Why It Works
- Using up to half an onion per burger and slicing onions orbitally maximizes onion flavor.
- Smashing burgers into the pan maximizes browning.
- Steaming buns on top of the burgers infuses them with beef and onion aromas.
Onions and beef go together like baths and bubbles, like Wallace and Gromit, like hitchhikers and towels, like...you get the picture. They belong together, long for each other's company. A burger without onions is still a burger, but tuck a few slices of raw sweet onion underneath or spread a pile of deeply browned caramelized onions on top and you've got yourself something that is suddenly more than the sum of its parts.
Nowhere is this fact more well-known than in Oklahoma, home of the Onion Burger, a burger that is nearly as much onion as it is meat. We're gonna talk about how to make your own at home.
Johnnie's Grill in El Reno, Oklahoma has been serving up half-onion-half-meat burgers with steamed buns since 1946. That year sound familiar? That's because White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey—one of the other great destinations for those who love extra allium with their ground beef—also got its start in the same year, cooking their burgers in a very similar process, steamed buns and all.
Though America's post-war economy jumped up far faster than was originally expected—more than doubling by 1950—the early post-war years were still a time of uncertainty, and if history has taught us anything, it's that when the going gets tough for Americans, Americans get hungry for burgers—the cheaper the better. Filling up the space between the buns with onions was an inexpensive way to stretch out meat.
The birth of the Onion Burger, however, was two decades earlier at the Hamburger Inn, where owner Ross Davis started serving them at the height of the Great Depression. In his book Hamburgers and Fries: An American Story, John T. Edge quotes Marty Hall of Sid's, another famous Onion Burger joint in El Reno:
It was back in the twenties, back during the Depression. Onions were cheap then and hamburger meat was expensive. Same as it is now. But we were a lot poorer then. So Ross came up with this idea of adding onions to the burgers and smashing them into the meat with the back of his spatula. He called them Depression burgers and he'd smash a half-onion's worth of shreds into a five-cent burger...
That the burgers remain popular today (not to mention one of my personal favorite ways of cooking burgers) is a testament to the power of innovation a light wallet can give birth to.
In truth, making Oklahoma-style onion burgers is not rocket science. It's not even fifth grade math, really. The method is nearly identical to that of the classic North Jersey-style slider, which we discussed a couple years ago. The main difference is the heat of the cooking surface.
While at White Manna in Hackensack the griddle is kept at a relatively low temperature—the burgers never really get much color on them, rather they steam as they slowly cook in onion juices—the griddle at Johnnie's (and from the looks of it most other burger joints in the area) are kept hot enough to give the meat a good sear while the onions are pressed into their tops.
If you've followed The Burger Lab, you probably recognize these burgers are cooked using the smash technique: round balls of beef are placed on the hot griddle before being pressed down forcefully with a spatula into their final flat shape, maximizing surface contact with the pan to promote efficient browning. I use 2 1/2 ounces of beef per burger, and a hot cast iron skillet to sear them in. A good griddle will do the trick too.
The key here is once the burgers start cooking in earnest—that is, within about 10 seconds of being smashed thin—all smashing activity must stop, lest you press out fat and juices that have started to liquefy inside the patties. That means you need to work quickly from the time you smash the patties until the time you add the onions.
Speaking of those onions, you need a lot of them. I mean a lot a lot of them. I mean a how-can-this-be-right-no-reasonable-person-would-ever-need-this-many-onions a lot—at least a half onion per patty. They cook down once you flip the burgers over and the onions end up underneath, so don't worry—they'll mellow out while they sizzle.
The type of onion matters less than you'd think. You can go fancy with Vidalia or white onions, but as most of the sulfur compounds that give yellow onions their distinct pungency either transform or float away while they cook, the end results will not be all that different no matter white type of yellow/white onion you use. In the spirit of the burger, I go with whatever is cheapest.
The only real trick is to slice them very, very thinly. A good sharp knife or a mandoline helps in this regard. I usually slice my onions pole-to-pole instead of orbitally. In this case, tradition dictates I make an exception, slicing the onions orbitally, which produces a more pronounced onion flavor as more cells are ruptured.
While at Sid's and the Hamburger Inn the buns are stacked in such a way that the onions end up on top of the burger once everything is assembled, I prefer to take a little step away from tradition and stack my burger with the onions underneath the patty, which allows me to get better contact between the cheese and the meat. It's honestly a matter of preference.
To do it my way, once the patties are flipped in the pan, I add a slice of cheese, then place the top bun directly on the burger, and the bottom bun on top of the top, allowing them both to steam through. The burger is done when the onions underneath are soft and mostly browned, with a few dark charred bits starting to form.
If you want to do it the original Oklahoma way, stack your bottom bun directly on the flipped patty with the top bun on top. When you lift it up to assemble it, you'll have to give the entire thing a 180° flip so the top bun is on top. You can then slip in your cheese to melt over the onions.
Either way, a couple pickle slices don't hurt nothing, and neither does a squirt of mustard, though they'll be tasty enough to eat completely plain.
Can't you just taste the tradition?
1/4 teaspoon canola oil
5 ounces freshly ground beef, divided into two 2 1/2-ounce balls
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, thinly sliced (about 1 cup sliced onions)
2 slices American cheese
2 soft hamburger buns
Mustard, pickles, and other condiments, if desired
Spread canola oil inside a large cast iron skillet with a paper towel. Heat over high heat until lightly smoking. Add balls of beef and press down with the back side of a spatula until completely flattened. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Working quickly, spread onions evenly over cooking burgers and press down to embed onions into meat. Let cook with no further pressing until burgers are well browned, about 2 minutes.
Carefully flip burgers with a stiff spatula, making sure to pick up all browned meat from skillet. Let cook until onions start to soften, about 1 minute. Add cheese and top with top bun. Place bottom bun upside-down over top bun to allow it to steam in the onion vapors.
When buns are soft, transfer bottom buns to a plate. Add condiments if desired. Lift up onions, burger, and top bun together and transfer to bottom bun. Repeat with second burger. Serve immediately.