Regional Burgers and the Search for a Seattle Style

I’ve been thinking a lot about regional burger styles lately, mostly because I’m experimenting with cooking less meat and haven’t eaten one in over a month. And when I heard Seattle resident Kenji Lopez-Alt reference an “Oklahoma City” burger on a recent episode of the Special Sauce podcast, it raised a few curious questions. First, what the heck is an Oklahoma City burger? Did the city steal the style from Seattle along with our NBA franchise? And if the city doesn’t already have a regional burger identity, what would Seattle’s look like?

First things first. From a handful of burger roundups floating around the Internet, I learned that an Oklahoma City burger is a thin griddled patty into which onions are smashed during cooking. As the story goes, a chef at the Hamburger Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, invented the style during the Depression to help stretch the expensive ground beef he had on hand into a bigger burger. The smashed onion patty soon caught on in El Reno, just outside Oklahoma City, and eventually became popular elsewhere in the region.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many corners of America claim their own regional burger styles based on common toppings available locally. Sometimes these are added directly to the grilled meat, but they can also be slathered onto the bun. In your travels you might encounter a California burger with avocado or guacamole, a Southern burger with pimento cheese, a New Mexico cheeseburger with green chiles, or even a Missouri goober burger with peanut butter.

But more intriguing to me are the examples of regional burger styles that, like the Oklahoma City burger, involve transforming the meat itself, either through cooking techniques besides grilling, or by adding ingredients to the patty. Here are a few versions you might seek out on your next visit to these places:

  • The Juicy Lucy, invented in Minnesota, is a burger patty that’s stuffed with melted cheese, usually American or cheddar
  • The butter burger, a Wisconsin creation, has butter mixed into the patty before cooking, with more butter added on top of the burger as well as on the bun
  • The Mississippi Slugburger mixes bread crumbs or other extenders like flour and soy meal into the patty
  • The Connecticut steamed cheeseburger cooks the burger in a steaming cabinet rather than on a grill
  • The Frita Cubana, originally from Cuba but widely available in Miami, is a thin patty seasoned with paprika and cumin (and then topped with thin-cut potatoes, raw onions, and ketchup)
  • The Tennessee deep-fried burger is smashed to a thin patty and then fried in oil

So what’s Seattle’s quintessential burger style? There are any number of candidates for the best burger in the city. My favorites include the mushroom burger at Uneeda Burger, topped with gruyere and truffle aioli, the Big Max at Eden Hill Provisions, with patties that are a mixture of wagyu brisket, dry aged beef, and bacon, and the Rough Draft smashburger I still need to try and recreate at home.

Still, while these are all great burgers, none of them seem ubiquitous enough to represent a distinctive Seattle style. I wonder if the lack of a singular burger identity is a symptom of a larger question about what makes Seattle truly Seattle. Is there a burger we should name after Mt. Rainier? One that’s inspired by tech companies like Microsoft and Amazon? Or should some enterprising chef develop a Juneuary burger to commemorate our gloomiest season?

With apologies to the Dick’s Deluxe, maybe the quintessential Seattle burger isn’t a hamburger at all. Considering our abundance of seafood, maybe it’s actually a salmon burger. Or perhaps the regional style we should claim is the teriyaki chicken burger, influenced by the city’s large Asian population.

But until someone invents the archetypal Seattle burger, we might be left taking our cue from the Seattle Dog, which as late-night Capitol Hill revelers and stadiumgoers know, is a hot dog topped with cream cheese and sauteed onions. I’d suggest that a burger with these toppings should be known as a Seattle Burger.

And, with a nod to Oklahoma City for having its own regional burger style (and a middle finger for stealing our NBA franchise), I have the perfect name for the Seattle-style burger. From now on, let’s call it the SuperSonic.

Do you have a favorite regional burger style, or a nomination for a Seattle-style burger? Leave a comment and let me know!

To get updates on new posts, you can follow me @seattlefoodhound on Instagram, or @seafoodhound on Twitter.

More from SeattleFoodHound: 

What I Ate: Beacon burger from Perihelion Brewery

Cities like Oklahoma City have their own regional burger styles, so why not Seattle?

The Easy Way to Make a Perfect Poached Egg

The quintessential poached egg has a firmly set white that surrounds a barely cooked yolk. Use a fork to gently pierce the surface of the neat round package, and the yellow will ooze all over your plate, ready to be sopped up with the edge of your toast, English muffin, or bagel. It’s a nice alternative to scrambling or frying your eggs, even if you use Jacques Pepin’s nifty technique that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

But how do you get the poached egg to keep its shape and come out perfectly? The egg’s journey from the safe harbor of its shell to a simmering pot of water to your plate is a treacherous one. Some chefs think that adding vinegar to the water can help the egg stay intact. Others advise wrapping it in plastic, or using a sous vide cooking method that poaches it more gently.

