Do you remember Haribo’s Build-a-Burger? It was (and still is) a simple, three-storey affair: foam-bottom-bun-with-gummy-patty, foam-cheese-with-gummy-tomato and foam-top-bun-with-gummy-lettuce. You get a bag full of the three individual components that you dutifully stack together before attempting to bite through the sticky tower. Bullies would stack three cheese-and-tomato layers together just to mess up your system. Inevitably you’d be left with a handful of spare top buns, which were somehow disappointing even though flavour difference between layers was negligible at best.
What Haribo have done here, knowingly or not, is stuck their oar into the tempestuous waters of the great burger layer debate. Since burgers evolved from fast food to gourmet artistry the question of the ideal burger assemblage has been raging. To boil it down, a good burger isn’t so much a recipe as it is carefully chosen ingredients assembled in the correct order. But what is this perfect order? Well, Haribo are actually pretty spot on.
Received wisdom is that pickles and condiments go first, then burger, then cheese, then tomato and finally lettuce as a cap. The condiments on the bottom hold the burger in place, the cheese melts to the patty and the tomato squishes nicely into the cheese. Some people put lettuce on the bottom but it’ll just go limp under the heat of the burger and everything will start sliding about.
Then there are the extras: some say onions should snuggle up to the pickles while others recommend adding to the tomato layer. Bacon should go under the cheese to help it stick, so needs to be cooked and ready before you flip the burger. If you’re using mayo, keep it away from the other condiments, smear it on the top bun so its flavour doesn’t get lost in meat juice.
And that’s just if you’re going American-style. If you want the full Aussie experience then you’ll need to sneak beetroot in with the tomato, add a fried egg on top and put the pineapple wherever you like as long as we don’t have to talk about it. Clear as mud, right?
As noted, physical stackability is a big issue; hence the condiments and cheese acting as mortar to the bread and beef bricks. There’s also texture at work, with each mouthful containing juicy burger, crisp lettuce, soft bread and the crunch of pickle. And chef-like flavour logic plays a part of course, with the sweetness of pickles and ketchup setting off the salty joy of meat and cheese, plus just a hint of salad to add a fresh element to the grease.
Beyond these practical concerns, building your ideal burger comes down to ritual. All food lovers will have their chosen flavour combinations and stacking orders. For me, pickles are a must and the burger has to be pink in the middle, but raw onion and tomatoes are out. Mayo is a no if there’s cheese involved and bacon is only ok if it’s crispy; there’s nothing worse than having your first glorious bite ruined by a flabby string of bacon rind. But that’s just me. Maybe you prefer a thin burger, or hate lettuce, or have to have jalapeños. I’m not saying that our burgers are an extension of ourselves, but the choices we make are definitely personal. The rise and rise of the burger means it has achieved the level of ubiquity that requires everyone to have an opinion on it. Lettuce placement is now as controversial as whether you put milk in your tea first or last.
This level of investment means that sharing the burger experience can become a defining moment in any relationship. I recently made burgers with a friend of mine and I would now recommend it as my number one friendship-bonding-activity. It’s tricky ground though, you really have to lay your cards out. Thankfully, she was a no-onion-loads-of-pickles kind of girl too and we are now joined invisibly by our shared burger supremacy.
As we each selected our layers I was taken right back to playground Haribo and the relative simplicity of those times. Look, no one said growing up would be easy; there is a whole world of flavour combinations and architectural styles out there, but you don’t need to get too bogged down by the rules. Just make sure you don’t steal all the cheese layers and mess up someone else’s game.
Image credit: Jenny Steffens Hobick