Umami Burgers and 6 Tips for Making a Burger Worth Eating

by Ginny on July 3, 2011

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Happy Fourth of July Weekend SDR readers! Are you ready to add some kaboom to tomorrow’s barbecue? This burger recipe is just the ticket to help you move past bland and boring, without straying into “themed” or ethnic burger territory. No teriyaki or pineapple here. No chipotle aioli or avocado needed. Just a grill, a good bun, and your favorite all-American fixings.

It seems like in the USA we’re supposed to be born with burger making skills encoded into our DNA, but we all know this is not the case. How many times have you suffered through a charred hockey puck, half the size of your bun, with all the flavor personality of an over-cooked shoe? All the ketchup in the world can’t hide the lameness of a sub-par burger, and for health-minded eaters (like me), if you’re going to eat a burger, you want it to be worth every last juicy, succulent calorie.

I came across the basis for this recipe while reading Holly Hughes’, “Best Food Writing” Anthology from 2005. In a piece entitled, “Two Americas, Two Restaurants, One Town” writer Rebecca Skloot explores the great distance found between two restaurants, located less than a mile apart in New Martinsville, W. Virginia. One, a locally owned coffee shop/barber shop/massage parlor/burger joint called Baristas, and the other, that most American of chain restaurants: Bob Evans. Why, Skloot wondered, do we gravitate towards one or the other? What is the difference between those of us who worship the almighty and infamous chain restaurant, and those of us who turn our noses up at the former in search of local fare? What factors make either succeed? Fascinating stuff to think about for any American who eats.

What Skloot found is that places like Bob Evans offer predictability in an unpredictable world. Walk into a Bob Evans in any city in the U.S. and you’re likely to find the same red and white gingham atmosphere, and be served the same biscuits and gravy, no matter who prepared it. For many, the sense of comfort they find in that reliable consistency is a calming tonic they just can’t resist. For some, that is what the term “comfort food” means, and knowing what you’ll be served, whether in Flint or Fort Worth, can be addicting.

For the rest of us, who favor fresh versus frozen ingredients, or seasonal versus predictable fare, we’re looking for something else. We don’t mind the inconsistencies, as long as the food tastes home cooked. Maybe it has that special quality food has when prepared by loving hands, conceptualized by one of our neighbors, who learned to cook from her “hillbilly grandmother” like Barista chef Tammy Wilson did, and whose burgers draw people to New Martinsville from sixty miles away, because they’re just that good.

Since first reading this piece, five or so years ago, I have reflected on it many times, and most often because I am preparing these burgers. I am in love with these burgers, and knew after reading the article that I had to make them. My version of the recipe below is where they’ve evolved to over the years. I call them Umami Burgers because the sweetness of caramelized shallots and honey, the earthy salt of soy sauce, and the other nips and pinches of secret ingredients create a taste that somehow eludes eaters of it’s surprising components, and becomes quite simply, a burger worth eating.  I hope you enjoy them as much as we do, but before jumping in, here are a few tips to read before the burger making begins…


  1. Don’t over mix when combining the burger with the seasonings, or you’ll end up with a tough and dense burger.
  2. When cooking for a crowd, test your burger mix by sautéing or grilling a small pinch. Taste and if necessary, adjust seasoning.
  3. To form perfect patties, keep in mind that burgers shrink on the grill. Make them 25% larger and flatter than you want them to be once they’re cooked. Pat from the center of the burger outwards, so the middle of the patty is 25% thinner than the edge. As the burger cooks and shrinks, it will become perfectly flat. I learned this trick from Cook’s Illustrated and haven’t had a hockey puck since.
  4. Never press your patties! Resist the urge to smash those burgers down with your spatula because all you’re doing is squeezing out the mouthwatering juices and drying out your burg. Besides, if you follow Tip #3, you won’t have any need to flatten your patties with a spatula.
  5. Toast only the cut side of the bun by placing directly on the grill just before burgers are done cooking. This helps dry the inside of the bun to hold up to the juiciness of the fillings. On the flip side, toasting the top of the bun can turn your burger into a mouth-shredder– skip it.
  6. Spill-proof your burgers by placing a ring of onion atop the burger, immediately before adding the cheese. Just keep in mind that if you do this, lettuce and tomato go on the base of the bun, while ketchup, mustard, and mayo go inside the ring.

The spill-proof burger.

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Recipe : Umami Burgers

If you’re looking for a basic burger with that special something, look no further. Don’t let the name or the ingredients throw you– this juicy, flavorful burger is all-American and totally versatile. I’ve made them with beef, bison, and lamb, and all three are deeee-licious!


  • 3 pounds best quality burger (beef, bison, or lamb)
  • 1/4 cup shallot, minced and sauteed with a pat of butter and a pinch of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons grated onion
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger powder
  • 1 teaspoon wasabi paste (or substitute horseradish)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt (like Lawry’s or Johnny’s)
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste (I go generous here)

In a medium mixing bowl combine all ingredients EXCEPT burger, and whisk to combine. Add burger and mix with your hands just until combined. Divide burger into 8 equal portions and form into large patties. Grill and serve on toasted buns with your favorite fixings.

Adapted from Chef Tammy Wilson of Baristas in New Martinsville, W.V., whose recipe for Barista Burgers was featured in an article by Rebecca Skloot in New York Times Magazine, and reprinted in “Best Food Writing 2005”.

Serves 8

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

D July 3, 2011 at 6:59 pm

That spill proof burger is genius! I will try the 25% less in the middle strategy next time I make burgs. 🙂 keep up the great writing!


Ginny July 4, 2011 at 9:35 am

Thanks D! I knew you’d dig this post ; )


Dorothy at Shockinglydelicious July 3, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Love the spill proof burger strategy! I am including it on one of my monthly favorites list on the blog (with a link to your post, of course!). Thanks!


Ginny July 4, 2011 at 9:36 am

Dorothy, you are the best! Thanks.


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