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How To Build a Better Burger

We asked ten chefs to create recipes that go beyond ground chuck. And did they ever.

Guide to Summer Grilling

How to Build a Better Burger

Best Brats

Brews for Summer Food

The Perfect Cheeses for Grilled Burgers

When it comes to burgers these days, anything goes. In restaurants, you’ll find patties both minuscule and supersize, fashioned from ingredients as unlikely as mushrooms and salmon and topped with everything from house-made ketchup to foie gras.

This winter, Citronelle chef Michel Richard will launch his new, more casual restaurant, Central, in DC’s Penn Quarter. It’ll offer not one but five kinds of burgers, including his crab, veggie, and tuna varieties and a classic Wagyu-beef rendition. Our favorite is one crafted from lobster and held together with a smooth scallop puree. It’s one of the most addictive burgers we’ve ever tasted.

We challenged nine other local chefs to come up with unconventional burger recipes—creations that reflect their cultures and sensibilities.

Some, such as the Vietnamese-style beef version from Minh’s in Clarendon, a Greek spin with lamb and tzatziki, and a summer savory-flecked chicken patty, are easy to pull off. A few others—like a marvelous Middle East–inspired veggieburger and an aromatic Indian-accented rendition—take a bit more time and energy.

And one, from Maestro chef Fabio Trabocchi, is pure luxury on a bun. It takes a full day—plus a few hundred dollars’ worth of Osetra caviar—to prepare.

Of course, we still love a good old cheeseburger, which is why we asked Charlie Palmer Steak chef Bryan Voltaggio to come up with one. He couldn’t resist toying with the standard, stuffing a manly portion of ground Angus with a sharp bleu cheese.

Fire up the grill, the sautee pan, or the oven and start flipping. All recipes serve four.

The Lobster Burger

By Michel Richard of Citronelle

4 lobsters (1 pound each)

1 large tomato, cut into 4 slices

1 clove garlic, sliced

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 pound scallops

2 tablespoons milk

4 teaspoons mayonnaise

1/4 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon peeled and grated ginger

Salt and pepper to taste

4 brioche buns

Fill a large stockpot with water and bring to a boil.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Set the tomato slices on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle with garlic and sugar, season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes and cool.

When the water is boiling, cook the lobsters for 5 minutes. Transfer to cold water. When the lobsters are cool, remove meat from the claws, legs, knuckles, and tail. Cut the meat into large pieces. Set aside in a bowl.

In a food processor, puree the scallops for a few seconds until smooth. Stir in 2 tablespoons of milk. Fold the scallop mixture into the lobster meat. Season with salt and pepper. Mold into 4 lightly packed patties and keep cold.

In a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, soy sauce, and ginger.

In a pan over medium heat, sautee the patties in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until golden, about 5 minutes on each side.

Split the buns and sprinkle with the remaining olive oil. Lightly toast. Serve the burgers with a slice of tomato and the ginger mayonnaise.

Like his restaurant, Fabio Trabocchi’s extravagant headcheese burger with Osetra caviar is worthy of a celebration. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Decadent Burger

By Fabio Trabocchi of Maestro

Headcheese terrine:

1 pig head (about 6 pounds)

3 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

1 small onion, skin removed

1 celery heart

1 rosemary sprig

3 garlic cloves

3 bay leaves

3 tablespoons rock salt

2 tablespoons crushed white peppercorns

5 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons Osetra caviar (for topping)

Set the pig’s head under cold, running water for 6 hours. Cover the head in a stockpot with salted water, ice, and the white-wine vinegar. Refrigerate overnight.

Drain the water from the stockpot and set it aside. Set the head under cold running water as you prepare the rest of the ingredients or about 1 hour.

Place the head and reserved water in a pot just big enough to hold it. Set the pot over medium-low heat. Skimming the surface frequently, simmer for 20 minutes, until water is slightly cloudy. Add the onion, celery, rosemary, garlic, bay leaves, rock salt, and white pepper.

Simmer very slowly for 8 hours, skimming occasionally and making sure the water stays above the head.

When the head is cooked (its flesh falls off the bone), remove the pot from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

Drain the liquid and place the head on a sheet pan. Pull all the meat from the bone and set aside.

Pull flat a piece of plastic wrap 1 foot by 2 feet across a countertop. Arrange the pieces of meat along the side of the plastic closest to you. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Pull the edge of the plastic over the meat and roll into a tightly packed cylinder until all the plastic is used. Tie each end of the cylinder with kitchen string. Refrigerate overnight.

Cut the terrine into 1/2-inch slices and drizzle with olive oil. Let the slices rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Split a bun and toast lightly. Place 2 tablespoons of potato salad (recipe follows) on the bottom of the bun, then top with a slice of headcheese terrine. Finish with a quenelle of Osetra caviar. Serve immediately.

Potato salad:

3 cups canola oil

11/2 pounds small red-skin potatoes, diced

1/2 pound bacon, diced

1 small onion, diced

1 bunch of dill, leaves only

4 egg yolks

1/2 small shallot

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar

2 eggs, hard-boiled and diced

Salt and pepper to taste

Place 2 cups of canola oil in a sautee pan over high heat. Heat the oil to 350 degrees temperature. Working in small batches, shallow fry the potatoes until golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes each batch. Drain the potatoes on a paper towel and season with salt and pepper.

