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Mmm bap: the long search for the perfect burger bun

The Guardian logo The Guardian 20/06/2019 Zoe Williams

Double cheeseburger with french fries © Getty Double cheeseburger with french fries This is going to sound like a dream I had, but it’s true: I once travelled 200 miles to taste a “doughnut burger”. Instead of just one patty of ground meat, there were two, with bacon and untold gunk in between. More to the point, instead of a bun, there was a doughnut. The story was that there were as many calories as you ought to eat in a day, in this single burger, so how would you feel at the end of one of those?

The answer is, I felt fine. But the journey of the burger bun mystified me. Every year since the mid-70s, it has got higher, fluffier, more golden – unless it is charcoal, in which case it has got more sinister. Every year it has looked more like a gourmet item in its own right. And this increasing perfection has gone hand in hand with sweetness, so that you end up with a bun that is basically not very bread-like, that you would hesitate to eat at home because you would be thrown into confusion about whether you were having breakfast or high tea.

Most of the buns you find in shops and supermarkets remain old school – bready, not especially fluffy, extremely yielding in the hand. I love them for madeleine reasons: they remind me of other times I’ve tasted them, very often in a garden, with people I am fond of. Domestically, you mostly serve burgers to people you like. They’re food for intimates, because you’re going to eat them with your hands and they will probably fall apart.

In pubs and restaurants, though, buns have gone full million-dollar smile. The original pub buns were highly processed, never went stale, tasted of nothing and were squidgy. I had nothing against these buns; I still don’t mind a Wimpy. But what they didn’t have was integrity: the bread changed composition on contact with the meat, became a kind of slick starchy layer. The old outrage of the 20th century – how food looked in adverts versus how it looked in real life – was largely down to these buns. They weren’t pillowy and didn’t gleam. But pubs used them for years, following the not-broke-so-don’t-fix-it module on their MBAs.

Woman is  holding a bagel fresh burger before eating. Top view shot. Gourmet conception. © Getty Woman is holding a bagel fresh burger before eating. Top view shot. Gourmet conception. The quest for the perfect bun was always more fevered in the US, possibly because the burgers were bigger. By 2009, they were havering between the potato-starch roll – still the Shake Shack staple – and a cross between challah and a breakfast roll, which is basically on its way to the brioche. Over the same period in the UK, Byron Burger was launching and Meat Liquor was finding its feet, and both went through existential self-reflection on the matter of the bun. Brioche seemed very sweet for the everyday palate.

Then came Young’s “standard brioche”, devised by the pub chain and the Bread Factory bakery, and now the staple of most large pub chains. Oisin Rogers, a long-serving Young’s landlord, describes its traits: glazed top, the colour of an expensive person’s tan, “lots of sugar, can’t freeze it, can’t keep it for longer than a day, costs a lot”. Inspired by both challah (whose complication is eggs) and the pretzel bun (which has syrup and butter), it had a ton of ingredients.

Two things happened: first, this bumped the price of burgers closer to a tenner than to a fiver; second, they became cosmically delicious to look at, right at the point when people started taking photos of their food. Overnight, the burger became expensive enough to invite discernment, gorgeous enough to be part of your aspirational lifestyle, eventful enough to have on a date.

homemade burger rolls sprinkled with sesame seeds are baked in the oven © Getty homemade burger rolls sprinkled with sesame seeds are baked in the oven By 2012, the Ship in Wandsworth, which Rogers was then running, was shifting 50,000 burgers in a year. It’s a large boozer, but by any kind of maths, the majority of people who walked in were ordering a burger, and some people had two. The evolution from the 90s – when a pub burger started entirely in the freezer and popped out whole from the microwave – had happened mainly in the bun. There aren’t that many decisions you can make about meat, beyond good quality or bad, rough chopped or minced, medium or rare.

I still wouldn’t choose this bun at home: it’s just too sweet. You might as well put raisins on your meat. But I do admire the statement way it looks, and will often choose the fancy – sesame seeds or a glaze – over the plain.

On the face of it, bun creativity has ground to a halt: there’s just a lot of monkeying about with colour, to bring us the entirely black charcoal bun or the sort of green avocado bun. Charcoal is actually completely inoffensive, except for its colour, which is its talking point, and the medical claims it makes to alleviate hangovers by soaking up toxins, which are simply … I don’t even want to dignify them with a word like “wrong”.

“A burger in a restaurant has to have a narrative,” Rogers says. “So fair play to whoever came up with the charcoal bun or the avocado bun, because people need to come out and tell a story about where they spent their 12 quid.” He is convinced that the brioche will have been supplanted in five years, and, if forced to make a prediction, I would bank on the end of sugar and a return to the days when the main thing you could taste was salt – a bun that reminds you of bread.

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Gallery: Brilliant beef-free burgers simply too tasty to miss [Lovefood]


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