I tried the Big Mac, Whopper and Dave's Single. They share the same major flaw.
Americans hate fast-food hamburgers. We mock their ingredients, stare slack-jawed at their high sodium counts and blame them for our expanding waistlines. We consistently rank the Big Three burger chains - McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's - near the bottom of America's most satisfying fast-food options.
Americans love fast-food hamburgers. Every year, we pound down millions of Big Macs, Whoppers and Dave's Singles, as if trying to confirm the outside world's opinion that many Americans have ground beef running through their veins. Despite our apparent distaste for Wendy's, Burger King and McDonald's when a pollster calls, we have consistently made these companies among the highest grossing fast-food chains in America.
What gives? Are we hypocrites? Addicted to cheap food? Or maybe we're just too weak to avoid one of the thousands of locations of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's that dot the landscape?
I have an alternative theory: Intellectually, we may embrace the local, praise the seasonal and hail the chef. But our cravings call us on our self-deceptions. Some part of us - the part that covertly eats Mickey D's in the car - still longs for the fast-food burger. We can't help it. We're hard-wired to desire the salt, sugar and fat tucked into every one of these gift-wrapped bundles. It should be okay to admit it, even if it's not okay to live off them.
I've eaten a lot of Whoppers, Big Macs and Dave's Singles lately, and I've been reminded of two things: They're often seductive sandwiches, and they're not hamburgers. Not really. Yes, technically, they feature a ground beef patty tucked into a bun. But the meat is not the star, as you'll see when you read the results of my taste tests.
The largest patty, by weight, is the one buried in the Whopper: At best, it tipped the scales (yes, I lugged a digital scale with me) at about three ounces, but the beef still represented only about 30 percent of the overall weight of the hamburger. None of the patties among the Big Three ever assumed more than 35 percent of the burger's total weight, and some recorded percentages in the mid-20s.
Let's put this into context: Experts in hamburger engineering, like chef Alex McCoy of Lucky Buns in Washington, say a burger should be 50 percent meat and 50 percent bun and condiments. Ideally, a hamburger should be 60 percent meat, adds Mark Bucher, the founder and former owner of BGR: The Burger Joint. He should know: Bucher was twice a top-10 finalist in the World Burger Championship.
The Big Mac, Whopper and Dave's Single, by contrast, are between 65 and 76 percent bun and condiments, which may explain why they all still cost under $5 each in the Washington market. It's easy for a patty to get lost among those competing flavors - unless, of course, the patty comes with a controversial flavor.
Introduced in 1957 in Miami, the Whopper has been credited with saving a then-fledgling Burger King chain. BK founders David Edgerton and James McLamore created the two-fisted burger after visiting an underperforming store in Gainesville, Florida, where a rival restaurant had a long line of customers eagerly awaiting its oversize hamburger.
The Whopper offered a quarter-pound of beef long before McDonald's rolled out its Quarter Pounder nationally in 1972.
The Whopper is also the only hamburger among the Big Three to be cooked over a flame. Burger King uses a charbroiler that Edgerton invented in the 1950s, after he took a hatchet to a malfunctioning machine that was supposed to represent the cutting edge of hamburger-cooking technology.
Frozen patties come out of the broiler with grill marks and a distinct smokiness. Internet conspiracists have long suggested the chain adds Liquid Smoke or some other agent to give the burger its "flame grilled" flavor.
Burger King had a one-word email response when I asked whether the company uses anything to pump up the smokiness of its burgers: No. The word was typed in red text, as if BK were incensed about having to answer the question one more time.
But the question is important. That very smokiness is what makes the Whopper instantly recognizable as a hamburger. The Whopper recalls backyard barbecues, with burgers dripping grease onto blisteringly hot coals. It's quite a trick for a multinational corporation with employees who wear matching uniforms, not shorts and flip-flops.
McDonald's created the Big Mac because it feared the Whopper, wrote Ray Kroc, the guiding light behind the burger behemoth, in his 1977 autobiography "Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's."
The Big Mac was introduced nationwide in 1968, a year after it was developed by Jim Delligatti, a franchisee in western Pennsylvania. Delligatti, who died in 2016 at age 98, spent weeks working on the "special sauce." Its ingredients were once top secret - in the days before the government required large chains to post nutritional information. Somehow I suspect Delligatti's original sauce didn't include high-fructose corn syrup and propylene glycol alginate.
Still, the Big Mac may be the only burger whose major ingredients have been memorized by a generation or two of Americans in song form. It's definitely the only one used as a metric to measure foreign currency against the dollar.
