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What Is a Hamburger?

By Zeus Tyrone Mendoza
Updated May 16, 2024
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A hamburger is a type of sandwich that involves a ground beef patty served between two halves of a round bun. Most of the time the meat is grilled or cooked in a hot skillet, though some recipes call for it to be baked. There are many different variations, and many restaurants, families, and individuals have their own preferred methods of preparation and added ingredients. The sandwich’s history is largely unknown, though food scholars often attribute it originally to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian army; the modern name is almost certainly from Hamburg, Germany, however, where grilling meat patties in the style of the modern hamburger allegedly first became popular. The sandwich is served in most parts of the world today, but is largely thought of as an American innovation. Much of this is probably owing to the role of American fast food establishments in popularizing the dish and making it nearly ubiquitous in society.

Basic Concept

In its most general sense, this sandwich has two components: a cooked beef patty and a bun. The beef patty is almost always made from tenderized ground beef that has been pressed, usually into a round, then grilled or otherwise cooked. The bun is usually a bit larger than the patty, though there are a lot of options where the bun is concerned. Simple bread slices can be used, of course, but many bakeries and bread manufacturers make special rolls designed specifically for this purpose. Most are sliced so as to have a flattened bottom half and a domed, or rounded, top, and sometimes the bun is garnished with things like sesame seeds or onions.

Likely History and Evolution of the Idea

Historical origins of this particular combination of foods stems as far back as 1209 A.D. during the reign of Genghis Khan. While he rode and conquered the lands, his Mongolian army would be accompanied by wheeled carts holding sheep, goats, oxen, and horses, which would later be slaughtered for food. According to legend and local lore, warriors would take scraps of meat and place it under their saddles to be flattened and tenderized as they rode into battle. This allowed them to accessibly eat flattened pieces of raw meat when it was time for a meal.

From then on, the early iteration of the sandwich combination began to travel. Moscow was the first to have steak tartare. Hamburg, Germany, was the first to have hamburg steak. European immigrants coming to early America then began serving meat patties between slices of bread, supposedly to recreate the dishes of their homelands. American chefs then honed the recipe to center on ground beef, usually grilled or griddle fried, served on a bun of the same shape

Common Variations

There are multiple variations when it comes to both serving and preparation. The simplest patty is made with beef alone, but many people also add spices, chopped onions, and even egg to make the meat more flavorful and moist. Thickness can also vary a lot. Thin patties will usually cook faster, but thicker versions often have more flavor and maintain more moisture.

It’s common for the buns to be buttered and toasted before serving, and they’re also commonly spread with tomato ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise. The sandwich is also frequently garnished with fixings such as pickles, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Adding cheese often turns the sandwich into a cheeseburger, a distinctive and usually very popular variation. Other popular add-ons include bacon, egg, pineapple, salsa, and peppers.

Overarching Nutritional Profile

It can be challenging to make broad generalizations about nutrition since so much depends on how the meat is cooked and what toppings are added on, but typically these sandwiches are high in protein and also high in fat. The fat content is often amplified when the meat isn’t lean and is grilled in its own fat or other grease. There are healthier variations, though, including the use of lean meat or vegetarian patties. Typically, the vegetarian patties for hamburgers are made from soy, which contains protein as its ground beef counterpart but with much less fat.

Fast-Food Popularity and Controversy

It’s widely conceded that the sandwiches earned their popularity and worldwide recognition thanks to the marketing efforts of the American fast food industry. Fast food is, as its name suggests, fast; it’s also usually quite inexpensive. In general it isn’t usually a very healthful option, though, as nutrition is often sacrificed for speed. Meat is often quickly fried in oil, often from bulk pre-frozen patties that aren’t nearly as nutrient-rich as those prepared fresh. Fast food meals generally have taken a lot of the blame, wrongly or rightly, for the obesity problem in most of American society today.

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Discussion Comments

By Inaventu — On May 23, 2014

I remember back before the modern electric grill craze, stores used to sell these single hamburger makers. You would put a ball of meat in the center of a hamburger press, and the appliance would form it and cook it from both the top and bottom. The burger would be fully cooked in minutes. We ate a lot of hamburgers while that machine was still working. Hamburgers have always been my favorite hot sandwiches.

By Phaedrus — On May 22, 2014

If I'm making hamburger patties, I prefer to use hamburger meat that is marked 80/20, meaning it's 80% lean meat ground with 20% fat. Anything leaner than that, like a 90/10, tends to get too dry for my taste. A 70/30 mix may not hold together well enough for a hamburger, but I'll use it for hamburger chili or soup.

I've also used turkey and ground pork for hamburgers, but the thing that surprised me was a vegetarian burger patty. I wasn't crazy about the original vegetarian burgers that used grains and nuts, but the modern veggie burgers often use a texturized soy protein that has the same chew as a regular beef hamburger. With the right seasonings and condiments, it's very hard to tell the difference.

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