Why Is It Called a Hamburger If There’s No Ham?

The iconic hamburger has a rich international history that's still up for debate.

The origin of any well-loved dish is always fascinating, but even more so when it’s as iconic as the hamburger. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the backyard barbecue staple as “a flat, round cake of minced beef, fried or grilled and typically served in a bread roll garnished with various condiments.” One thing that generally doesn’t make the ingredients list? Ham. This begs the question: Why is a hamburger called a hamburger if there isn’t any ham in it?

If you’ve ever wondered the same at a baseball game or carnival, you’re not alone. We’ve researched how the meaty dish got its name so you don’t have to. For more interesting food origin stories, read about the person who invented the hamburger, the genius who invented pizza, what American cheese is made of, and some other fun food facts trivia.

How did the hamburger get its name?

There’s no clear reason as to why a hamburger is called a hamburger, but our best guess is right in the name: The origins can be traced back to Hamburg, Germany. As Europeans began to immigrate to the United States en masse in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought with them their favorite foods, including Hamburg steaks, or fried patties of minced beef and chopped onions that were bound together with eggs, bread crumbs, and mild spices.

The burger as we know it today evolved from Hamburg steaks. The name of the German dish was shortened to “Hamburgs” and then, when the beef was eventually sandwiched between two slices of bread, to “hamburgers.” Some sources claim the word “hamburger” first appeared on a menu in 1873, when Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City advertised a hamburger steak. Americans later abbreviated it to “burgers.”

But is this really why a hamburger is called a hamburger? As with other popular foods, there are many people who take credit for not only the word but also the idea.

Were the inventors actually brothers Frank and Charles Menches, who placed a beef patty between two slices of bread at a county fair in Hamburg, New York, in 1885? Was it teenager Charlie Nagreen, who placed meatballs between slices of bread and sold them as hamburgers at the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour, Wisconsin, that same year? Or was it Oscar Weber Bilby, who first sandwiched a patty in a bun in 1891 in Tulsa, Oklahoma? Maybe, as locals will tell you, the first hamburgers were served at Louis’ Lunch sandwich shop in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900.

Perhaps the idea belongs to all of them. At the time, there was a great deal of movement between American states—and thousands of immigrants who made the country their home and brought with them their traditions, stories, and meals. No matter who originally came up with the sandwiched patty, the national love affair with the hamburger thrives to this day, with burgers being about as American as it gets.

What is the difference between a beef burger and a hamburger?

There is no difference! While we can’t say for sure why a hamburger is called a hamburger, beef burgers are still called hamburgers, even though there’s no ham in them. The term “Hamburg” influenced the modern food’s name, perhaps because Hamburg steak so closely resembles the beef patty, so every burger is considered a hamburger, including those with meatless patties.

Why is a burger not a sandwich?

You’ve likely heard one of the other great food-centric debates of our generation: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Here’s a related and equally controversial take: Although the hamburger originated as a beef patty (or meatballs) placed between two slices of bread, a burger is not a sandwich.

In order to explain, we’ll refer you to the origins of the sandwich. In the 18th century, on the rainy isle known as England, the Earl of Sandwich grew frustrated with the way mealtime was constantly interrupting his day. He ordered his cook to serve him meat placed within slices of bread so that he didn’t have to abandon his duties for a meal. And so the sandwich was born. Of course, as is the case with these things, the convenient dish became incredibly popular.

So if a sandwich is meat between two pieces of bread, and a burger is meat between two pieces of bread, then why is a burger not a sandwich? Well, therein lies the debate. But consider this: There are many subtle differences between the two (like the type of bread used and the way the bread is cut), not the least of which is the filling. A burger will always contain one or more grilled patties of ground food—meat or vegetables or faux meat—and will always be circular.

The modern hamburger also always involves buns, specifically, not sliced bread. In this case, bread isn’t what makes them the same; it’s the one detail that makes them completely different.

We’ve answered the question “why is a hamburger called a hamburger?” We’ve explored the many origins of this favorite dish. And we’ve delved into the sandwich debate. By now, we can all agree on one thing: The history of popular foods is as fascinating as it is complicated. Whether you prefer your hamburger with french fries and ketchup, rare or well done, or exclusively from McDonald’s, happy eating!

Next, read up on what the best burger is in every state.

Sources:

Popular Videos

Awanthi Vardaraj
Awanthi Vardaraj has written varied pieces for publications such as The Washington Post, BBC Travel, Saveur, NPR, Brooklyn Mag, GOOD, Buzzfeed, The Kitchn, and more. She lives in a small beachside home in Chennai, India, and is owned by two cats and several hundred books.