When the 1960s came to an end, Esquire magazine hosted a huge party and invited McDonald's to cater it because, as Kroc wrote, the hamburger chain had "the biggest impact on the eating habits of Americans in the decade." A couple generations later, millennials don't understand what the fuss is all about. A Wall Street Journal article in 2016 went viral after quoting from an internal McDonald's memo, which claimed that only one in five millennials had ever tried a Big Mac.
One theory is that younger diners, who witnessed the horrors of Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" documentary and heard the endless stories about childhood obesity, have shunned McDonald's in favor of seemingly more healthful alternatives, like Chipotle. But millennials may also just want a burger that actually, you know, tastes like a burger: In The Washington Post's tests, the Big Mac's meat-to-bun ratio was frequently the lowest among the Big Three, sometimes as low as 24 percent beef.
As a competitor famously asked in a 1984 commercial: Where's the beef? Some 34 years later, it's still a relevant question for McDonald's Big Mac.
Dave Thomas, the avuncular founder of Wendy's, made his first million as a KFC franchisee. But his true love was always the hamburger, which is why he never liked the Golden Arches. "It takes a certain percentage of meat to make a good [burger]," Thomas wrote in "Dave's Way," his 1991 memoir. "Instead, McDonald's impressed me with two things: their real estate and their potatoes."
The Single - now the Dave's Single - debuted in 1969 at the first Wendy's in Columbus, Ohio. Unlike McDonald's or Burger King, Wendy's relied on fresh, never frozen, beef. (Worth noting: McDonald's recently announced it will soon prepare all Quarter Pounders with fresh beef.)
As Wendy's expanded far and wide, the chain's ads promoting its fresh beef would occasionally come under attack. In 2008, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus rejected Burger King's complaint contending that Wendy's couldn't substantiate its "always fresh, never frozen" commercials. Wendy's, however, did pull ads in Alaska and Hawaii, where the company said it relied on frozen beef.
The Single is also unique in that it features a square patty. It allows diners to see exactly how large the Wendy's patty is and symbolizes a lesson that Thomas learned from his "Grandma Minnie": You never cut corners. Those four corners played a prominent role in a 1989 sci-fi/rap mash-up video designed to train cooks on how to properly cook a Wendy's patty. Among the lines delivered by a rapper in a glittery uniform:
"What's coming up next is a key to success/we'll turn the meat and do a four-corner press."
It's hard to know what Thomas, who died in 2002 at age 69, would think of the modern Dave's Single. The quarter-pound patty, after cooking, makes up only 35 percent of the overall sandwich. At best. Sometimes, the meat was as little as 32 percent of the burger. Dave's Single, in short, has become the kind of burger that its founder once despised.
Maybe the fast-food hamburger has never been about the meat. I don't know. I can't beam myself back to 1975 to make comparisons. But I know that, in 2018, three of America's most beloved fast-food burgers rarely surrender a drop of beef juice. Every patty I sampled had been rendered into a rubbery pot holder. Which raises the question: What do these burgers taste like, then? Mostly condiments and bun.
The Big Mac smacked of onions, pickles, bun and special sauce, which still manages to trip all the receptors on my palate, no matter what's mixed into it these days. The Whopper (I added cheese to it, and to the Dave's Single, to make easier comparisons, since the Big Mac automatically gets a slice of American) had the freshest toppings, including ripe, surprisingly flavorful spring tomatoes. It also has that flame-grilled thing, which only plays to my love for smoky meats.
Dave's Single proved the wild card: One time, the burger featured the closest thing to a juicy patty. Three other times, it tasted like something pulled from the Potomac River. I tried to pinpoint the source of the wharf-ish flavors. As best as I could tell, the pickle's brine, when mixed with the pools of ketchup and mayo slathered on the bun, produces a bite that I've come to know as Dave's Fishburger.
Not surprisingly, Dave's Fishburger finished at the bottom of my rankings, scoring six out of a possible 15 points. (Each burger was awarded between one and five points in three categories: bun/toppings, quality of beef, and overall impression.) The Big Mac took second with eight points, and the Whopper was declared the victor with 10 points. Even if I subtract the point I awarded the Whopper for its smoky flavor, it still would have won owing to its superior condiments. Because - all together now - the nation's best fast-food burger is not about the beef.
Tim Carman is a food reporter at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 2010. Previously, he served for five years as food editor and columnist at Washington City Paper.