Here's a challenge for you: Try to define "breakfast burrito" without resorting to the tautology that it's a burrito one eats for breakfast. At this point, at least a few of you—perhaps many—are shouting out, "It's the eggs that make it a breakfast burrito, stupid!" And I'd generally agree that you're right. But tell me: If someone rolled home fries and sausage in a flour tortilla, left out the eggs, and ate it as their first meal of the day, would you deny that they're eating a breakfast burrito? Or what if they used eggs but replaced the potatoes and sausage with refrieds and chorizo?
I'm being a little ridiculous, I know. My point isn't that there's no such thing as a breakfast burrito—I think we'd all agree eggs and other items from the American breakfast table are key, along with components that nod to Southwestern/Tex-Mex/Mexican flavors—but rather that it's a culinary form with incredible range.
That's a good thing, because it means a breakfast burrito is a choose-your-own-adventure of comfort and flavor, and the possibilities are vast. But while I suppose one could roll some pancakes in a flour tortilla (or maybe better, roll some eggs inside a giant pancake) and dub it both "breakfast" and "burrito," there are some helpful guidelines that, when followed —or broken with intent—will generally lead to a better breakfast burrito.
Here's how to build yours.
The Breakfast Burrito Breakdown
As I've already set out, I don't think there are many ingredients that absolutely must be in a breakfast burrito for it to qualify as such, but some, like the eggs, are almost always going to be there. Beyond that, there are what I think of as classes of components, each delivering important characteristics to the final roll. Note, though, that some ingredients and components can do double duty: avocado and sour cream can each be both creamy and cooling, while beans and some potato preparations can be both creamy and carby.
If there's one ingredient I'd most expect in a breakfast burrito, it's eggs, and those eggs would almost always be scrambled. Could you use fried eggs instead? It wouldn't be my first choice, but I'm rarely one to say never.
If you do go the standard route with scrambled eggs, make sure to follow our rules for scrambling, including pre-salting them and giving the salt adequate time to work its magic. The magic, if you're curious, is that salt acts as a buffer between egg proteins, preventing them from linking as tightly during cooking—this reduces the chances of weeping, which happens when the proteins bond so tightly that they squeeze water out, leaving you with dry, rubbery scrambled eggs sitting in a puddle of watery egg solution. Not what we want for a breakfast burrito.
A breakfast burrito isn't complete without a filling with carbs of some form, but there are plenty of options to choose from. Potatoes and beans are the two most obvious choices in a breakfast burrito, though rice can work, too.
Within the world of potatoes, you can use home fries, hash browns, tater tots, even French fries or mashed potatoes. Each will deliver a different texture and consistency, some adding more moisture, others crunch.
Note that when I added home fries to my bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast burrito, I decided to skip our recommended technique of par-cooking the potatoes in vinegar water first. That method ensures the potato pieces remain firm and crispy; I generally agree that this is a desirable quality for home fries or a potato hash, but in my burrito I wanted the spuds to get a little softer and squishier, so they could get friendly with the other ingredients around them.
Beans can be stewed until very tender but kept whole, or mashed in the style of refrieds—you have lots of choices here, too, both in terms of types of beans and flavorings to choose from (refrieds, for example, are often enriched with lard, but oil or butter can work, too).
Meat is a common addition in a breakfast burrito, but it's hardly required. For those who want meat, fresh Mexican chorizo, breakfast sausage, bacon, and sliced steak are all good options. (I also wouldn't say no to corned beef in my hash.) And I'd get even more excited if the meat was some kind of guisado or taco filling like carnitas, lengua, or carne asada.
One thing to be careful about with meat is to avoid the pull, in which your teeth grab hold of a strip of meat and, instead of biting through it, pull it along with half the burrito fillings out. The solution is easy: Cut your meat into small pieces.
Creamy, Rich Things
One of the key elements of a good breakfast burrito is moisture and richness in the form of creamy, fatty condiments. Some other burrito components can deliver this in hot form, like softly scrambled eggs, melted cheese, silky potatoes, and tender beans, but the rest tend to be cold. Think: sour cream, crema, guacamole, or mashed or sliced avocado.
Not only do these components add moisture and richness, they can also act as a counterpoint to any hot and spicy ingredients you add to the filling. You can use any number of these components, by themselves or in combination, to achieve the effect you want.
Melted cheese could just be filed under "creamy and rich" but it's enough of its own thing to warrant its own entry. Mostly what you want here is a good melter, like Cheddar, Pepper Jack, or a meltable queso blanco, but you could also sprinkle some cotija in a burrito for its flavor or spoon a layer of queso fundido into the burrito for a more intense cheese-sauce effect.
There are at least a couple ways to incorporate cheese into your burrito. You could melt it, either thinly sliced or shredded, on the tortilla as you warm it, then layer the other ingredients on top. Or you can melt the cheese into the eggs as they finish cooking. What's important is that the cheese gets some heat so that it's guaranteed to melt. Shreds of unmelted cheese in a burrito are, to me, a fatal flaw.
Cooling, Fresh Things
With so much richness in your average breakfast burrito, it's important to balance it with ingredients that bring a cooling freshness. There are tons of options here, from guacamole (yes, it's also creamy and rich, but guacamole is amazing like that) to green or red salsas, pico de gallo, fresh herbs, minced raw onion, thinly sliced radish, and thinly sliced raw chiles (serrano or jalapeño, for example).
Some of these bring crunch, some heat, some moisture and cooling relief. Some do several of these things at once. The one thing to watch out for here is wateriness: weeping pico de gallo, watery iceberg lettuce, and very loose salsas can begin to work against you by crossing the line into wet and soggy territory. That doesn't mean all of these components are to be avoided, but they should be handled with care (pre-salting and draining, which we call for in our pico de gallo recipe, can help) and added judiciously.
Most of us want at least a little, and sometimes a lot, of heat in a breakfast burrito. Once again, it can come in many forms: fresh chiles, grilled or roasted chiles, pickled chiles, chipotles in adobo, hot sauces, salsas, and more. Hold back only as much as you need to.
If you check most of the above boxes, your breakfast burrito is already in great shape. That doesn't mean you can't add more. Ideas include roasted mushrooms, vegetables like grilled or roasted poblano peppers or squash, corn (think: esquites), dried spices like cumin or chili flakes, and a nice slice of toast slathered in butter and grape jam.
(I'm kidding. Everyone knows it should be strawberry jam.)
Assembly and Finishing Touches
The worst burrito of any kind is one where the ingredients are added to it along its length, such that when you eat it, you have to chew through an expanse of rice or beans before getting to the meat, before getting through that to the sour cream. I call that a burrito desert, given that the experience is like trudging through endless hills of sand.
Below is my preferred method of assembling a breakfast burrito, though keep in mind that not all components have to go inside the burrito. Rice and beans could be served on the side. Crisp garnishes like raw onion and radish can be offered on the side as well for anyone who wants to sprinkle some on as they go. Salsas can likewise be offered in a bowl with a spoon, for adding to successive bites.
A better way to assemble a burrito is by layering the ingredients on a warmed tortilla one atop another, like sheets and blankets on a made bed. That way, when you roll it up, there's a bit of everything in each cross-section. You may not get all the components in every bite, but it'll be close.
Optional Finishing Steps
Just because you've rolled up your burrito doesn't mean you have to be done. You have the option of taking it even further by frying or griddling the burrito "dorado style" so it's golden and crunchy on the outside. Some people like to melt cheese on top of the rolled burrito, while others will drown it in red or green salsa or enchilada sauce (and then melt cheese on top of that).
In the end, it's up to you: The world is your breakfast burrito.