What You Don't Know About Five Guys' Free Toppings

According to ABC News, everyone and their mother loves Five Guys. That's pretty accurate if you consider that fans include Barack and Michelle Obama, the Harris Poll people who bestow coveted Brand of the Year awards on various companies, and the Canadian guy on Tripadvisor who claimed that digging into a Five Guys burger restored his faith in the "sacred cuisine of hamburgers" after a traumatic venison burger experience at an upscale eatery.

While all these folks, and many more, love Five Guys for its burgers, what really sets Five Guys apart from the pack are its seemingly limitless toppings. In truth, there are only 15, all of them deliciously free. However, the possible mixing and matching of these 15 are mind-boggling. When some mathematically inclined burger freak did the arithmetic, the final calculus added up to more than 250,000 options, a result that, if lacking in precision, is nonetheless wildly generous in that it's more possible combinations than exist at any other fast food chain in America. Or as Esquire's Snacktivist says: "Come for the burgers, stay for the agony of choice."

To help alleviate the agony, we've tried to clarify a few of the many possibilities by providing the lowdown on Five Guys' toppings.

Despite 250,000 possibilities, some Five Guys topping combos work better than others

For those too lazy (or famished) to wade through all those possible topping combos themselves — and loathe to take the easy way out by going "All The Way" — Five Guys fanboys/girls are eager to share some delicious shortcuts.

On Serious Eats, pungent suggestions come from love2cook, who favors lettuce, mushrooms, fried and raw onions, sometimes opting for "double raw onion plus the fried onion! Wanna smell my breath?" BigWoollyMammoth concurs. Although, in keeping with the size implied by his/her handle, BWM divides the raw and the fried between two double burgers, also topped with mustard, ketchup, mayo, and pickles.

Quora's most upvoted suggestion comes courtesy of a former Five Guys employee who swears "you can't go wrong with ketchup, A1, lettuce, pickle, grilled jalapenos, and extra cheese." On Twitter, Five Guys tweeted a "Love it!!" to Corey O'Donnell, who advocates for "two extra patties, extra cheese, extra bacon, grilled mushrooms, grilled onions, pickles, bbq sauce, and to top it off, a handful of fries." Then there's Thrillist's reviewer who swears by the "alchemy" generated from mixing barbecue sauce and mayo with acidic pickles and heat-radiating jalapeños to create "a pretty damn glorious burger."

Finally, back in his White House days, Barack Obama was known to frequent Five Guys on the occasions when arugula just wasn't cutting it. Typically classy yet understated, his cheeseburger topped with lettuce, tomato, jalapeño, and mustard became known unofficially as "The Presidential."

Five Guys toppings may be messy, but they're stacked strategically

If you think Five Guys employees just randomly toss the toppings onto a bun, think again. Even with the most flamboyantly dressed burgers or hot dogs, there's a method to the mess.

In an interview with Monsoon Martin, former Five Guys PR Manager Molly Catalano describes the "finely tuned" assembly of the burgers. The logistics were perfected by the Five Guys themselves — founder Jerry Murrell and his five sons — long before they ever opened their first location. The Guys' savvy tweaking resulted in burgers designed to optimize flavor combinations while maximizing the speed of each burger's assembly.

In 2019, The Manchester Evening News was treated to a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Five Guys' stacking process. Working their way up from the bottom, employees start by layering the bottom bun with hot stuff such as grilled mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and jalapeños, creating a warm and welcoming bed for the well-cooked hamburger patty.

On the top bun, they slather the cooler likes of mayo, relish, pickles, and lettuce. Tomato slices are always the final ingredient to be stacked onto the top bun, and for good reason. They serve as excellent thumb rests with which to dexterously flip the fully dressed top bun onto the naked burger. Once everything's stacked up in perfect order, the completed burger is delicately wrapped in foil, ensuring minimal squish-ability and maximum deliciousness.

Any Five Guys topping can be grilled

Although Five Guys only has 15 toppings to choose from, the possibilities are amplified when you contemplate that all of the fresh toppings can be enjoyed raw, grilled, or (why not?) both!

