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As a hamburger authority, I am often called on to make top 10 lists, judge hamburger contests and otherwise make value judgments about the things. No one wants to hear “each one is different” when asking what the best burgers are; people want a straight answer, and I always give it. But that’s because I know what I am looking for in a hamburger. Do you?
Here are five questions I ask of every hamburger I meet. You might have different ones or better ones; but if you start with these, you’ll be able to actually say why you ranked the burgers where you did. A lot of these questions are so obvious that they may not seem worth thinking about, which why most burger judges so rarely know why they like—or dislike—a burger.
1. How big is the burger?
Bigger isn’t always better in a burger, but it is definitely part of the experience and is worth thinking about. A lot of the burgers I thought about for my list were great, but were too big for their buns or too big to eat without feeling gross afterward. Some were, in fact, so big that they ceased to be hamburgers and essentially turned into a meat loaf on a bun. The standard default weight for a traditional hamburger is four ounces. Two ounces or less and you are in slider territory; eight or more and you are flirting with a meat bomb. I’m not saying you should take a scale along with you, but remember: You judge a burger as much by the last bite as the first. If the last bite leaves you hungry—or ready to pass out—something is wrong.
2. How brown is the burger?
I like hamburgers. I like them so much, in fact, that I typically dispense with all toppings not named American cheese. Because the real topping, the one that matters, is the surface of the burger. Is it brown from end to end? Is it a gray, corpse-like plane? Is it—as with most grilled burgers—a gray, corpse-like plane with a few black and bitter burn lines? In my opinion, a deep brown surface is, after the quality of the meat, the single biggest factor in burger taste.
3. What, if anything, does the meat taste like?
Look, there are a lot of great burgers that are made from crappy meat. It’s just a fact of life. Steak ’n Shake and In-N-Out produce what are arguably the best fast-food hamburgers in the country, and neither of them is using a custom Pat LaFrieda blend. I love White Castle, and I’m not even sure White Castle sliders have meat in them. But when you get into ranking the best, you have to look at the thing from the ground up. A great burger can no more be made from bad meat than a Formula One car can run on kerosene. Pull a piece of beef from under the cheese. Try it by itself. Is it flavorful? Is it loose, the mark of freshly ground meat? Is it salted? And most of all...
4. Does it pass the squeeze test?
A hamburger, above all else, has to be juicy. If you don’t care about juiciness, you shouldn’t be eating burgers, much less ranking them. But just what does juicy mean? Any burger will drip if it’s big enough and served right off the griddle or grill. And if it’s a deep pink, even the driest meat will seem moist. That’s where the squeeze test comes in. Take a big bite, then squeeze the burger rhythmically. Even if the meat has no trace of pink whatsoever, the juice of a good burger will pulse in and out like the lifeblood it is.
5. Would it stand up to repeat visits, i.e., are you under the influence?
I’ve had hamburgers when I was hungry and when I was high, when I was down and needed a pickup; I’ve had hamburgers that were better than they had any right to be. They all seemed great, but were they? I could only tell when I came back in a different frame of mind. A lot of things can make a burger seem better than it is: Appetite and novelty and hype are all various forms of culinary beer goggles and need to be mistrusted. Go back and eat the burger again. If it still seems great, you are likely on to something. Put it on your list.
Then you can start ranking.
Josh Ozersky has written on his carnivorous exploits for Time, Esquire and New York magazines; he has authored several books, including The Hamburger: A History; and he is the founder of the Meatopia food festival.