There’s a whole lot of customizing that can, and should, be done with burgers. They’re a blank and meaty slate, limited only by our own creativity. Because of this, a lot of scrutiny is placed on that most ubiquitous burger topping: ketchup. Is it a bland and unimaginative choice of sauce, or is it essential to a burger’s character, akin to the patty itself?
I’m surprised by how swiftly the burger-eating public appears to have swung toward a firm anti-ketchup stance. I thought we were still just debating bottled versus housemade ketchup, and in that race, a bottle of Heinz is the uncontested victor. But to forego ketchup entirely in favor of mustard, mayo, thousand island, or anything else, feels a bit drastic to me. Those toppings are all phenomenal accompaniments to the symphony that is a well-crafted hamburger, but the ketchup adds a tangy complement to the savory meat that’s not too sweet, and not merely one more layer of salt. Mayo doesn’t provide quite the same contrast from the bread and patty that ketchup does, and mustard is almost too assertive, distracting from everything else between the top and bottom bun. There’s also a continuity and an efficiency to ketchup that I appreciate: one sauce for both your entree and your side of fries. It’s the flavorful bridge between your meat and your starch. The gravy of fast food mainstays.
One important caveat: I never actually top the burger with ketchup prior to digging in. I keep it off to the side of my plate in a little pool or cup, then dip the burger into it before each bite. This lets you control the sauce ratio, affords full cross-sectional ketchup coverage to each mouthful, and prevents the ketchup from glopping out from under the bun onto your shirt. It also allows for the occasional sauceless bite whenever you want to stop and appreciate the beef (or turkey, or black beans, etc.) on its own.
I have to make a confession here: I don’t actually like ketchup. It’s too sweet for me, too sticky. The only time I will eat it is to improve really, really bad and subpar French fries (the kind that are quite obviously frozen and freezer-burned and inadequately heated up). I do agree, though, that the savoriness of a hamburger and the saltiness of the cheese do require a sweet and acidic contrast. And that is why the good Lord gave us tomatoes.
Tomatoes, it’s true, vary in quality throughout the year. You can’t always depend on getting a fresh, juicy, red tomato. Sometimes you’ll get a sad, crunchy, pinkish thing. More often, you’ll get something in between. If it’s still too dry for you, add a dab of mayo, though not enough that, if you squeeze the burger, everything will come sliding out, like when you try to pinch a watermelon seed between your fingers. However you decide to go about it, a tomato provides enough flavor and texture that there’s no need to resort to ketchup at all.