The Great Hamburger Shootout

Posted by on July 3rd, 2011

It’s almost summer time and the smell of charcoal is starting to fill the air. Soon, millions of Americans won’t be able to resist the sizzling siren song of the grill and will venture into their backyards, parks and gathering places for a tradition begun almost at the moment when man first learned to capture fire.

But what is a hungry omnivore to do when his stomach craves bread, meat and cheese, but the winter stores left in his wallet don’t exactly make him Mr. Monopoly?

If it’s burgers he wants, his first reaction might be making a beeline straight for the nearest fast-food joint – but is that really the most budget-conscious way to eat? I suspected not, and set out to find just where the best deal could be had. Along the way, I found some surprising (and not-so-surprising) results, while learning a few things about one of the intrinsically American foods.

Burgers are simple: a patty, a bun, some condiments and maybe cheese. They lend themselves to comparison and often are. Although there are many articles, blogs and TV shows devoted to finding burger perfection, I was looking for something different. Considering that most burgers are somewhat palatable (yes, even McDonald’s), I wanted to know how they stacked up in other areas. First off, price: Who had the best deal on burgers and how could I make a fair comparison?

If you were going strictly by price, McDonald’s seems like the best deal with a cheeseburger for $1.08. Now consider that cheeseburger has only 300 calories – when other cheeseburgers easily push the 1,000-calorie mark, costing only a few dollars more – and the deal seems less sweet. To get a better picture of how much a cheeseburger really costs, I decided I would need to compare five different burgers on a per-calorie basis — far from a complete survey but sufficient for this comparison. Two of the burgers would come from fast-food chains, one from a restaurant where you needn’t look upward at the menu, and two more would be homemade. My one requirement for the restaurant was that it post the nutrition facts online and serve the burgers to go.

McDonald’s provided a good baseline for dirt-cheap price with the $1.08 cheeseburger. In-N-Out serves a better burger (my favorite fast-food burger), and their prices show it at $2.34 for a cheeseburger. At Applebee’s, I had to estimate price because their burger price includes fries, it came out to about $7.28. For the homemade burgers, I made one fancy and another on the cheap side.

The fancy burger’s ingredients came mostly from Trader Joe’s, and I used 80/20 ground beef instead of pre-made lean patties; it cost $2.90. I found most of the ingredients for the basic homemade burger at Costco and bought enough supplies to make about 12 cheeseburgers, each of them cost $1.38.

Once I had brought all the burgers home (and absorbed the funny looks from the drive-through employees eyeing my array of to-go bags), the differences in calories became clear. A one-to-one comparison between the McDonald’s 300-calorie burger would be way off when compared to the 1,000-plus calorie, fancy homemade burger.

I added up the ingredients in the homemade burgers, then divided the price by the total calories which gave me a price per calorie. Then I multiplied by 500 and got my final grounds for comparison. When I looked at the prices adjusted to 500 calories, I was surprised to find that the fancy in-house burger still beat out all of the fast-food burgers by a few cents, and I was disappointed that my favorite cheeseburger happened to be one of worst deals. Oh well, I guess you get what you pay for.

Going into the experiment, I had a hunch that cooking at home would always beat fast food (at least when ingredients are purchased in moderate quantities), and that hunch proved to be true. If there’s one thing to take away, it is this: Summertime is for grilling and cooking at home with friends – which might be the best deal you can find, anyway you look at it.

These graphics were originally published on May 12, 2011 in the Santa Ynez Valley Journal.

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