As you may have already guessed, most "special" sauces made for topping burgers have a base of mayonnaise. If you’ve got the time and consider yourself a good whisker, Husbands, Hart, and Pyenson suggest started with homemade mayonnaise — it makes a huge difference, they say.
When looking at most special sauce recipes, you’ll notice there’s always a hint of acidity in them — whether it’s from vinegar, lemon juice, or even from the juice of pickles. The experts want you to remember that while acidity is important when creating a yin to the burger’s yang, you want to make sure it’s well balanced. They suggest that for every tablespoon of acid you add to your sauce, add a teaspoon of sugar to balance it out.
What sets most of these special sauces apart from each other is that they each have their own style (even if it’s an understated, I’m-Russian-dressing style). Husbands, Hart, and Andrea Pyenson recommend you add your own as well. Signature flavors such as garlic, cumin, or curry powder always add an extra punch, but they warn that it should be very little, ½ teaspoon or less, so that it’s just enough to peak the eaters’ curiosity without dominating the flavor profile of the sauce.
Like a fine, aged wine, your sauce gets better with age, so the authors recommend you let it sit overnight in the refrigerator before enjoying it so that the flavors meld together and it reaches its ultimate umami.
The authors feature this sauce in several different recipes found in their cookbook, and as you can see, it’s the result of the four basic tips they outlined for us. They went to all ends of the flavor world to make their sauce, including using shallots for aromatics, cider vinegar and pickles for acid, mayonnaise for depth, and ketchup for color and flavor. Last but not least, they’ve added 1 teaspoon of sugar to balance out their 1 tablespoon of vinegar. And of course, don’t forget to season it.
Want more sauce? Continue on to see Shake Shack’s sauce, In-N-Out’s sauce, and our favorite sauces from 50 Best Burgers.
"In order to recreate the sauce, I had to ensure that I had a supply that I could taste on its own — away from the other great flavors this burger stacks. So I requested "extra on the side." The friendly woman behind the counter didn’t flinch. She quickly produced a sundae cup half-filled with the neon-salmon-colored sauce. When I took a big sniff, all I could smell was a chemical-esque aroma. Tasting, on the other hand, yielded that wonderful flavor. Several tastings and I was convinced. The secret ingredient? Mustard. Simple yellow mustard. Add that and a pinch of sugar to a Thousand Island-style sauce, and you’ll be surprised how closely it resembles the real deal."
— Devon Alexander
Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium complements their fried onions with a creamy onion spread on their burger, which is a unique and pale-colored variation of a special sauce.
The Daily Meal’s executive editor, Arthur Bovino, says it best when it comes to Shake Shack’s popular sauce:
"Besides the great seasoning and taste of the burger patty, the obvious thing that makes Shake Shack’s ShackBurgers so great is the tangy Shack sauce. It doesn’t have the noticeable bits of relish that you see in In-N-Out sauce, and it’s much lighter in color, but it doesn’t skimp on flavor. Tangy, sweet, with a little zest — when it all comes together with the other flavors, there’s almost a creamy element that rounds out the salt of the burger and the sweet of the bun. It’s a thing of beauty. The day I learned that you could ask for Shack sauce on the side for extra slather on the burger, or for dipping fries was a dangerous one."
As he mentions, Shake Shack’s sauce is very pale in color, so we left out the ketchup when we tried to replicate it, and it gets its pale pink shade from seasonings and red-wine vinegar. Yellow mustard adds a bit of tang, and we’ve also included a bit of sugar to balance out the vinegar.
In-N-Out’s spread that comes on their Animal-style burger is a signature recipe and hasn’t changed since 1948. Well guess what, In-N-Out? We don’t think Thousand Island dressing has changed much since then, either. In all seriousness, though, it’s held by popular belief that their spread is simply Thousand Island. Even copycat guru Todd Wilbur thinks so. To give it a bit of sparkle beyond a store-bought bottle, we created our own replica of the sauce that’s key to achieving the spread found on In-N-Out’s Animal-style burger.