The Burger Lab: The Principles of Topping Burgers

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

I'm a burger purist at heart, but I rank purity for purity's sake down there with undressed salad and half price sushi. Just because I usually prefer my wife clothed and my burger naked doesn't mean that I'm averse to giving in to the occasional bout of well-organized hedonism and reversing the two.

Mind you—when I speak of despoiling my burger, I'm not talking about adding Worcestershire sauce or herbs to the meat or folding in chopped onions and cheese, or even—god forbid—adding breadcrumbs or eggs to the mix. We've gone through all this enough times in the past that there's no reason to expound on exactly why you shouldn't do such things. Suffice it to say, the act of adding anything to a burger patty pushes it from burger territory to meatloaf-sandwich-land.

There is, however, nothing stopping us from putting things on top of or underneath our preferably-fresh-ground-if-not-hand-chopped-from-a-custom-mixed-beef-blend-with-30-percent-fat-and-a-lot-of-short-rib patties. Or even our regular old ground chuck patties for that matter.

At The Burger Lab, I spend a lot of time playing around with how to form, blend, and cook patties for the optimal burger experience, but I've only rarely delved into the wild world of toppings. So this week, we'll be featuring a custom-topped burger every single day.

The Principles of Topping


Selecting toppings that go well together on a burger is much like constructing any sandwich. I like to go for a mix of contrasting flavors and textures, while maintaining some sort of thematic integrity. Here's how I think of my toppings when categorizing them:

Flavor Categories

Bear in mind that many ingredients can fall under multiple categories. A Thousand-Island dressing, for instance, straddles across rich, tart, and sweet, which is what makes it such a popular condiment.

  • Sharp/Spicy: This category includes pungent elements like raw onions, scallions, garlic, or shallots—either raw or cooked. A spicy slaw, chopped kimchi, or spicy mayonnaise and pepper-loaded cheeses also belong.
  • Fresh: Fresh vegetables like lettuce or tomatoes, sliced peppers or cucumbers. Raw and clean tasting.
  • Rich/Meaty: Gooey melted cheeses or mayo-based spreads, sliced deli meats like ham or pepperoni, bacon, avocado
  • Tart/Pickled: Pickled cucumbers, carrots, jalapeños, sauerkraut—pickled anything, really. I'd also include tart salads like cole slaw, or certain types of sauces, like vinegary barbecue sauce or a relish-based Thousand-Island
  • Sweet: Kansas city-style barbecue sauce, sweet Asian-style glazes, ketchup.
Texture Categories
  • Crunchy/Crisp : Fresh crisp vegetables like iceberg or romaine lettuce and cucumbers, properly cooked bacon, pork rinds, cole slaw.
  • Gooey: Cheese! Mayo-based spreads!
  • Moist: Tender fresh vegetables tomatoes or cooked eggplants, grilled onions or roasted peppers.

For fat-based sauces like mayo, I wait until after the burger is cooked and apply the sauce directly to the toasted bun. With water-based sauces such as a mustard sauce, barbecue sauce, a soy glaze, or a ketchup-based sauce, I'll either apply to the bun after cooking the burger, or sometimes I'll paint it right onto the patty as it cooks. The key is to treat it just like you would ribs or barbecued chicken: apply the sauce at the very end.

Try coating the raw patty with sauce before grilling and you end up burning the sauce. Rather, cook the patty until it's almost cooked through and has developed a nice char on both sides, then paint it with the sauce just for the last few moments. The sauce will reduce and coat the patty, giving you good flavor without acridness.

Selecting Toppings

With these profiles in mind, I then try and make sure to include at least two contrasting flavors and two contrasting textures when I top a burger. When talking classic combos, they can be as simple as the rich/tart flavor combo and gooey/crunchy texture combo of a cheeseburger topped with pickles, or can be as elaborate as the sharp/fresh/rich/tart/sweet five-way flavor mouth-punch and crunchy/gooey/moist textural explosion that is an In-N-Out Double Double Animal Style with onions, lettuce, tomato, cheese, pickles, and a sweet-tart mayo-based sauce.

What I try to avoid is doubling or tripling up on a single category either flavor or texture-wise without adding another element to complement it. The rich-rich tag team of a bacon cheeseburger needs fresh, sharp onions, tart pickles, or a sweet-tart sauce to balance it out.


For our first burger of the week, we board a small charter flight to Polynesia, the land of Spam and pineapples. Why Spam and pineapple? Mostly because it's a delicious combo that hits the rich/fresh/sweet flavors and the crisp/moist textures, and only secondarily because I happened to have a massive amount leftover after our Spam tasting last week.

Adding a couple of slices of Swiss cheese along with a nice spoonful of sriracha-mayonnaise add spicy and gooey to the bag. (Some pickled red onions wouldn't hurt either).

You can use a regular burger bun, but I like the pineapple-juice-catching nooks and crannies of a toasted English muffin for this one, and it seems to go well with the whole Spam-and-cheese sandwich theme.

More Toppings!

Check out all of our Burger Topping Week recipes here!