A person who prefers the single cheeseburger over a big juicy double is sort of like a person who likes hamburgers over cheeseburgers — f*cking weird. I’m sorry if that’s mean but I have a hard time understanding why the single fast food cheeseburger is even a thing. If you’re making a burger at home, or hitting up a restaurant I get it, there is no need for a double when you’re dealing with some thick and meaty patties, but the typical fast food cheeseburger is paper thin, throwing off the meat–cheese-bun ratio. They’re almost always too bready and certainly not cheesy enough.
Some fast food restaurants, particularly the local chain variety (Jims, Douglas, Louis, Tams — whatever your city’s equivalent is) have gargantuan cheeseburgers that most people can’t take down in a single sitting. But even at those establishments, I’d rather order a double and split it in half with a friend than grab a single. The single cheeseburger, as far as I’m concerned, is a joke. Which of course got me wondering:
Could any fast food chain prove me wrong? Who actually makes the greatest single cheeseburger in all of fast food?
To get to the bottom of this, I put five single cheeseburgers from my five favorite fast food burger spots to the blind taste test to see if any of them could blow me away.
For this burger experiment, I zeroed in on five different stock cheeseburgers from a mix of fast casual and fast food restaurants. These five burger brands represent, in our opinion, the best of the best in the fast food landscape. The five brands we picked have routinely ranked in the top tier of our various double cheeseburger rankings, so presumably, the single cheeseburgers should also be delicious.
Because I wanted fair parameters, I opted against obscure burger builds and secret menu items with one exception. Here are the burgers we’re working with:
- McDonald’s — Quarter Pounder
- Five Guys — Patty Melt
- In-N-Out — Single Cheeseburger
- Shake Shack — Shack Burger
- Wendy’s — Dave’s Single
So why Five Guys’ Patty melt over a regular Five Guys single cheeseburger? Because the patty melt uses the exact same bun, but flips it inwards, and the result is a significantly better burger (see our single review here). It won’t cost you more, it’s essentially the same burger, but better — so who is getting hurt here?
Because most of these burger restaurants aren’t right next to each other like the other restaurants in our fast food blind taste tests, it would’ve been impossible to make it home in time without the burgers getting soggy and cold, so I ate them at a local park. As an additional measure, I ordered each burger without sauce so they wouldn’t get too soggy in transit. That’s going to make each burger drier, but it’ll give the other ingredients an opportunity to really shine.
Once the five burgers were rounded up, I wore a blindfold and had my girlfriend cut each burger in half, and pass me each at random (I photographed the remaining half after the fact). I recorded some voice notes of my initial impressions, and once I had tasted all of them, ranked ’em from worst tasting to best. Here are the results.
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Part 1: The Burger Tasting
Meaty and salty, I’m getting a pronounced American cheese flavor here that pairs nicely with the beefy flavor, which is very present despite this being a single cheeseburger. The tomato adds a blast of freshness, but this lettuce is terrible, it waters the burger down and drowns out some of the flavor.
I’m getting a small hint of onion in this one, not really enough to be prominent in each bite but enough to give a subtle spicy kick on the aftertaste.
The beef here is overcooked, it’s dry and mealy. This is the sort of burger that obviously uses sauce to hide that. It’s cheesy and beefy with brine-y pickle notes and a very sharp onion finish. I don’t love this one, but I think it works as a single, it packs a lot of flavor.
Wonderfully savory, the last two burgers gave me a sense that I was wrong to think single cheeseburgers were a waste of time but this one really seals the deal. The beef is juicy and bursting with flavor with each bite. The cheese has more complexity than Taste 1 and Taste 2, aside from being salty it has a sweet-almost-buttery vibe.
The lettuce and tomato combination are salad fresh, the tomato imparts a nice sumptuous umami flavor that pairs well with some caramelized notes on the beef. The real star though is that bun, it’s soft, sweet, and a bit gummy, it’s not dry at all, almost like a Hawaiian sweet roll. I think we might have a winner on our hands here.
I spoke too soon, this burger is even more of a flavor bomb than the last. It doesn’t have the same complexity, the tomatoes and lettuce are barely noticeable, but what you get instead is rich beefy flavors, complex and rich caramelized onion notes, perfectly melted cheese, and a buttery bun that is toasted and crispy, yet soft on the inside, altogether combining for a perfect savory bite.
It’s not as elegant as Taste 3, and it’s getting all over my hands and face, but from a flavor perspective, it’s a home run.
