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Build a Better Burger: Buns

By • Nov 8th, 2011 • Category: How To Cook Burgers

Ah, the bun. Such a critical component of the burger, yet relegated to mere afterthought by too many home cooks, backyard grillers, and even professional chefs.

You take the time to pick out the best meat, selecting just the right fat blend for your cooking method du jour. You weigh your cheeses carefully, factoring in meltiness, creaminess, and taste. You go crazy with toppings, frying the artisan bacon, sauteeing the mushrooms and onions, slicing the ripest tomatoes. You watch that grill like a hawk, monitoring your temperature and pulling the burg from the fire just a few degrees before your target doneness. And then you just slap the whole thing between whatever bread product you happen to have handy?!? Say it ain’t so, dough.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do. You wouldn’t write The Great American Novel and then wrap it in a brown-bag dust jacket, would you? In this installment of our Build a Better Burger series, we’ll help you navigate your numerous options and select the perfect baked-goods bookends for your burger.

The fact is, most of us are stuck with whatever’s at the grocery store for our own burger adventures. This usually means a plastic bag filled with 8 or 12 uniformly-shaped, factory-cut hamburger handles from whichever big-business bakery your grocery store chain has a supply deal with. You want to customize? If you’re lucky, you get to decide between sesame seeds or sans seeds.

Personally, sesame seeds don’t do a thing for me. Sure, they’re a fast-food staple and get special lyrical billing in the famous jingle, but I’ve never bit into a bare bun and thought, “That’s not bad, but it could really use some tasteless seeds that end up all over everything with each bite.” But they’re fairly inoffensive and do render a pretty, photogenic burger. Sesame seed buns are classic, and sometimes, that’s exactly what you want out of a burger. (Poppy seeds, on the other hand, are seldom seen on burger buns and immediately elevate the burger closer to fancypants territory.)

A kaiser (or Kaiser) roll is recognizable by its segmented top design. Usually scored five times in gentle curves emanating from the center, the kaiser roll (or at least the topmost crust layer) is typically a little harder and crustier than a standard bun.

A wheat bun often signifies a “healthy” burger, one that may or may not be topped with things like alfalfa sprouts and avocado slices. But even if whole grains, fewer calories, and less sugar don’t matter to you, wheat buns often add another layer to a burger’s flavor profile.

Potato rolls, as the name suggests, replace a bit of the regular flour with spuds. Not found on many restaurant menus (likely because it doesn’t sound trendy enough), potato rolls tend to be very squishy and pillowy with a superb texture and hearty taste.

Brioche is one of the hottest words in restaurant-speak over the past few years. Gourmet burger joints love to tout their brioche buns, which are generally ID’d by high egg and butter content, a puffy and fluffy look, and a dark golden crust, which is frequently given an egg wash to add browning and flakiness. But brioche isn’t just for linen-napkin joints anymore; even Bob Evans is slipping their farmstyle burgs into these French-inspired buns.

Martin’s rolls deserve a special shout-out. The buttery buns cranked out from this smalltown Pennsylvania bakery are often considered by burger geeks to be the best in the world, with a sweet taste and squishy texture that’s thought to be the benchmark by which all other burger buns should be measured. While they offer full-size buns, their mini-buns are the gold standard for sliders everywhere.

Want a hearty quality to your burger? Pretzel buns are often used on hefty tavern burgers, with their dense, slightly sweet dough. English muffins also make the occasional appearance, usually when someone’s going for an authentic pub-style burg. Or sometimes if your end goal is a breakfast-themed burger. Their craggy nooks and chewy crannies often distract from the burger-ness of the finished dish, though, and end up being more about style than substance.

While you can toast any bun variety with nice results, using actual toast can add an interesting element. You run the risk of turning your classic burger into more of a patty melt by introducing toast, but in the right down-home setting, it’s the perfect crowning touch. Using toast (often Texas or sourdough) is also a favorite trick of fast-food chains in pushing new burger types that they hope will appeal to fans of classic diner chow.

You can bake cheese directly into bread, so why don’t more buns have cheese embedded inside? Well, that’s the point of putting cheese on the burger, isn’t it? A cheesed bun may add a subtle flair to the burger’s overall taste and looks really cool on the menu, but it often contributes to a bun that’s prone to breaking and falling apart.

If you’re willing to consider using toast as burger buns and are intrigued by the idea of putting cheese into the bun itself, it’s just a short journey from there to employing entire grilled cheese sandwiches as buns. Usually found on extreme burgers with names like the Double Coronary, the Cardiologist’s Special, or the Heart Attack on a Plate, these are guaranteed to get the table talking… and make you all kinds of full, given that it’s essentially three sandwiches in one. But for sheer shock value, nothing beats it… almost.

Of course, there’s always the ultimate in burger insanity… at least according to most rational folks. A now-defunct bar in Decatur, Georgia lays claim to being the first place to serve a burger between glazed Krispy Kreme donuts, but now it’s a practice that belongs to the world, with everybody from minor league ballparks to hipster restaurants to state fairs offering their take on the donut burger. Two donuts is how the trend was born, but many eateries that do a donut burger use one donut cut in half lengthwise (yeah, ‘cos if I’m eating a cheeseburger between donuts, I don’t want to overdo it) and assemble the burg with the cut sides out to lessen the messiness (yeah, ‘cos at that point, I sure don’t want to look like a fat slob).

Or if you’re really feeling adventurous, you can, in fact, bake your own burger buns. At that point, the sky’s the limit, and you can customize your buns in any way imaginable to take your burgermaking to the next level. But that’s pushing the limits of what most carnivores are willing to do for a weekend cookout. Good to know that there are plenty of other options that go above and beyond that same old twist-tie bag of Sunbeam, Arnold, or Pepperidge Farm from the bread aisle.

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