I’m certainly no eggs-pert, but as usual I turned to Kenji Lopez-Alt’s The Food Lab to get his advice. Lopez-Alt says that an ingenious trick for getting the poached egg to hold its shape is to crack it into a dish and then pour it through a fine-mesh strainer. That will cause the egg whites that aren’t held tightly to the yolk to drain away. When you’re ready to start cooking, simply immerse the strainer in the pot and slide your egg out into the water.

Lopez-Alt offers these additional tips for improving your poached egg technique:

  • Use eggs that are as fresh as possible. He says that the freshest eggs have the strongest membranes that hold the white together, so an older egg is more likely to spread when it hits the water.
  • Turn your burner off once your water comes to a boil. The more agitated your water is, the more likely it is that your egg will fall apart. It will only take about 4 minutes for eggs to poach in simmering water.
  • Swirl your eggs gently once they start cooking, which will help them poach more evenly and keep a more rounded shape.
  • Don’t bother adding vinegar to the water. Although this might help your eggs set a little bit faster, it’s more likely to make them come out tough.
  • Do add salt to your water. This won’t affect the cooking process, but a little seasoning will make your eggs taste better.
  • If you’re making breakfast for a crowd, feel free to poach eggs in advance, cooking them a few at a time. Store them in cold water on your counter for a few hours, or in the refrigerator overnight. Then you can simply reheat them in hot water for a few minutes before serving. Just be sure to transfer the eggs carefully when you’re moving them from one dish to another.  

Try out these tips and see if they help improve your poaching technique. But to get perfect results every time, I’m sorry (not sorry) to say that will only come with … eggs-perience.

And what if you need an accompaniment to go with your poached eggs? Someday I’ll have to write about the sauce I learned to make during a long weekend in the Netherlands. I really enjoyed my Holland days.

What I Ate: Poached eggs on a bagel with Yotam Ottolenghi’s shatta chili sauce

A perfect poached egg has a firmly set white that surrounds a barely cooked yolk.


The Spicy, Crunchy Condiment That’s Also an Ice Cream Topping

One of my favorite quarantine food discoveries is chile crisp, a spicy condiment from the southern Chinese province of Guizhou. The version I’ve been using is called Lao Gan Ma, and consists of soybean oil, chiles, fermented soybeans, and onion, as well as other spices and additives. The chile-infused oil lends the sauce a rich, citrusy heat, but the addition of fried chiles and onions also gives it a pleasing crunchy texture. Food & Wine magazine says that Lao Gan Ma is the best-selling hot sauce in China, and Chinese media reported that the label had over $700 million in sales in 2019.

Another brand that’s commonly available is Fly by Jing, which is “turbocharged with fermented black beans and fresh Sichuan peppercorns, mushroom powder, dried seaweed, ginger and who knows what else,” according to Sam Sifton of the New York Times. “You could spread that concoction on a mitten and be very happy with your meal,” Sifton says.

I’ve enjoyed chile crisp lately as a condiment for the Lunar New Year dumplings I made last week, both by itself and as a dipping sauce in combination with rice vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. But, inspired by an article by Kenji Lopez-Alt, I’ve also found that it makes a surprisingly tasty ice cream topping. The chile heat offers a pleasing counterpoint to the creaminess of the dessert (I used gelato, but ice cream would work just as well), and the crunchy bits of chile and onion in the sauce provides some textural contrast, just like chopped peanuts or chocolate chips do on an ice cream sundae.

Lopez-Alt says that after testing the combination of ice cream and chile crisp in his restaurant kitchen, he removed the onion, and infused chile oil with garlic and ginger as well as Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cumin, and fennel. I haven’t tried his recipe for a Sichuan chile crisp sundae, which he tops with peanut streusel, but Lopez-Alt says you can just as easily use Lao Gan Ma chile crisp and crushed peanuts. I don’t see any reason you couldn’t also add whipped cream and a cherry on top.

Have you tried chile crisp or any other condiments as a dessert topping? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

What I Ate: Vanilla gelato with chile crisp topping

Chile crisp is a surprisingly delicious ice cream topping

Want Crispy Burger Edges? Smash Early, Smash Firmly

Two nights ago, I finally got to taste the burger from Rough Draft Burger Shop, one of the popup restaurants I wrote about last week. (Rough Draft is opening up their lower Queen Anne shop next month and is selling burgers until then on an irregular schedule that’s announced on Instagram.) The burger was everything I had anticipated it would be – well-seasoned beef on a soft bun with gooey American cheese, pickles, onions, and a tangy sauce. But what stood out to me most were the crispy edges that added a textural contrast and a ton of extra flavor.

I almost couldn’t fall asleep last night, thinking about how I can get those edges on my own burgers. So as with yesterday’s post about crispy potatoes, I turned to Kenji Lopez-Alt’s indispensable book The Food Lab for the answer.

