June 30, 2023
Posted: August 17, 2022 8:55 am
Back in college, the grill at the dining hall was manned by these two big, sweaty dudes that wore greasy white aprons, black polo shirts, and (oddly) perfectly crisp, white pleated chef’s hats. Around dinnertime, there would no doubt be a line of young university students ordering grilled cheeses, cheese steaks, and hamburgers. And whenever someone ordered a hamburger and asked if he or she could have their buns toasted, the grill chef would point his metal spatula at the eager and hungry young mind and say, “Sure, hop on up.”
Every time. Every time, this is what happened.
As soon as I discovered this, I always asked the grill chefs to toast my buns, and every time they would gleefully respond, “Hop on up.” It got to the point where if I did not ask, they would look at me expectantly, waiting for their opportunity to land their one and only joke.
Man, I loved those guys.
Flash forward about twenty years. I’m making burgers on the grill, and for some reason, I don’t think to toast my buns. In fact, until that specific moment, I can’t remember the last time I had thrown two halves of a hamburger roll onto a hot grill for a nice even toasting. That’s the moment when my newish girlfriend approached with two pairs of buns and asked if I would toast them. As if by instinct I told her, “Sure, hop on up.”
I immediately placed the buns on the nicely greased grill and relayed the story of the infamous dining hall chefs. From then on, I have not made burgers for myself or for my girlfriend without toasting our buns. And if I am making burgers for guests, I always ask if they would like their buns toasted, and if they answer in the affirmative I always respond, “Hop on up!”
All jokes aside, it is of the opinion of some (me) that a hamburger without toasted buns is not a hamburger.
It’s a sandwich.
And it’s rather humiliating to grill a perfectly medium rare burger on the grill and place it between two raw hamburger buns with all of the fixings like lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles and then someone calls it a sandwich.
Let McDonald’s “burgers” be sandwiches. Be better than McDonald’s.
It all starts with hopping up on the big kid grill and toasting your buns. There are a few different ways that one might toast his or her hamburger buns, and we’ll get to that in a second. But the important thing to remember is that a dry hamburger bun out of the store bought bag is just bread. Toasting these rolls turns the entire dish into a respectable hamburger.
When you think about toasting something, you might think about that small kitchen appliance that has two or four slots for sliced bread. That’s called a toaster, and toasters toast things like Wonder Bread just fine. For the purposes of this exercise, you will not need a toaster. In fact, don’t even think of using a toaster for your toasted hamburger buns. Ideally, your go-to hamburger roll would not fit in a toaster. But even for those little Costco brand hamburger buns that would fit in a toaster, just don’t go there. Toasting buns in the oven is slightly more preferred but not advised.
For this recipe, the toasted hamburger bun needs only cook or “toast” on one side. So whether you grill them on the outdoor gas or charcoal grill or pop them on the stove top in a cast iron skillet, we want to focus the heat source to the side that is actually touching the meat (or meat toppings). You can toast buns in the oven, sure, but you won’t get the same consistency. The oven basically acts like a giant toaster and—worse—can dry out the buns. You definitely don’t want dry buns.
There are a few ways that you can prep your buns for single side toasting. Again, the key is to get the inside evenly toasted and slightly crispy and keep the outer edge soft and chewy. If a little grease gets on the outside of the bun, that’s okay. In fact, if you’ve ever ordered a hamburger at a restaurant, take a look at the top of the bun and you’ll likely see a nice glossy layer of oil—intended or unintended—that elevates your burger eating experience without you even realizing it.
Sometimes the best option when cooking food is to set limits and show some restraint. Overdoing a specific seasoning or wet ingredient might harm more than it helps. For toasted hamburger buns, you can do nothing (not entirely recommended), and if you follow the instructions and pop them on the grill or in the cast iron skillet, then at least you have some residual juices to grease the surface and flavor the hamburger rolls.
Ideally, you should add a layer of fat to the toasting side of the bun, and butter makes everything better, especially when toasting hamburger buns. Prior to grilling—like a few hours before—set out some butter to get it nice and soft. Use a butter knife or flexible spatula to spread the softened butter on the inside of each side of the hamburger bun. You don’t necessarily need to measure the butter. Just use enough butter to add a thin layer of soft or melted butter across the entire surface, as if you were buttering a slice of bread. The difference here is that you want to make sure you cover the entire surface from edge to edge. Getting the butter to the edges is what results in those dark, crispy bun rims that make a hamburger so memorable.
There is a lot of debate around this one, and objections generally come from people who claim that they don’t like mayonnaise. That said, mayonnaise is my go-to option for toasting buns on the grill for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s super easy to spread. Butter can often soak into the bun, which means you can’t be sure how much you’ve added. With mayonnaise, it spreads very easily, and while it may soak into the bun a little. It’s not to the point where you have no idea how much you’ve added. Mayonnaise will also allow you to scrape off any excess and transfer it to another half bun.
In terms of flavor, butter generally provides a heavier, richer taste than mayonnaise. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but a red meat ground beef 80/20 fat content burger is going to bring all of the yummy richness without requiring any assistance from butter.
Applying the mayonnaise is just the same as applying butter. The key here also is to make sure you get the inside of each half bun covered in a thin layer of mayo from edge to edge. The bottom line is that the mayonnaise is doing the exact same job the butter does—because, like butter, it is a source of fat—but it provides a different level of complexity and flavor to your toasted buns.
Side note: mayonnaise works for any type of grilled bread dish. The next time you make a grilled cheese, smear the tops and bottom of the grilled cheese with mayo instead of butter and enjoy a little piece of heaven with a perfectly toasted cheese sandwich.
For the reason noted above, you may want to apply the mayonnaise without anyone seeing you actually remove the goopy white mayo out of the jar and onto their hamburger buns. Once the mayo is applied, it just looks like butter anyway. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, no one will know the difference once they bite into their burger. They’ll simply be complimenting you on your perfectly toasted buns.
Some folks like to glop some melted or sliced cheese and toast the buns that way. It serves as a fat like the butter and mayo, but it also adds a cheesy flavor. If you go this route, make sure to use a cheese that melts well. Sliced American cheese will work in a pinch, as would sliced pepper jack or cheddar cheese. You could even use Gruyere, Swiss, or mozzarella cheese.
The reason I would not necessarily go this route is that some people legitimately don’t want cheese on their burgers. And there is something respectable about the purism of a plain hamburger. If cheeseburgers are in order, I believe the cheese works better melted directly over the meat, covering the surface with that gooey, melty, cheesy yumminess.
There are a number of ways to toast hamburger buns, but the key is to add some fat in order to create a crispy and delicious interior crust. By adding some fat, you’ll not only enhance the flavor of your burger bun, but you’ll also achieve that perfect level of edge to edge crispiness. So the next time you fire up the grill for burgers, be sure to give one (or all) of these methods a try and use the “hop on up” joke as often (or as sparingly) as you like.
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