Toppings are perhaps the most important part of the burger eating experience: They can make or break it. Too many toppings, and the burger is unwieldy to eat, not enough and the burger, can be, well, boring. There's a certain standard array of toppings that dominate the burger world: A slice of tomato, iceberg or romaine lettuces, onions, cheese (typically American or cheddar), and maybe a couple of pickle slices if you're feeling fancy. Plus, many opt for basic condiments like ketchup, mayonnaise, and sometimes, mustard.
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While American chains will most likely always offer classic burgers with classic toppings, many are adding more out-of-the-box burgers with trendier toppings, like jalapeños, fancy mayos, and meats that go beyond the beef patty. Eater analyzed 37 burgers introduced in the last 18 months at 10 different major chain restaurants. Below, the five things people want on their burgers, according to giant food companies.
Bacon — the trend that refuses to die — has become so commonplace on restaurant menus that it's almost standard. Almost. Just under half of the burgers analyzed featured bacon, and chains are getting pickier with the type of bacon they use: Most often menus denote if bacon is hickory- or applewood-smoked. Chains are also particular about thickness: Both Wendy's and McDonald's have advertised thick-cut bacon on new burgers. In the "weird bacon" category, Red Robin added both candied bacon and brown-sugar bacon to its menu, with the Southern Charm Burger and the Brown Sugar Bar-B-Que Burger. And finally, if strips of bacon weren't enough, many chains feature a second bacon component in the form of a sauce: Bacon mayo can be found on burgers at Jack In the Box, while Burger King is offering a mysterious "spicy bacon sauce."
The chain burger world was not inoculated from the world's obsession with Sriracha: Jack in the Box went so far as to create a Spicy Sriracha Burger featuring hickory-smoked bacon, swiss cheese, and creamy Sriracha sauce. It also contains jalapeño slices, another popular ingredient on burgers as of late. McDonald's has gotten in on the action by adding pickled jalapeño slices and deep-fried crispy jalapeños to its aptly named Jalapeño Double Burger. Carl's Jr.'s El Diablo Thick Burger is topped with not only fresh jalapeños, but jalapeño poppers, a habanero bacon sauce, and spicy pepper jack cheese. Jack in the Box also has a spicy burger — dubbed the Hella-Peno Burger— that also features jalapeño poppers and sliced jalapeños along with taco sauce. Beyond Sriracha and jalapeños, chains have turned to hot sauces in general: Sonic launched a spicy burger called the Island Fire SuperSonic Cheeseburger featuring pepper jack cheese and a habanero pepper sauce, while Carl's Jr. serves a burger loaded with Franks RedHot Buffalo Sauce.
One of the most common toppings found among the 37 burgers analyzed were items that could easily be considered side dishes. There's the aforementioned use of jalapeño poppers as toppings by Carl's Jr. and Jack in the Box. Other common sides masquerading as burger toppings include onion rings (Burger King, Jack in the Box), guacamole (McDonald's), coleslaw (Wendy's), and French fries (Burger King). Carl's Jr.'s really embraced the ideas of sides-as-topping by testing a line of Mashers burgers that came stacked with garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, and crispy onion straws. Meanwhile, Red Robin's the Cure Burger, created specifically to fight off hangovers, is topped with chili.
Regular old ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise will no longer do. Carl's Jr. is now slathering burgers with creamy horseradish sauce and habanero bacon sauce; Jack in the Box's Black Pepper Cheeseburger enlists the help of a creamy black pepper sauce; while others make use of bacon-spiked mayonnaise. Wendy's eschews flavored mayos for a more elegant range of aiolis flavored with items like blue cheese, herbs, and roasted garlic, as well as melted seasoned butters. Red Robin on the other hand opts for a range of barbecue sauces, including those gussied up with honey and chipotle.
While burgers are at their very core a meat-heavy dish, chains are piling on additional proteins. A&W recently launched a Deli Burger loaded with pastrami, and White Castle is topping a slider with pepperoni. Carl's Jr. is serving a play on an French Dip sandwich, topping a burger with thin-sliced roast beef. The Philly Cheesesteak is another iconic sandwich-turned-burger by Carl's Jr., which tops a beef patty with more beef in the form of thinly sliced steak. Other chains like Wendy's, Hardee's, and Red Robin are fusing barbecue with their beef burgers by adding on layers of smoked brisket and pulled pork.