While any Five Guys toppings can be grilled, some lend themselves better to the griddle than others. On Ranker's classification of favorite Five Guys toppings, grilled onions came in second (after cheese), far ahead of raw onions in tenth place. Although Thrillist reviewer Kevin Alexander scatters some culinary shade on Five Guys' onion-grilling technique — noting a tendency to undercook that prevents proper caramelization — Five Guys fanatics such as kh27 (on Reddit) and Corey O'Donnell (on Twitter) love themselves some grilled onions, caramelization be damned.

While grilled mushrooms are ranked eighth by Ranker (raw mushrooms don't even make the cut), the survey doesn't include either grilled peppers, which are highly endorsed by former Five Guys employee Addison Stanford who claims the heat causes the flavors to pop. Stanford's observations are backed up by Grills Zone, which explains how grilling activates vegetables' natural sugars to enhance flavors.

There are also health benefits to searing your toppings. As Beginner Grilling points out, grilling retains more nutrients than other forms of cooking. Because they're high in dietary fiber, grilled veg also counteract some of the inevitable bloating that comes from downing carb-heavy foods such as burger buns and high-fat-and-sugar condiments such as mayo and ketchup.

Even when grilled, the mushrooms at Five Guys might be risky

One of Five Guys' many claims to fast food fame is that, unlike many of its rivals who resort to frozen produce, almost all of its ingredients are fresh (and you thought all those bags of potatoes hanging around the store were just decor). This includes almost all the vegetables used for its toppings. Five Guys' fresh onions, peppers, tomatoes, and lettuce are all cut open, sliced, and diced on the very day you order them.

The exception to Five Guys' freshness rule is Five Guys' mushrooms. As Delish points out, although Five Guys prides itself on not using frozen produce — and thus not having any freezers — mushrooms are one of the very few items that are kept in a state of chill by being stored in coolers. In an interview with Trend Chaser, Five Guys employees copped to coming across moldy mushrooms in bags, an unappetizing occurrence that can take place when naturally moist raw mushrooms aren't completely or properly frozen (shroom experts recommend steaming or sautéeing shrooms prior to freezing).

The consumer site IWasPoisoned is full of plenty of reported food poisoning incidents involving Five Guys burgers as well as some involving mushrooms in general. Fortunately, to date, Food Guys' mushrooms haven't apparently wreaked havoc on any diners' digestive systems. That said, beware of any potentially strange odors emanating from your shrooms, a sign they may have gone bad. It's better to be safe than sick.

Five Guys mayo is ultra-exclusive (not to mention ultra-caloric)

When Five Guys first started out in 1986, among the Guys' many difficult decisions was what mayonnaise to use. Founding father Jerry Murrell claims he and his sons sampled 16 different creamy possibilities before selecting The One. When the company later stopped producing this prized mayo, the Guys decided to privately label their own.

Today, Five Guys' mayo is made for them exclusively by Heinz and is customized to have the ideal level of creaminess and taste for their burgers. As a Five Guys employee claims, the house mayo's extra creaminess comes with a hidden cost: a whopping high calorie count. It comes in at 756 calories per 100 grams compared to an industry average of 500 to 600 calories. "Very unhealthy yes, but the FG mayo is another level of goodness and I could eat it with a spoon."

Mashed points out that Five Guys' mayo is the most caloric of all six sauce toppings offered by fast food chain. Those who can't resist indulging (a single serving is 100 calories) can take comfort in the fact that the sodium level is relatively low.

Five Guys' pickles and relish are legitimately kosher

There are kosher pickles and then there are kosher pickles. Generally, "kosher" — Hebrew for "fit," as in "fit for consumption" — refers to an edible item that adheres to Jewish dietary laws. Manufactured foods can be certified kosher by a rabbi or certification agency.

According to PBS's The History Kitchen, pickles date back to 2030 BC when cucumbers imported from India were first pickled in the Tigris Valley. The conserved cukes made notable appearances in Ancient Egypt (Cleopatra supposedly enjoyed them as part of her beauty regimen) and the Bible.

Resistant to spoilage, pickles were a dietary staple of Eastern European Jews, brightening up an otherwise bland diet of bread and potatoes. When Jews began migrating en masse to New York City in the late 1800s, pickles came too. In the New World, Jews marinated cucumbers in barrels of salty brine spiked with garlic and dill. Due to their unique flavor, they became known as "kosher dill pickles."

