Classic Burger Toppings, Ranked
You can’t have a cheeseburger without cheese.
What makes a good burger a good burger? Sure, burgers are reliant on quality beef and toasty buns, but the entire thing becomes a masterpiece when the series of topping combinations come together as one.
That being said, 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 the best ingredients to place 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? They are rubbery. They sometimes taste kind of like dirt. Leave the mushrooms in your risotto or pasta sauces—they fare much better there.
Tomatoes are great on burgers—that is, if you have a great tomato. At best, they are refreshing and light and taste particularly good alongside some mayo and crunchy lettuce. At worst, they are too soft, a mealy wet paper towel, and actually detract from the burger. A terrible, watery tomato has the power to take down what could be a fantastic burger, which is why they're ranked so low.
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 is an issue in and of itself. Having an egg within a burger can often feel overly rich and heavy—not something that is necessarily appealing alongside the richness of a juicy beef patty and melted cheese. It's an entirely different story if we're talking bagels and breakfast sandwiches, but we're not.
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. Save it for a hot dog.
Lettuce isn’t a particularly exciting burger topping 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.
Avocados are a dreamy and creamy topping that taste 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.
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.
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. 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 five 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 a garlic aioli situation is always a winner. 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.
3. Thousand Island
4. Mayonnaise and its delicious derivatives
7. BBQ sauce (it really only works sometimes and sometimes means with onion rings and bacon.)
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 never disappoint, 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. Blue, brie, cheddar, provolone... the options are limitless and delicious. Would you like cheese on your burger? The answer should always be yes.