, by the time I applied another few layers of glaze, they'd hit 120°F and continued to rise to around 125 or 130°F after they'd come off the grill. They ended up perfectly medium rare.

One of the keys to great teriyaki flavor is layering the sauce. It's just like layering paint on a wall. In a Japanese teriyaki fish or eel house, the cooks will dip or brush the meat in sauce a half dozen or more times as it cooks. I wanted to do something similar with my burgers, so I brushed them at least three times while they were still on the grill.

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As soon as a burger came off, I transferred it to a bed of scallions.

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Then I brushed it with more sauce, flipped, brushed, and repeated the process a few times until I had a nice, glossy glaze built up over the burger.

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Here's the patty, coated with scallions and sauce.

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Next, I brushed a toasted burger bun with mayo. I went with Japanese-style Kewpie mayo for this burger, which seemed appropriate. (You can also make your own Japanese mayo using our recipe.)

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I topped it with some shredded cabbage...

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...followed by the burger patty. Of course, I added one more layer of sauce before topping with more cabbage and closing the sandwich.

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And there it is. Deeply flavorful with smoke from the grill and layers of sweet and savory glaze, this is one of my favorite burgers of the summer so far.

Actually, I should say that it was one of my favorites, because it disappeared within seconds of taking these photos. And no, Mom, you can't have any.