Right off the bat, this bun is over-toasted. I feel like I’m eating a straight-up piece of morning toast, when I bite into it there is an audible crunch. I don’t like that. From a flavor perspective, it’s very good — it’s salty with easily the best-caramelized onion flavor of the lot, the lettuce is very prominent, and the tomato imparts a lot of juiciness, which makes up for the lack of sauce.
But where is the beef? I’m just not getting enough of it. What is there is good, but this desperately needs to be a double. It’s going to be hard to rank this one, the flavor is great, but the form factor is all off.
Part 2: The Burger Ranking
5. McDonald’s — Quarter Pounder (Taste 2)
Maybe it’s the lack of sauce but I’m pretty sure either way this burger would’ve ranked last. It’s just too dry in comparison to the competition, and now that I know it’s McDonald’s that makes a whole lot of sense. Of the five fast food burgers we ate, this is the only one that uses flash-frozen patties.
Aside from the dry meat, it just feels like the other ingredients are doing too much of the heavy lifting. Too much onion, too many pickles, when I order a burger I want the meat to be the star of the show. This one fails that so it’s ranking last.
The Bottom Line:
As a single cheeseburger, it works, but at the end of the day, it was the beef that held this one back in comparison to the other four.
Find your nearest McDonald’s here.
4. Wendy’s — Dave’s Single (Taste 1)
I ride hard for the Dave’s Single and because it uses fresh beef I thought it had a chance against the fast-casual chains but… it doesn’t. In this case it’s not the beef that holds this burger back, it’s everything else. The lettuce and tomato here are too watery, the bun is thick and bready, and the pickles and onions are flavorful, but not enough to really compete with what the other burgers offer.
The Bottom Line:
In the landscape of big national fast food chains, Wendy’s probably makes the best single cheeseburger you can buy. But against the fast casual chains that specialize in burgers, this one just lacks complexity.
Find your nearest Wendy’s here.
3. In-N-Out — Single Cheeseburger (Taste 5)
In-N-Out is my favorite burger chain so this one hurts but the experience of eating this single cheeseburger is probably why I think single cheeseburgers are a waste of time in the first place. It just doesn’t work. The beef is way too thin, so what you end up with is a lot of bread, lettuce, tomato, and onion flavor.
All of those individual ingredients are good but that doesn’t matter when it drowns out all the beef flavor.
The Bottom Line:
At In-N-Out, you have to get a Double Double. Period.
Find your nearest In-N-Out here.
2. Shake Shack — Shack Burger (Taste 3)
Shake Shack was so close to taking the number one spot here (the Shack won our Double Cheeseburger Challenge). I have no complaints about this burger, it was near perfect. Each ingredient delivered here but the true highlight was that perfectly cooked beef patty. It was rich, complex, and featured a perfect Maillard reaction-type crust.
It’s also considerably thick, Shake Shack’s burger has a pretty small footprint in comparison to the other burgers we tasted but the patty itself is very thick and meaty — this allows for a nice meat-cheese-bun ratio.
The Bottom Line:
A perfect burger, every element delivers but it’s not quite as decadent as our number one choice and decadence wins.
Find your nearest Shake Shack here.
1. Five Guys — Patty Melt (Taste 4)
Is it wrong to give what is essentially a patty melt the number one spot in a single cheeseburger ranking? Nope. At the end of the day, the best single cheeseburger you can order is from Five Guys. I mean, is it really even a patty melt when it’s the same bun just flipped inside out? We don’t think so… not quite, at least.
If you’re scratching your head about how to order this, it’s easy, just ask for “grilled cheese, add a patty, grilled onions, lettuce, and tomato,” and bam, you’ve got a burger that rivals Five Guys’ Little Cheeseburger in every single way.
While I don’t think the beef is quite as delicious as Shake Shack’s, the toasted bun takes the whole experience to the next level thanks to the savory and salty buttery flavor that greets your tastebuds on each bite. Couple that with the insane amount of cheese and you have a decadent burger that satisfies your tastebuds as much as any double or bacon cheeseburger ever could.
The Bottom Line:
The best single cheeseburger in fast food is a slight menu hack, but once you try it you’ll never turn back. This burger is so good it can rival any double cheeseburger in the fast food universe. It comes across as more decadent, savory, and enjoyable than any simple double-meat cheeseburger in the fast food landscape.
If you want rich flavor and a decadent experience but don’t want all the extra meat, this is the move.
Find your nearest Five Guys here.