Set a sautee pan over low heat and render the fat from the bacon. Once the bacon is crispy, discard it and add the diced onion to the fat. Sauteethe onion until soft and translucent. Strain, cool, and set aside.

In a food processor, puree the dill, egg yolks, shallot, half of the lemon juice, and the white-wine vinegar until smooth. While the processor is running, slowly add the remaining cup of canola oil. Once the mixture is blended into a smooth green mayonnaise, season to taste.

In a bowl, fold together the potatoes, sauteed onions, diced egg, and vinaigrette. Season to taste.

The Vietnamese burger comes topped with carrot ribbons, cucumber, tomato, and caramelized onion. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Vietnamese Burger

By Chi Ha of Minh’s Restaurant

For the patties:

1 pound ground beef

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 teaspoon oyster sauce (Ha recommends Lee Kum Kee brand)

1 teaspoon white wine

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon finely crushed garlic

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon tapioca flour

1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For toppings:

1 onion, sliced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 carrot, shredded into thin ribbons

1/2 cucumber, sliced

1 tomato, sliced

4 buns

Fold into the ground beef all other patty ingredients and mix until well incorporated. Shape the beef mixture into 4 patties.

Grill the patties over a low flame or sautee in a nonstick pan set over medium heat. Remove the patties and raise the heat to high. Caramelize the onion slices in the vegetable oil.

Serve on a bun with carrot ribbons, cucumber, tomato, and caramelized onion.

You can be a vegetarian and still get a good burger with this meatless creation by Haidar Karoum of Asia Nora. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Veggie Burger

By Haidar Karoum of Asia Nora

For the patties:

1/4 cup dried chickpeas

1/4 cup dried red lentils

1/4 cup dried fava beans

1 tablespoon bulgur wheat

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 scallions, chopped

1/4 cup grated carrots

1/4 cup minced parsley

1/4 cup minced cilantro

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon ground anise

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

For toppings:

1/2 cup labne (available at Whole Foods)

2 cups arugula

2 heirloom tomatoes (preferably Cherokee Purple), sliced

1/2 red onion, sliced

1/2 cup smoked eggplant-lemon vinaigrette (recipe follows)

4 small rounds of whole-wheat pita bread, toasted

Soak the chickpeas, lentils, and fava beans in water overnight. Rinse the bulgur wheat in cold water, drain, and let stand for 20 minutes. Put all patty ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor and pulse until thoroughly mixed, about 4 minutes. Shape into 4 patties.

Heat the olive oil in a pan set over medium heat. Sautee the patties until browned, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels.

Top each burger with labne and stuff into pita, then garnish with arugula, tomato, red onion, and vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette (makes two cups):

1 eggplant

¾ cup olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon for rubbing eggplant

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons tahini

2 cloves garlic

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon sambal olek (available at Whole Foods)


Set a grill or broiler to high heat.  Rub the eggplant with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Grill or broil, turning often, for about 20 minutes, until tender.  Cool, peel, and discard the skin.  Puree the eggplant in a blender with the remaining ingredients until smooth.  Season to taste. 

A chicken burger fragrant with summer savory and topped with heirloom tomatoes and arugula is a late-summer pleasure from Poste’s Robert Weland. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Chicken Burger

By Robert Weland of Poste

11/2 pounds chicken breast, diced

8 egg whites

6 tablespoons Dijon mustard, plus more to taste

1/4 cup summer savory

1/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup arugula

2 large heirloom tomatoes, sliced

4 poppy-seed brioche buns

Chill the bowl and blade of a food processor in the freezer for 10 minutes. When the processor is cold, pulse the chicken and egg whites until smooth. Add the mustard and summer savory, season to taste with salt and pepper, and continue blending until smooth. With the food processor running, slowly pour in the cream until the mixture becomes aerated and mousselike. Refrigerate the mixture until cold. Mold into 4 patties and return to the refrigerator.

Preheat the grill to high heat and cook patties 5 minutes on each side.

Serve on toasted brioche buns with Dijon mustard, arugula, and tomato.

Say hello to the Indian burger, whose not-so-secret ingredient is mint chutney. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Indian Burger

By Mitul Tuli of Heritage India

21/4 pounds ground chicken

2 eggs, lightly whisked

1 tablespoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon yellow-chili powder

1 teaspoon white pepper

4 teaspoons vegetable oil

1/3 cup whole cashews, ground

2/3 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup finely chopped ginger

1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon garam masala

5 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

3 tablespoons mint chutney (recipe follows)

2 tomatoes, sliced

1/2 red onion, sliced

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped (for garnish)

Salt to taste

4 buns

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

In a bowl, mix the chicken with the eggs, cumin, yellow-chili powder, white pepper, and vegetable oil. Season with salt. Set aside for 15 minutes. Fold in the cashews, chopped onion, ginger, 1/3 cup cilantro, and garam masala. Divide into 4 patties.

Roast the patties in the oven for 8 minutes, basting once with butter. When the burgers are cooked through, remove them from the oven.