While not all kosher dills are actually certifiably kosher, those made by Mt. Olive — and used by Five Guys — are. Mt. Olive's pickles and relishes are certified by the Orthodox Union, the world's largest kosher certification agency, which certifies over 800,000 items produced in over 100 countries worldwide. This helps explain why to some customers, biting into a Five Guys burger dressed in pickles and/or relish is a sacred experience.

Ketchup, mustard, and relish can be daunting choices at Five Guys

Slathering a burger or hot dog with ketchup, mustard,and relish covers all the fundamentals of flavor (sweet, salty, acidic) and color (a liquid version of a traffic light's red, yellow, and green). That makes it more than a little surprising that insiders — i.e., Five Guys employees — have gone on the digital record with warnings against this holy trinity of condiments.

In a 2016 Trend Chaser report, employees revealed that "the grossest thing" in the restaurant is that ketchup and mustard containers have been known to be breeding grounds for germs and grime. Even though staff reportedly refill these containers on a daily basis with Heinz ketchup and mustard, they don't always clean them out. Over time, germs and even mold can collect, potentially merging with fresh condiments.

Another behind-the-counter profile, published by EssexLive, featured an insider warning to steer clear of the relish. Five Guys' least popular topping (Ranker had it in second-to-last position), the shunned relish supposedly sits around uselessly for up to three days before being replenished. Apparently, relish neglect is a culinary phenomenon. In 2012, The New York Times published an elegy: "Relish: An M.V.P. Now Sidelined" in which Randy Garutti, the CEO of Shake Shack, blamed its demise on its chunky consistency. Unlike smooth ketchup and mustard, relish is hard to squeeze or pump from sealed dispensers. Leaving out open jars of the condiment is at best messy, and at worst, an invitation to contamination.

Two slices are better than one at Five Guys

In Burgerworld, there's a lively debate as to whether tomatoes enhance or destroy the enjoyment of one's burger. The anti-tomato squad includes The Guardian food writer Felicity Cloake, who accuses "warm, woolly slices of bland beef tomato" of being superfluous and contributing to bun sogginess. Eater adds that slathering your burger with more worthy and pungent condiments overwhelms tomatoes' already weak flavor, leaving only "cellulous dead weight".

In tomatoes' corner are supporters such as Texas Chicken & Burgers, which sees sliced tomatoes as essential players in the burger game, adding crucial tang, zest, and brightness that interacts with the smoky umami of grilled beef.

Granted, a lot depends on the quality of the tomatoes. Five Guys doesn't use certified organic or antibiotic-free items. However, it invests in fresh, high-quality produce, including top-notch tomatoes.

Five Guys is so pro-tomato that not even an epic catastrophe can prevent customers from receiving not just one, but two slices. In an Inc. interview, Jerry Murrell recalls a hurricane that devastated Florida's tomato crop, causing prices to soar from $17 to $50 a case. When some franchisees told Murrell they couldn't afford the prohibitively priced fruit, Murrell suggested using only one tomato slice. In doing so, he incurred the wrath of his sons/partners who declared: "It should be two! Always!"

The tip of the iceberg (lettuce) at Five Guys

The same arguments for the banishment of tomatoes also regularly apply to lettuce. The Guardian's burger experts claim that flavorless iceberg lettuce undermines the burger experience by wilting upon contact with freshly seared beef. More philosophical, Eater adheres to the proverb: "Life is short, you can have a salad tomorrow."

Could it be that these reviewers are suffering from the common affliction known as "salad snobbery"? The New Yorker's Helen Rosner describes how the most vocal and misguided members of this club live to denigrate iceberg lettuce, which they condescendingly refer to as "the polyester of lettuces." This school of lettuce thought disdains iceberg as a convenient commodity for growers, shippers, sellers, and fast food joints rather than a leafy green worthy of foodie respect. However, Rosner argues that the all-American lettuce is far from flavorless and possesses a structural rigidity that preserves its crunch under the most extreme conditions including "the steamy, ketchupy confines of a hamburger bun."

Five Guys is definitely on the pro-iceberg bandwagon. To ensure full flavors and maximum crunch, it bucks industry trends by purchasing fresh, whole (as opposed to pre-shredded) heads of iceberg. Such proactiveness has paid off. Lettuce is ranked as Five Guys' third favorite topping. It also plays a starring role in one of the most popular items on its secret menu: the lettuce wrap, in which a no-buns burger is sandwiched between two crunchy leaves with zero carbs and almost zero calories.