Lopez-Alt explains that the crispy crust on a burger, just like the brown color on a seared steak, is an example of the Maillard reaction. That’s a chemical process that rapidly takes place between amino acids and sugars, starting at temperatures between 280 and 330 degrees. The Maillard reaction creates the crispy edges on a burger and produces a number of flavor compounds that makes food taste good.

You’ll get some browning on almost any burger that’s cooked at the right temperature (too high, and the edges will burn before the middle is cooked through; too low, and the burger may overcook in the middle before the browning happens). But smashing the burger increases its surface area, resulting in more browning.

Through extensive testing, Lopez-Alt shows that a quarter-pound burger that’s smashed to a half-inch thickness will retain nearly as much moisture as a burger that isn’t smashed at all – provided the smashing happens within the first 30 seconds of cooking. But the smashed burger, because of the Maillard reaction, will have better flavor. If you wait too long to smash, the juices will flow out into your skillet instead of staying inside the burger. And of course, you want your burger to be as juicy as possible when you bite into it.

To increase the chances you’ll get those crispy edges, make sure to use a heavy stainless steel or cast-iron skillet, which produces steady heat. And smash your burger firmly with a sturdy metal spatula, which will also help ensure that when it’s time to flip the patty over, you can scrape the entire crust without breaking it.

If your skillet is hot, it should take only about 90 seconds to cook the first side, after you smash the burger down. Flip it over, top with cheese, and let it cook another 30 seconds on the second side. Lopez-Alt says this technique is nearly foolproof and even works well with store-bought ground beef, though he’d prefer a burger with meat he’s ground by hand.

I haven’t tried this technique out yet, but it’s something I’m going to experiment with soon – especially considering how long it took me to finally taste the Rough Draft burger. Until I do, I won’t be surprised if those crispy edges start haunting my dreams.

What I Ate: Rough Draft’s cheeseburger with crispy edges

The Rough Draft burger has crispy edges that provide a textural contrast and a ton of extra flavor

For Tastier Taters, Kenji Says Cook ‘Em Twice

There’s no easier side dish than roasting potatoes in a hot oven with a sprinkling of olive oil, salt, and pepper. But a technique I tried a few weeks ago, from a recipe by Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, led to some of the crispiest and most flavorful potatoes I’ve ever cooked. From now on, I’ll be adding Kenji potatoes to my regular repertoire. 

Lopez-Alt explains that boiling your potatoes first, before roasting them, helps build up a layer of gelatinized starch that makes the exterior extremely crisp. And then, by tossing the parcooked spuds with oil or fat, you rough them up a bit, creating additional craggy surface area that gets extra-crispy during roasting.

Although Lopez-Alt suggests that for the crispiest potatoes, you should toss them in duck fat or an oil with a high saturated fat content, I used olive oil, and they were still spectacular. The exteriors of the potatoes had a thin crispy layer, and the interiors were smooth and creamy. The double-cooking method takes quite a bit longer than traditional roasting – after boiling the potatoes for about 15 minutes, I roasted them for 45 minutes, flipping them at the halfway point – but the results were easily worth the extra effort.

Lopez-Alt’s expertise extends to other potato preparations, of course. On a recent episode of the Special Sauce podcast, host Ed Levine interviewed Lopez-Alt about his tips for the best french fries. And again, double cooking plays a prominent role. Lopez-Alt says that frying your potatoes first at a lower temperature, and then letting them cool before frying them at a higher temperature, also helps build up that layer of gelatinized starch that creates crispiness. The cooling process redistributes the interior moisture that’s left after the first fry, while the second fry draws out more of the moisture, leaving you with a crispy, crunchy exterior and a tender interior.

For the perfect french fries, Lopez-Alt also offers these tips:

  • As with roasted potatoes, boiling before the first fry helps gelatinize more starch and will lead to extra-crispy fries
  • Adding a tablespoon of white vinegar per quart of water helps ensure that the potatoes will hold their shape
  • Using aromatics like peppercorns, garlic, and bay leaves in the boiling water will create an additional layer of flavor
  • Fry in vegetable oil with a high level of saturated fat, like peanut oil, or use animal fat like lard, beef fat, or duck fat
  • Freezing your potatoes overnight after the first fry will create ice crystals that helps the fries come out even crispier and fluffier after the second fry. (Lopez-Alt says there’s a good reason why store-bought frozen french fries are usually consistently great.)

Now that I’ve mastered the crispy roasted Kenji potatoes, I’m going to have to get my hands on some duck fat so I can try out making homemade french fries. But first, I should probably learn what Lopez-Alt says about how to make a perfect burger. Or maybe a bacon cheeseburger. All this writing about french fries is getting me hungry.

What I Ate: Twice-cooked super-crisp roasted potatoes

Parboiling your spuds and then roasting them make these Kenji potatoes crispy and flavorful