Slice 4 buns in half. Spread one side with mayonnaise and the other with mint chutney. Place a burger on each bun and garnish with tomato, red onion, and chopped cilantro leaves. Serve with more mint chutney on the side.

Mint chutney (makes 2 cups):

31/3 cups fresh mint leaves

12/3 cups fresh cilantro leaves

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 jalapeno peppers

1/2 red onion, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped ginger

5 tablespoons yogurt

1 tablespoon chat masala

1/2 teaspoon kashmiri red-chili powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Put the mint, cilantro, lemon juice, jalapenos, onion, and ginger in a blender and puree into a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the yogurt, chat masala, and chili powder. Season with salt.

The Greek burger sits atop a pita round instead of a bun. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Greek Burger

By Natalina Koropoulos of Mourayo

1 pound ground lamb

1 pound ground beef

1 tablespoon chopped shallots

4 teaspoons chopped fresh mint

1/3 of a cucumber, grated with the skin on, then drained in a cheesecloth

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill

1 cup Greek yogurt

2 tomatoes, sliced

1/3 red onion, sliced

1 teaspoon fresh oregano

1 teaspoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

4 rounds pita bread, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with oregano, and toasted or grilled

In a bowl, mix the lamb, beef, shallots, and mint until just combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide into 4 patties.

Preheat the grill to a medium-high flame and cook the burgers to desired temperature.

Make a tzatziki by combining the cucumber, garlic, dill, and yogurt.

In a separate bowl, toss the tomato, red onion, oregano, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spread each pita round with tzatziki and top with a burger, the tomato-onion mixture, and feta.

Kaz Okochi’s Japanese burger is made with beef, pork, tofu, and shiitake mushrooms, then burnished with a ginger-soy glaze. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Japanese Burger

By Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro

1/4 pound tofu

1/2 pound ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

1/4 cup thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms

1/4 cup chopped scallions

2 tablespoons miso paste

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup mirin

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1/4 teaspoon grated ginger

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

8 iceberg-lettuce leaves

1/4 cup Japanese mayonnaise

4 teaspoons grated horseradish

4 sesame buns

In a shallow pan, set the tofu between 2 paper towels. Weight it down with a can or bottle for 30 minutes. Let the water drain, chop the tofu, and set aside.

In a bowl, combine the beef, pork, tofu, shiitakes, scallions, miso, egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and mix well. Divide the mixture into 4 patties.

In another bowl, combine the soy sauce, mirin, garlic, and ginger. Set aside.

Set a pan over medium-high heat and pour in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Cook each burger for 1 to 2 minutes, until brown on each side, then reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan with foil and cook 4 minutes more. Puncture patty to test if it’s done; its juices should be clear. Remove the burgers from the pan and drain the oil. Return the patties to the pan, raise the heat to medium and add the soy-sauce mixture. Keep the pan moving to prevent the sauce from burning and flip the burgers while the sauce thickens. The burgers are done when they have a thick, shiny coating of sauce. Serve on a toasted bun with lettuce, mayonnaise, and horseradish.

Don’t let the name fool you — the shrimp burger is big on taste. Photograph by Allison Dinner

The Shrimp Burger

By Jamie Leeds of Hank’s Oyster Bar

1 large red bell pepper, finely diced

1 bulb fennel, finely diced

1/2 cup corn kernels

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon chopped shallots

2 pounds rock shrimp, shelled and deveined

1/4 cup buttermilk

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1 tablespoon chopped basil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup panko bread crumbs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cups baby arugula

4 tablespoons Dijon mayonnaise

4 buns

In a sautee pan set over high heat, caramelize the pepper, fennel, corn, garlic, and shallots. In a bowl, combine a pound of shrimp with the buttermilk. Fold in the remaining shrimp, the sauteed vegetables, and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until cold.

Shape the mixture into 4 patties. Coat in bread crumbs. Heat the vegetable oil in a pan over medium-low heat and sautee the patties until golden, about 3 minutes on each side. If necessary, finish cooking in a preheated 350-degree oven. Serve on a bun with Dijon mayonnaise and arugula.

The American Burger

By Bryan Voltaggio of Charlie Palmer Steak

1/8 teaspoon ground fennel seed, toasted

1/8 teaspoon ground coriander, toasted

1/3 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1/4 pound bleu cheese (Voltaggio likes Big Woods brand)

11/2 tablespoons canola oil

1 cup finely diced Vidalia onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1 head Bibb lettuce

4 purple heirloom tomatoes, thickly sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

4 buns

Preheat the grill to 500 degrees.

In a bowl, combine the beef with the toasted spices and cracked pepper. Shape the meat into 1/2-pound patties.

Split each patty in two and place 2 ounces of bleu cheese into the center of each. Press the patty back together so it is whole again. Refrigerate until very cold.

Make an onion relish: In a saucepot set over medium heat, warm the canola oil and slowly sweat the onion for 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until soft. Stir in the lime juice and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley. Adjust seasoning and set aside.

Grill the burgers to desired temperature. Split the buns and toast lightly on the grill. Serve burgers with lettuce, tomato, and onion relish.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.