Things can get pretty hot at Five Guys

For those who like their burgers to pack some heat, Five Guys offers the culinary equivalent of Flaming Mountain in the guise of three toppings.

On the mild end of the hotness scale is the barbecue sauce. Five Guys uses Cattlemen's Classic Barbecue Sauce, described on The Meatwave as having bold, "in your face" flavors. The dominant zest of tomato and zing of vinegar are tempered by smokiness and mellow sweetness courtesy of molasses and corn syrup. Mustard bran supplies the heat.

Its hot sauce packs more fire. Five Guys uses Frank's RedHot Original, which earned a place in the hot sauce pantheon in 1964 when the Anchor Bar & Grill in Buffalo, NY, used it to add signature scorch to a great American invention: buffalo wings. Frank's Original is made with aged peppers which, according to PepperScale, generate significant heat (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units). However, when cayenne is diluted with the sauce's other ingredients, the thermostat plunges to 450 SHU.

Rounding out the torrid trio are jalapeño peppers. While the Mexican peppers get a rep for being hellishly hot, as PepperScale points out, its Scoville heat unit range of 2,500 to 8,000 is lower than that of the world's hottest peppers (that top the 1,000,000 SHU mark). Since these scale-busting specimens are rarely commercialized, jalapeños end up out-spicing the competition. They're ideal if you like a burger with some kick but want to avoid third-degree mouth burns.

Deconstructing A.1. Sauce at Five Guys

Rounding out the sauce possibilities (sauce-ibilities?) at Five Guys is A.1. Steak Sauce. Arguably the topping with the most pedigree, A.1. was invented in the late 1820s by Henderson William Brand, cook to England's King George IV. According to legend, the King himself not only approved of the sauce but gave it the royal equivalent of a thumbs up, declaring it to be "A number 1." Royal approval aside, Brand commercialized the sauce, which enjoyed success throughout the UK and later in the New World, where it's currently owned and manufactured by Kraft/Heinz.

While some ingredients have been tweaked over time, Brand's original, fit-for-a-monarch sauce prominently featured raisin paste. According to Wired, antioxidant-rich raisins may have helped camouflage the taste of rancid meat in pre-refrigeration days. Additional and more recent sweetness comes from all-American corn syrup and crushed orange puree, which replaced the more Anglophilic marmalade made from bittersweet Seville oranges.

Vinegar adds a shot of acidity to the proceedings. While earlier versions of A.1. employed malt vinegar made from unhopped beer, today's sauce relies on cheaper distilled vinegar derived from industrialized ethanol. Further upping the acidity are tomatoes. Interestingly, all tomatoes — including the beefsteak variety offered as a Five Guys topping — possess glutamic acid responsible for beef's "meaty intensity," perhaps explaining why A.1. is so in sync with the burgers it tops.

Five Guys' sauces are mere building blocks for tasty innovations (and knockoffs)

One of the exciting things about having so many toppings at your beck and call is that it invites you to flex your creative muscles. Reddit is chock full of Five Guys employees sharing "tasty tricks to try out." Although some of these hacks are off-limits to paying customers, others are pretty doable. Examples include a seemingly simple BBQ mayo (one-third mayo and two-thirds barbecue sauce) and a more ambitious "honey mustard" made with equal parts mayo, mustard, and barbecue sauce.

Somewhat subversively, what really seems to get hackers' creative juices flowing is attempting to recreate knockoffs of famous rivals' specialties out of Five Guy toppings. Thrillist enlisted Food Network Star-winning chef Justin Warner to test drive a few options. The results included the In-N-Out Double Double, Animal Style Knockoff in which Five Guys mayo, relish, and ketchup are mixed together to masquerade as In-N-Out's secret Spread. No less iconic a hack was the Shake Shack SmokeShack Knockoff, which relies on a melange of mayo, ketchup, and relish to counterfeit the signature "ShackSauce."

Admittedly there's a certain thrill in cracking a rival's culinary code. However, as a Five Guys manager confessed to KentLive, " if you get creative, you can make just about anything."