What’s more summery than a thick, juicy hamburger? The sight, sound, and smell of a burger sizzling away on a grill (or a cast iron skillet) is irresistable. Whether beef, turkey, or veggie, a summer burger hits the spot.
I’ve always viewed burgers as a sort of meaty canvas. Although delicious on their own, they are at their best when toppings are thoughtfully piled on. There are a thousand ways to make a burger taste even better, and just about all of them involve cheese. It takes more than slicing up some pepper jack to up your burger game, however.
To create a next-level burger we need to think outside the box. Cheddar is not on this list. Neither is Gruyère or mozzarella. I’m not saying these cheeses are bad choices - they’re not. One of my favorite combinations is a bison burger with cheddar cheese and roasted Hatch chile peppers. (Seriously, these peppers are astoundingly tasty and only available at this time of year. Melissa’s Produce mail-orders them from California. They are stellar in potato salad, sandwiches and chili.) I’m just saying there are lots of other cheesy fish in the hamburger sea.
This dense and supple cheese comes from the Val d’Aosta region of northern Italy. Made from cow milk, Fontina has a wonderfully nutty flavor, with just a hint of milky sweetness. It’s an excellent melter, making it a great choice for the grill. If you’re going for simplicity, top your beef or turkey burger with caramelized onions and a layer of cheese. If you’re looking to kick it up a notch, top your patty with Fontina and some lightly-fried basil. Coat the top bun with a healthy spread of tomato jam and dig in.
More people are catching on to how delicious feta is on a burger. The briny, dense texture fits right in with the savory meat.
The secret is to choose the right feta. Most feta is made from either goat or sheep milk. Islands don’t have a lot of terrain, and cows need a lot of resources. Goats and sheep are the preferred livestock. Sheep milk feta tends to be fattier, giving your burger an even richer texture. Goat milk cheese will be tangy and a bit sharper.
This Dutch classic is a great choice for when you want to go big with your burger. The deep, sweet flavors of aged gouda set the table for all sorts of combinations. Swing by Karl’s Sausage Kitchen in Peabody and pick up some of their incredible triple-smoked bacon. Spread the slices out on a cookie sheet and liberally sprinkle maple seasoning on both sides and bake away. Top your burger with the bacon, a healthy layer of Gouda, and a drizzle of homemade Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce. Thrown in some Southern-fried sweet onion rings for luck. Better eat this one sitting down.
Triple Crème Cheeses
Have you ever tasted a cheese that was so creamy and dense it just melted in your mouth? So soft and thick you could scoop it out of the rind with a spoon? If so, you’ve probably experienced a triple-crème cheese.
I’m not talking about cream cheese in grey boxes on supermarket shelves. No way. I’m talking about cheeses like Brillat Savarin, Gratte Paille, and the (nearly) criminally-addictive Délice de Bourgogne. These guys boast some of the highest fat content of any cheese, hovering around 75%. To say they are soft, sweet, and creamy would be a massive understatement.
Triple-crème cheeses have a mild flavor, so use other condiments sparingly. Stone fruits like peaches and nectarines nicely compliment the delicate cheese flavor. It’s easy to make a batch of macerated peaches. Spoon some over a turkey burger and slather the cheese on the top bun. If the fruit is simply too good to mess with, don’t. Plenty of times I just smoosh fresh cherries or blueberries right on a beef hamburger, then apply the cheese. The contrast of fresh fruit and rich cheese and meat is delicious.
Because of their high fat content, these cheeses melt quickly. Spread on the cheese right before serving and bring plenty of napkins. This one gets messy.
Washed Rind Cheeses
Made by applying liquid (usually brine) to the rind as the wheel develops, washed-rind cheeses have a someone dicey reputation. On the one hand is often the smell, which can be...assertive. On the other hand, washed-rinds are opulent, gorgeously flavored cheeses that make for an amazing burger. Cheeses like Epoisses, von Trapp Oma, and Taleggio boast flavors and aromas that are buttery, woodsy, mushroomy, and even a bit meaty. They are serious cheeses that make serious burgers.
Mushrooms an easy choice for a topping here, but why stop there? The classic French trick of tossing sauteed mushrooms with breadcrumbs adds a light crunch to each bite. If you have the time and the inclination (and your cholesterol levels permit it), chop up some fresh Italian sausage and sauteed it with the mushrooms. While still hot, scoop in some cheese and stir it up so it becomes goopy and spreadable. Smear it over your burger and let summer roll on.