Classic Burger Toppings, Ranked
You can’t have a cheeseburger without cheese.
It was Aristotle who said something along the lines of, “The whole is only worth the sum of its parts.” In the case of the esteemed burger, this is true. A burger, though reliant on quality beef and buns, is doubly good when the series of topping combinations come together as one.
But some ingredients do more for a burger than others. Think about it: if you could only pick three toppings for your burger, what would they be? As challenging as it may be to consider a world without loaded-up burgers, sometimes the simplest toppings are best, while others are forgettable fillers. For this reason, we ranked some of the most common burger toppings so you can know what to put atop your flame-kissed patties this barbecue season.
Mushrooms are not as common of a burger topping, and maybe that's with good reason. What do mushrooms bring to a burger party, really? They are rubbery. They sometimes taste kind of like dirt. Leave the mushrooms in your risotto or pasta sauces, because these slippery fungi are not working as well for your burger.
I like tomatoes. I think they’re fine on burgers. At best, they are refreshing and light and taste particularly good alongside some mayo and crunchy lettuce. At worse, they are too soft -- like a wet paper towel -- and actually detract from the burger. A mealy tomato has the power to take down what could be a fantastic burger. Does anyone actually bemoan a burger for not having any tomato on it? I’ll happily eat them if they’re there, but won’t miss them if they’re gone.
Eggs on burgers is a controversial topic. Some people really hate the idea of it. Others can find value for a runny yolk atop a patty, yet aren’t particularly enthused by it. I am one of the latter. Having an egg on a burger undoubtedly equates to a yolky mess, unless you like your fried eggs cooked hard (which means you have your own issues you need to work out). A soft egg means streams of runny yolk running down to your elbows. A hard egg will be powdery. Having an egg within a burger can often feel overly rich and heavy -- not something that is necessarily appealing alongside the heaviness of a juicy beef patty and melted cheese. The only time I can really get down with fried eggs in burgers is during brunch, and even then I’m usually clutching my stomach at the end wondering why I ate something so heavy at so early in the day.
Chili cheeseburgers are classic American fare, although it's one of those things you absolutely have to be in the mood for. When it’s good, it’s good. But when it’s not the right time, you’re just kind of asking yourself what you’re doing choking down so much meat and grease in one sitting. I like chili on my burger every once in a blue moon, but don’t particularly like the mess that comes with it. Save it for a hot dog.
Lettuce isn’t a particularly exciting burger topping, probably because it basically tastes like water. The key to lettuce is its texture; if it’s fresh and crunchy, slap those leaves on. Unlike tomatoes, bad lettuce isn’t the worst insult to a burger -- it’s a pretty incognito addition that can skate by under the flavors of grilled meat and ketchup. Good lettuce can make the burger feel more nutritious and look better with all the added leafy greens. Overall, it’s an inoffensive topping, but nothing to write home about.
I mean, the fact that avocados are what is standing between me and home ownership should make them rank far, far lower on this list. I should really despise avocados for what they’ve allegedly done to my savings. But I can’t do that to this dreamy and creamy topping; they really are great on burgers! They add a nice butteriness and do the heavy lifting if cheese or mayonnaise aren’t quite cutting it. The main downside is how slippery the slices can get, but there's any easy fix: just mash up the avo straight onto the bun. It'll act as a glue to hold everything together. I guess I’ll just never own property in this lifetime.
Here is a pro tip from a Californian: ask for chopped chiles on your In-N-Out burger… or any really at any burger place where chopped chilies are available (lookin' at you, most of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona). The result is magical; the tang and spice cut through the heaviness of a cheesy double-double so you're ready to jump into your next bite. Not only is spicy food some of the best food, it’s supposedly good for you to eat hot peppers. Whether it’s jalapeños, pepperoncinis, or green chilies, throw some tongue-tingling peppers on your burgers and spice up your life.
There’s a bacon boon in the fast food/fast casual industry. You can get bacon on your burgers at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Red Robin -- truly anywhere that serves burgers, there’s bound to be bacon not far off. These establishments are giving the people what they want: salty, oily strips that just intensify the savoriness that makes burgers so good. I am a fan of thick slices of bacon on top of my burger, and it seems that just about everybody else is, too. Not everywhere has great bacon, though. Some strips are sad and shriveled, particularly in fast food spots. But then there are the deeply committed places, like West Coast-chain Slater’s 50/50, which has a burger with 50% ground beef and 50% ground bacon. We’re not mad at it. You just have to find the right bacon.
Pickles are a sacred ingredient. The juice is amazing as a chaser for shots or swapped with olive brine for martinis, the spears are some of the best salty snacks ever, and a classic burger just feels incomplete without slices of pickles snuggled under a cheese blanket like Spongebob’s Krabby Patties. If you take into consideration the vast world of other pickled things that would be great on burgers -- like kimchi -- then it’s safe to understand why pickles are a top 5 contender in this burger topping ranking. Similarly to chopped chilies, the acid from pickles cuts through the heaviness of fatty beef and cheese. I can't imagine a burger without them.
This list would be way too long if I listed every type of sauce or condiment that frequently finds a spot on toasted buns, so I’ve put them all together in a category of their own. Sure, some condiments are going to fare better than others -- ketchup seems mandatory, and I absolutely love a garlic aioli. Even off-putting condiments (who puts relish on their burgers?) add moisture and additional flavor. They tie the whole thing together; some are spicy, others are decadent, and some are classic blends of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise. The idea of a dry burger with dry buns is so unappealing that condiments had to rank pretty high on this list. We can do without all the stuff lower on the rungs, but condiments are hard to skip.
Still, not all condiments are created equal, so in the interest of being completist -- and the fact that maybe Inception was on last night -- here is a ranking within this ranking of core burger condiments, from best to worst.
Onions are one of the greatest, most versatile burger topping. Chopped and raw, they add a spicy and needed kick among the oiliness of beef patties, gooey cheese, and chili. Caramelized onions provide a sweet depth alongside heavier garlic aiolis. Fried onion strips just plain taste good, and it seems mandatory that barbecue burgers include onion rings. I was debating whether or not onions are more worthy than condiments and remembered the fantastic sliders from White Castle. All they really need are onions, and a pickle, right? Onions do it all -- and they deserve to be lauded as one of the best toppings for burgers.
Nobody is surprised that cheese is the best burger topping. The yellow squares of dairy -- and in the case of American cheese, kind of dairy but mostly milk culture -- are to burgers what peanut butter is to jelly: a perfect culinary partner. There are even vegan cheeses now that capture the memorable melt that makes cheese, well, cheese. Would you like cheese on your burger? The answer should always be yes.