There's something inherently appealing about a small burger. Perhaps, culturally speaking, it stems from the same place as our interest in puppies, kittens, and the Fiat 500: it's the equivalent of something we really like, only smaller. But in a time when burgers can occasionally be dauntingly huge, with arrays of toppings that can sometimes veer into the baroque and even ridiculous, the mini-burger is reassuringly simple: a patty, a bun, and (usually) some variety of topping–including cheese, sauce, and onions, depending on the restaurant.
For all of its simplicity, the mini-burger is also a magnificently versatile item. You'll find them listed as entrees on some menus, and as appetizers on others. There's also the question of where, exactly, the distinction between mini-burgers and sliders can be found, which can be more divisive than one might expect. For the record, several of the people interviewed for this article argued that the two are one and the same. "For us mini-burgers and sliders are the same thing, although the size varies greatly from place to place," said Anthony Malone of the New York City bar and restaurant Swift's Hibernian Lounge, which has been serving mini-burgers for the last ten years.
But for others, the line between the slider and the mini-burger is a more distinctive one. In a 2008 article for Serious Eats, Adam Kuban made the argument that "a slider is something very specific. It is not just a mini-hamburger." For Kuban, the difference comes from the preparation method of a slider: cooking a beef patty with pickles and onions on top creates a very specific combination of flavors, something not necessarily included in a mini-burger. This debate, then, is but one of many semantic arguments with food at the center; there are fewer, however, that involve regular consumption of patties and meat for research purposes.
Even within a limited range, the ingredients of a mini-burger can make a significant difference in its taste. The mini-burgers offered by STK at their locations at cities across the United States (along with London and Milan) feature a Wagyu beef patty, gouda cheese, and sauce on a bun. Andrew Kitko, executive chef of New York's STK Midtown, describes that sauce as "a housemade truffle Thousand Island dressing," upping the savory qualities even further, and notes that the current recipe has been offered since 2010. For Kitko, the essential aspect of their mini-burgers is the patty. "We use Wagyu beef, which is highly marbled so it's very juicy and tender," he said.
For Anthony Malone, the texture of the mini-burgers found at Swift’s Hibernian Lounge is a result of preparation: both what is and is not done. "The trick to getting the right texture is to flatten them out and cook them quickly; they should still be a little pink inside," he noted. "We also season immediately prior to cooking. You should never pre-season good ground beef."
The simplicity of the small hamburger can also be appealing when the patty isn't beef. This past winter, White Castle, who have helped over the years to make the slider ubiquitous, unveiled a vegetarian version. And New York’s Lobster Joint, with locations in Greenpoint and Rockaway Beach, offers a host of sliders made with lobster, fried oysters, and crab cakes. "We began serving sliders in our early months of operation, only at happy hour as a special snack," recalled co-owner Bob Levitt. "When we expanded hours to do lunch, we recognized their popularity and added them to our lunch menu."
Dealing with a more complex set of ingredients makes for a slightly different technique for Lobster Joint's seafood-centric sliders. "The correct texture for a slider is all about the sauce to meat ratio, and the griddle," Levitt said. “We strive for the true juxtaposition of a crispy and creamy center, forming a symbiotic relationship to accompany our fish options. In other words, girdled sweet rolls and tartar sauce makes a good combination."
The mini-burger can also be a good food at social gatherings: both Malone and Kitko noted that they're popular with large groups at their restaurants. And it's easy to see why: there’s an inherent portability to the mini-burger or slider, allowing someone to eat one in a few bites as they walk around a room. Portable, savory, easy to make, and even easier to consume: the mini-burger checks off a number of desirable qualities in a comfort food. To say nothing of being delicious, perhaps the most essential quality of all.
The right way to make mini-burgers (or sliders. Whatever you want to call them)
- 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
- 2 to 3 onions, minced
- 2 tablespoons water
- Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 pound ground sirloin and1 pound of ground brisket, combined
- 20 round bread and butter pickle slices
- 20 slices (2-inch square) white cheese, any type
- 20 soft dinner rolls, split and toasted or steamed
- 20 small lettuce leaves, any type, for serving
- 3 Roma or plum tomatoes, thinly sliced crosswise, for serving
- Ketchup, mayo, and mustard, for serving
- Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small pan. Add onions, and cook until softened, about 1 1/2 minutes. Stir in water, and season with salt and pepper.
- Form 20 patties using 2 tablespoons ground sirloin for each. Place on a rimmed baking sheet, and coat patties with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Press a pickle slice into each patty (refrigerate for up to 2 hours).
- Preheat broiler. Season patties with salt and pepper. Broil for 4 to 5 minutes. Top burgers with cheese during final 30 seconds.
- Spread onion butter on bottom half of each roll, then top with 1 burger. Sandwich with top half of roll, and serve with lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.