The Burger Issue: The Basic Cheeseburger Taste Test

From McDonald's to El Cap to Burger 21, a two-day sprint to see who makes the classic best.

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click to enlarge My makeshift mobile burger lab, in the back of my car. - Jon Palmer Claridge
Jon Palmer Claridge
My makeshift mobile burger lab, in the back of my car.

If my pizza adventure from last March was a yearlong marathon, my Burger Week bonanza was a two-day sprint. As this issue attests, burgers are everywhere. There are more burgers in the United States than there are guns. And that’s without the legal protection of a constitutional amendment. Burgers, however, are covered in our founding documents. I’m sure the noted 18th-century gourmet Thomas Jefferson, were he still alive, would agree that burgers are indeed part of his declaration that we are all entitled to “the pursuit of happiness.”

I decided to look at burgers across both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in three categories: The fast-food Icons of burgerdom (McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s), the Old Guard (The Chattaway, El Cap, Biff Burger) and finally, the Young Turks, those newer fast-casual restaurant chains confident enough to include the word “burger” in their names (Burger 21, BurgerFi, BurgerMonger, Square 1 Burgers & Bar).

To address this momentous task, I set up a mobile burger-analysis laboratory in the back of my car. With a portable digital scale, small wooden cutting board and sharp bread knife, I was ready to dissect the bay’s burgers like a middle school student preparing for the science fair. I also brought along an assortment of black objects — dishes, towel and foam core — to create a mini photo studio to capture the allure, if any, of these gastronomic supermodels. I was ready to zoom around the region and practice burger science.

I analyzed all the burgers by the numbers, with a multiplier to account for taste and to translate the experience into a “return on investment” (ROI). I’m sure my eighth-grade science teacher would be proud.

Last week, I put my plan into action. In order to compare apples with apples, I tried to get the closest thing at each location to the traditional cheeseburger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, mayo and ketchup. This means, for instance, that the choice at McDonald’s is a Quarter Pounder with Cheese rather than a Big Mac. After purchasing my chosen burger to-go, I returned commando-like to the mobile analysis lab.

I turned on the digital scale, carefully putting the whole sandwich in place to record the weight of the entire burger. I gingerly removed the top bun and tried to separate just the burger, dripping with melted cheese, to note a second reading of the patty in ounces. Visually, I analyzed the toppings. Is it iceberg or romaine lettuce? Whole leaves or carefully shredded? Crisp or wilted? Are the onions red or white? Is the tomato ripe? Are the components sliced thick or thin? What about the pickles? How thickly spread are the condiments? Is the bun dense or fluffy? How heavily toasted? Does that show up in a positive way? Is it white bread, potato or brioche? With or without sesame seeds?
Then, of course, there’s the burger itself.

Is the patty thick or thin? If given the option, I asked for medium rare — that’s the sweet spot for juiciness and beefy taste. I sampled a big bite of the whole sandwich and concentrated on balance of flavors. The beef is the star, but the rest of the components are there to provide a range of tastes and textures. I then broke off a bite of just the burger, so that I could test the central ingredient. Is there a good sear on the surface? Is the center dry or juicy? Is the flavor beefy (reminiscent of prime rib) or are off-flavors present?

What is the overall impression? Do all the ingredients support each other? Are there any surprises, for good or ill?

And after this two-day sprint, what do the numbers tell us? Below I note some of the trends I noticed along the way. Chow down!

Burger Bites

• Thick burgers are juicier and have more flavor than thin patties. Double burgers suffer.

• Denser buns with crisp toasting taste better.

• Flame-grilled “fast-food” burgers use smoke flavor to cover lack of beef.

• Romaine leaves beat iceberg, and shredded lettuce provides less crunch.

• The heaviest sandwich, served up by Biff Burger, has the least meat (three ounces).

• El Cap is only 29 percent beef, but its thick patty is perfectly cooked. It has two thick, distinct dill pickles sliced lengthwise, which add tremendous flavor and texture — if you like pickles, of course.

• The McDonald’s Quarter Pounder is easily the worst-tasting burger; when tasted side-by-side with the others, it has obvious off-flavors.

• The largest patty, featured at Square 1, is also the juiciest.

• The fast-casual chains offer a wide range of toppings and sauces. This sets them apart from the Icons and Old Guard.

• All the Icons serve three-and-a-half ounces of cooked beef. So, even though it’s marked down for taste, the McDonald’s burger has a higher ROI because it’s half the price of the others.

• Burger 21 has the highest percentage of beef and a brioche bun, but it lags behind Square 1, whose burger really brings to mind prime rib.

• The Chattaway and El Cap have nothing to fear. Their Old Guard burgers still offer the best ROI.

• Even if you don’t want a burger, visit The Chattaway for a taste of Old Florida.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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