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The FiveThirtyEight Burrito-Rating System, Explained

As we begin our search for America’s best burrito, I’d like to take a moment to explain how I’ll rate the burritos that made it into our Burrito Bracket.

As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver explained in this manifesto, we formed a Burrito Selection Committee in March to identify what could be the 64 best burritos in the country. The BSC members were Eater food critic Bill Addison, food historian Jeffrey Pilcher, journalist and author Gustavo Arellano, chef David Chang, Silver and me, a multimedia journalist.

The BSC used reviewer data from Yelp, expert opinion and personal experience to narrow the field of burrito-selling establishments from 67,391 to the 64. Along the way, committee helped establish the criteria by which I’ll judge every burrito I eat.

We represented as many burrito styles as possible, which presents a challenge when trying to compare them. We decided to judge each burrito against its own aspirations, meaning the simple-yet-elegant bean-and-cheese burrito will not be docked points for a lack of ingredients, and a Mission-style burrito won’t lose points for too much girth, even if I could never eat the whole thing.

Each of our five criteria is worth up to 20 points, for a possible high score of 100. Here’s what I’ll be thinking about as I bite into each bundle:

Tortilla: The first thing I’m looking for is freshness. Also important are thickness and elasticity, and how those attributes complement the other ingredients. Generally, the thinner the tortilla, the more I like it (so long as it holds the ingredients and juices inside), but certain types of burritos do call for a thicker wrap. I also tend to like the tortilla griddled, though again, that partly depends on the style of burrito.

Main protein: I’ll be tasting for the flavor, texture and quality of the ingredient. Is the chicken tender and flavorful or overcooked and rubbery? Has the al pastor been marinated long enough in pineapple to give it a sweet kiss of golden sunshine amid the char and chile flavors? In a burrito, it’s particularly important that the inside has strong flavors and textures, because the eater can’t necessarily see what she’s eating. Some of the vegetarian burritos use non-protein items as their main ingredient; in those cases, I’ll be judging the main ingredient.

Other ingredients: This category looks at the flavor, texture and quality of all the ingredients that aren’t the tortilla or main protein. Is the crema the right thickness to meld with the other ingredients, and does it have enough acidity? Are the beans from a can or homemade? Does the burrito have avocado, and are the vegetables fresh and flavorful? Much like for the main protein, textures and self-assured flavors are important to differentiate the ingredients.

Presentation: Presentation isn’t about looks, but how the burrito comes together. Is it built in a way that allows for good ingredient combinations with each bite? If it’s a handheld burrito, does it hold together? How was it rolled? Are there wads of tortilla at the top? Presentation also takes into account the overall mouthfeel, which is about the right combinations of textures, liquids and general pleasantness of each bite.

Overall flavor profile: In each burrito, I’m hoping to find a balance of salty, sour and sweet, and of acid, heat and creaminess/fat. This category examines what flavors are missing from the other ingredients category, and how all of the flavors come together.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.