The late Anthony Bourdain once quipped, in what has become a bit of a viral video since, that if he posted a picture to Instagram of him, Keith Richards, Christopher Walken, and the Dalai Lama all doing bong rips together, it would get far fewer likes than a picture of his In-N-Out burger all by itself on table. While I’d love to see the former (especially in an Instagram Reel), I can also attest to the popularity of a quality In-N-Out burger pic. And part of its beauty comes down to one crucial element of burger-making: a technique I’ve dubbed the wrap and hold.
The “wrap and hold” means just that: After you have assembled a burger (cooked patty, toppings, bun), you wrap said burger in food-grade paper, like most fast food restaurants do, and let the burger rest for a few minutes before serving it. I spoke with chefs and burger connoisseurs about the phenomenon in an effort to validate my hypothesis that when a burger is wrapped in paper and held for just a few minutes, the burger tastes better.
First up was Denny Warnick, COO of In-N-Out Burger, where burgers are always served half wrapped, as seen in the photo above. The company’s main reason for this presentation is, as Warnick puts it, “so the customer can take a bite right away, without unwrapping it.”
As a frequent In-N-Out consumer (it’s my fast food burger of choice), I can confidently add that the half wrap also maintains the burger’s composition—at least until you can get two hands around it. Once that happens, I’ve found that the best bite is the part where the burger was wrapped. In fact, my In-N-Out burger hack advocates for unwrapping the burger and taking your first bite from the wrapped end, where the juices have settled. It’s nothing short of dripping burger glory.
Chef Alvin Cailan, host of The Burger Show from First We Feast, has a lot to say on the subject. At his restaurants, all the burgers used to be served wrapped, a rarity for most full-service or fast-casual establishments. However, the practice didn’t continue.
“We found that most of our customers strip the wrapper off as soon as they sit down, so it was just a waste of paper,” Cailan said. Nevertheless, it’s a solid presentation, and his signature egg sandwiches are still served with the wrapping, because “something magical happens to them when they’re snuggled up in a wrapper.”
Cailan added that there’s a practical reason for any of us to wrap our homemade burgers: It will hold moisture in the typical commercial store-bought buns, which tend to dry out.
Chef Jonathan Lee of Carpenters Hall in Austin makes one of the most highly regarded burgers in the city. As someone serving food in a professional capacity, he believes a wrapped burger “eliminates user error.” Lee takes things a step further by letting the cooked meat rest before wrapping. Loaded burgers and non-rested patties risk a soggy bun, so a short rest time for the patty before proper layering the bottom bun is key.
That concern for a soggy bottom bun is often on the mind of TV writer turned fast food expert Bill Oakley, whose tremendous passion for the drive-thru can be seen on Instagram and via his annual Steamie Awards celebrating excellence in fast food. Naturally, he has plenty of thoughts to share about burgers—yet he’s an admitted “soggy-bun-phobe,” and as such, he’s hesitant to endorse the wrap-and-hold approach.
“The upside of a wrapped burger is a compact and efficient, easily graspable burger,” Oakley said. “The downside, which may only be a downside for me, is a soaked, spongy bun full of meat juice. I prefer the bun in its original form.”
While there is a divide on preference, the redistribution of burger juices, or “settling,” is an indisputable phenomenon.
While my journey probing the minds of these burger experts took some unexpected twists and turns, it turns out that perhaps the foremost authority on burgers, George Motz, is the Crick to my Watson in cracking the DNA of burger flavor.
Motz encapsulates my wrap-and-hold theory in another catchy phrase: accidental flavor technique. He discovered for himself the flavor transformation of a burger that’s been wrapped while dining at New Jersey slider institution White Manna.
“We all know White Manna does not salt the burger,” Motz said. “No seasoning. But when you add salt... after it is served, it saves the day. During the pandemic, White Manna would wrap them, and they would somehow taste better? Maybe it’s the salt of American cheese mixing? When you wrap up a burger in paper there is an environmental science project, something is going on in there. It only takes two minutes for magic to happen.”
At his upcoming restaurant, Hamburger America, Motz plans to do a three-quarters wrap on his burgers. His example comes from Los Angeles, and it’s partially a presentation thing. Primarily, though, it’s rooted in efficiency, whether a customer is catching the lunch rush at a burger counter like The Apple Pan or pulling out of the drive-thru at In-N-Out; Motz muses on the feeling of a burger in one hand and the steering wheel in the other while merging onto the 405.
Here are the main takeaways from my own experiments at home: Very briefly rest the patty, preferably over onions, before placing it on the bun. Top the burger as you like, then wrap in paper (I use butcher paper), and let it rest again for 2-4 minutes, depending on thickness of the patty. The juices will redistribute, every element will mingle, and you will be left with a flavor experience greater than the sum of its parts.
Part of the magic we lose when cooking burgers at home is the frenetic energy in a burger restaurant (or any restaurant, really). Speed and efficiency drive so many burger techniques, and, like Motz said, “accidental flavor techniques” can happen there, too, like toasting buns on a flattop covered in a thin layer of rendered beef fat, a phenomenon that might not me happening on your cast iron at home. For any of you home cooks looking to up your burger game, especially as grilling season arrives, heed my advice and wrap that burger. You will see why more than one professional calls the result magic.