If you spend even five minutes reading about sandwiches, there’s a solid chance you’re going to end up on Philly Cheesesteak. How could you not? It’s practically perfect. Thin-sliced steak, sautéed chopped onions, and cheese on a hoagie roll—it lacks nothing. We have no problem with more complex sandwiches—by all means, order us a muffuletta—but the ingenious simplicity of the cheesesteak is a joy in itself.
Now, if you live in the city of brotherly love, you may have a local joint or chain that aspires to the heights of true Philly steaks. But if your local joint is like ours, it’s heavy on bread, stingy on meat, and just, well, ok. Better than settling for a substandard steak sandwich, you should make your own. You can stuff as much meat and cheese into the roll as you want, you can get the meat/cheese proportion just right, and you can eat this messy food in the comfortable privacy of your own home.
As we said above, cheesesteaks are simple, but if it’s your first time cooking them, there can be some trepidation. Here, we’ll guide you through the basics of a quality steak, and provide you with some thermal tips to help you create a true meaty masterpiece. Let’s get cooking!
What makes a good Philly cheesesteak?
A good cheesesteak should be served on good bread, have good, properly cooked meat, and enough gooey, melty cheese. Whether a steak should be served “wit” onions is a matter of taste… but we find them indispensable.
For bread, locally baked Italian hoagie rolls in Philly, but you can use any good sandwich roll you like. The bread should ideally be crusty on the outside, somewhat chewy inside, and substantial enough to stand up to the juices that will be thrown at it. If you can’t find a good bun, you might consider making your own! (This recipe for Cuban bread would not be a bad jumping-off point. Change the shape, obviously.)
For the meat, you have some choices to make. You want a cut that isn’t too lean—the fat is necessary for juiciness and flavor carry-through. Obviously, ribeye steak is the best, but it can be a little pricey for a few sandwiches. Chuck could work for a budget approach, but you might get it cut just a little thinner than the ribeye. (Ribeye should be cut about 1/8″ thick, chuck almost shaved.)
Season your meat. Yes, the cheese is salty/tangy, but the meat needs its own salt to shine. Hit it with a little salt and pepper before you start cooking and the flavor will permeate better.
Cheese for cheesesteaks
Cheese. Well, now, that’s a whole dog fight, into which we dare not set our non-native feet. Sharp provolone is classic. But so is American cheese. And, for that matter, so is Whiz. The cheesesteak predates the invention of Whiz, so if we’re looking for the most “traditional,” and we mean by that “the version closest to the very first version ever made,” then provolone is the way to go. But if by “traditional” we mean “true to the character of the dish and the culture surrounding it, in combination with the forces that have acted on that food and culture since its inception,” then American cheese and Whiz are both fine. We’re not going to tell you how to cheese your steak, but we like the sharp provolone with a bit of Whiz. We know. Heresy. Using them both.
If you use sliced cheese, place the slices on top of your pile of meat and cover the whole thing with a lid of some kind—pot lid, bowl, sheet tray—so catch the heat and make the cheese melt down into the meat, even toasting a little bit on the cooking surface.
If you’re using Whiz, you should heat it until it is pourable. Then, slather some in the bun before adding the meat, and drizzle more on top.
Other cheesesteak toppings
Onions, peppers, etc. should all be chopped (not sliced) into manageable pieces. Also, they should start cooking before you start the meat. Onions take a good few minutes to cook up the right way, as do peppers (and mushrooms and whatever else you want to throw on your sandwich).
To speed the cooking, you can harness the power of steam. Cook the veg for a minute or two, then hit the pan with a few tablespoons of water. The instant steam bath will soften the veg more quickly. Once the water is all cooked out, bring the pan/griddle back up to temp and then start cooking the meat.
Cheesesteak griddle temperatures and method
Ok, let’s talk temperatures! We found that a griddle temperature of about 400–425°F (204–218°C) is perfect for cheesesteaks. The pan/griddle temperature is actually a bit of a balancing act. If your pan is too cool, your meat just steams—not browning at all. And browning adds loads of flavor. You don’t need to fully caramelize your onions or get a hard-crust sear on the meat, but a little browning on the edges of the onions and some good Maillard coloration on the meat will increase the tastiness of your exponentially (trust us).
Caramelization and Maillard browning happen at high temps, but at a temp that is too high your onions will char and your meat will dry out. Use an infrared thermometer like the Industrial IR with Circle Laser (IRK-2) to make sure you’re cooking in the right range.
When your meat hits the pan, let it sit for a few moments. Once you can see that it is starting to brown, start chopping at it! Use a bench scraper or a good, solid spatula to chop the meat. Chop the meat as it cooks, and when it is nearly done incorporate the onions and keep chopping and tossing it.
After the melting of the cheese (see above), it’s time to scoop the meat into your bread. Cut the roll open, but don’t cut it all the way through. You need the structure of the hinge to keep the meat in place!
There’s no need to toast your buns, just pile as much meat in as you can. If you like, you can follow the lead of many cheesesteak-eries and scoop out some of the bread from the roll, making more room for filling.
You should be making these at home. We all should be. Get out a good pan, ask your butcher to thin-slice some quality meat, grab your cheese of choice, and get cooking! Having your pan or griddle at a nice, hot 400–425°F (204–218°C) will ensure cooking that is fast enough to brown your meat but not so fast that you’ll burn everything, and an IR thermometer is just the thing to help you get your cooktop to that critical temp. Give it a try. You’ll be so, so glad you did.Print
Wicked Philly cheesesteaks at home…cooked right. 4 good-sized sandwiches.
- 2 Tbsp high-smoke-point oil
- 2 onions, roughly chopped
- 1 1/2 lb. thin-sliced ribeye steak or shaved chuck roast
- Salt and pepper
- 6 slices of cheese of your choice (or some Whiz)
- 4 hoagie rolls
- Preheat a cast-iron pan or a flat-top griddle to 400–425°F (204–218°C). Use an accurate IR thermometer like IRK-2 to measure the temperature.
- Add 1 Tbsp oil to the pan, then the onions (and peppers if using).
- Sautee for about 1–2 minutes, then add 2–3 Tbsp water and steam the onions.
- When the water is all cooked out, move the onions to one side of your cooking surface and let the pan come back up to 400°F (204°C). Verify with your IR thermometer. Remove some of the onions and set them aside for later batches of meat.
- Add some of the meat to the pan in one layer. Season it (and the onions) with salt and pepper. Cook until it starts to brown, then chop it and toss it until fully cooked.
- Combine with the onions, cover with a few slices of cheese, and cover with a bowl/lid/pan for 30–60 seconds.
- Scoop the meat into prepared rolls.
- Serve! Eat well, eat messily.
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