If you've ever been to Milwaukee, you know that the city is famous, above all else, for one thing: butter burgers. A butter burger is an extraordinary, perfect piece of engineering, and once you’ve had one, you wonder why you would even bother with any other kind of burger. The premise is simple: After the burger has cooked, simply set a pat of butter onto the patty, and let it melt into the space between the meat and the bun on its way to the table. The logic is akin to topping a steak with butter — without any poking or fussing, it melds together with the juices from the beef, creating the only condiment you could ever want (although you’re free to add others).
As far as history knows, the tradition began in the heart of America’s Dairyland with Solly’s Coffee Shop (later renamed Solly’s Grille), in 1936. Solly’s makes their burgers with 100% sirloin, on a dry-toasted bun, with stewed onions and what owner Glenn Fieber describes as “a real glop” of Wisconsin sweet butter. “It just melts as you’re eating it,” says Fieber. Shortly after Solly’s began serving their signature butter burger, a crop of other diners and restaurants around the state began to follow suit with their own versions. Kroll’s West, in Green Bay, began serving a burger beloved by Packers fans that’s cooked on a charcoal grill and topped with ketchup, raw onions, and pickles.
And then the rest of the country caught on. In the '80s, the butter burger moved beyond Wisconsin state borders with the founding of Culver’s, a fast food chain famous for its frozen custard and burgers. Unlike the heaping slabs of butter added to the burgers at Solly’s or Kroll’s West, the conservative amount of butter on Culver’s burgers takes the form of “a lightly buttered, toasted bun.” This is not actually terribly different from the way many diners serve their burgers, but Culver’s helped put the butter-burger combination on the map as a midwestern staple and a source of Wisconsin pride.
These days, lots of chefs put the tried-and-true combo to work on their menus. Shake Shack serves its ShackBurger on a generously buttered potato roll. Other fast food chains have even created their own iterations, like Jack in the Box’s Buttery Jack, or Burger King’s Extra Long Buttery Cheeseburger (though it’s questionable how much actual butter is involved in either). The famous Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern in New York is basted in butter while it cooks. And Gabrielle Hamilton, renowned chef and author of memoir Blood, Bones, and Butter, periodically serves a burger at her restaurant Prune on a toasted English muffin slathered liberally in parsley-shallot butter.
Thankfully, we’ve reached a nexus where butter on burgers is almost as socially acceptable a topping as American cheese. The best part is that you probably have some in your refrigerator right now, just waiting to be transformed into a beautiful weeknight dinner. Grab some ground beef, hamburger buns, and an onion, and get ready for the burger that dreams are made of.
How to Make a Wisconsin-Style Butter Burger at Home
1. Get Your Toppings Ready to Go
While you’re cooking your burger, keep a stick of room-temperature butter at hand. To make a truly authentic butter burger, use sweet Wisconsin butter, but really any good butter will do. Solly’s serves their signature burger with house-made stewed onions. Their recipe is a family secret, but you can make your own version by chopping a white onion, and sautéing it in olive oil over medium heat. When the onion is translucent, add 1/4 cup of water, a splash of vinegar, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cover and continue to cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the onions have re-absorbed most of the liquid.
2. Keep the Meat Simple
All you need to make a great butter burger patty is some really good ground sirloin. Divide the meat into ¼ pound portions, and flatten each one into a very flat, wide disk. Season the outside with salt and pepper. Cook over a hot oiled griddle or a grill for about three minutes on each side.
3. Toast the Bun
To achieve an ideal state of butter melty-ness, toast your bun in a broiler or toaster oven at the same time as you’re cooking your meat so that both are piping hot when it’s time to add the butter. Kaiser rolls or potato buns both work great.
4. Put the Whole Thing Together, Fast!
When the roll is toasted and still hot, and the burger has just finished cooking, place the burger onto the roll, followed by about two tablespoons of butter. Add your stewed onions and any other condiments you’d like, and press the top of the roll down lightly to distribute the melting butter. Eat while it’s warm, with a milkshake and a lot of napkins.
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