What do waffle cones, cotton candy, and the modern day hamburger all have in common?
If you guessed they’re all stalwarts of a healthy diet, you’d be mistaken.
Actually, they were all first introduced to the general public at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Before that fateful day, hamburgers were served sans bun, as a dish called Hamburg-style chopped steak made popular by German immigrants.
Thank God we didn’t have to live through that. Savoring a slab of beef without the tender, flaky goodness of a buttery bun is a hardship only low-carb dieters have to endure these days. And lucky for us Charlestonians, we have topnotch local bakeries rolling out the fresh dough to make a sandwich out of our lonely meat patties.
Tucked between residential houses in Elliotborough sits one such bastion of bread. Brown’s Court Bakery may have it all — focaccia, sourdough, pretzel — but their burger buns happen to be their most popular wholesale item. And that’s not by coincidence. Owner and head baker Dave Schnell experimented to come up with the perfect dough formula.
When Brown’s Court opened its doors almost four years ago, wholesale business was initially slow and Schnell had time to develop recipes. One of his earliest customers was The Ordinary’s Mike Lata. Lata approached Schnell about a burger bun, of which Schnell had several recipes to choose from, but after the first batch, Lata wanted something different. Says Schnell, “Mike Lata was like, ‘I want it to be taller.’ So I started tinkering with it.”
That tinkering resulted in Schnell using baguette starter, or poolish, in his burger bun formula. “It creates an airier quality,” says Schnell, “a little more loft to the bun.”
But Schnell still had to make sure the bun was structurally sound. His solution? Eggs. And lots of ’em.
“We put a ton of eggs in it,” says Schnell. “So with a batch of 80 buns, there’s probably like 250 eggs in there.” For those of you who don’t fancy mathematics, that’s over three eggs a bun.
“It won’t collapse under the weight of the protein,” says Schnell. “And I feel like there’s nothing worse than getting halfway through a burger and the protein is sliding out the side and the bun is already pretty much collapsed. You’re basically eating it with a fork and a knife at that point.”
A little further south on the peninsula, nearing the aquarium and horse-drawn carriages, you’ll find Saffron Café & Bakery serving a slightly different bun. They too use an egg-enriched dough, but they’ve chosen to leave the poolish on the shelf, opting for a different texture. Saffron Master Baker Sharie Aghapour describes it as, “soft and pillowy with a distinct sweetness and density.”
Saffron opened in 1986 and within three years, demand for their artisan breads and pastries had grown so fierce, they had to expand to a second location in North Charleston. And business hasn’t slowed since.
You might think all that success would lead to complacency. Not so. Four years ago they decided to shake things up and reimagine their burger bun. “We switched our recipe to a brioche dough which is rich in butter and it has become very popular,” says Aghapour.
It’s part of a growing trend of experimentation Aghapour has noticed within the bun world. “There is much more of a selection nowadays with wheat and multigrain,” says Aghapour. “But restaurants still prefer the brioche buns over anything else.”
Tell that to Henry Jones, lead baker at Butcher & Bee. He uses an enriched dough known as viennoise for his burger buns. “It’s a common bread in France that is similar to brioche but with less butter and no egg,” says Jones.
Jones is well aware that what makes the perfect burger bun is certainly a matter of opinion, saying, “Some people enjoy the breadier, hoagie like buns for their burgers and sandwiches, and some the ultra soft, squishy ones that almost melt in your mouth due to the amount of fat and enriching ingredients within the dough. Personally I like a bun that falls in between these spectrums.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Jones was indifferent to the buns on his burgers. That is, until he says, “My girlfriend starting making them for a brew pub in Vermont a couple years back. After eating those burgers, the bun became a majorly important part of the burger eating experience for me. It was the first thing I started examining and critiquing when ordering a burger.”
Like Schnell, Jones believes a bun’s structural integrity is of the utmost importance. “Our bun is rich and supple, but it can hold up to a juicy rare burger,” says Jones. “Strength and richness in balance make a great bun.”
Yes, we’ve got our pick of the buns here in the Holy City. And with all the innovative thinkers in our local food and beverage industry, the next big thing in burger buns may be just around the corner. Until the next World’s Fair …