What Makes a Good Philly Cheesesteak?
According to the data platform Tastewise, about 15% of restaurants offer Philly cheesesteaks. That’s a lot, considering the U.S. alone is home to hundreds of thousands of restaurants.
That figure also proves how well-loved a good Philly cheesesteak is. So much so that it even spurred the birth of National Cheesesteak Day, celebrated every March 24.
But what exactly makes this mouth-watering sandwich a delight to the tastebuds? How do you know you’re ordering or making the best cheesesteak?
We’ll answer all those questions and more below, so read on.
What Is a Philly Cheesesteak Made of Traditionally?
The history of Philly cheesesteak traces back to the birth of the steak sandwich in 1930. Its humble beginnings, credited to brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, started at a hot dog stand. Legend says they made the first steak sandwich with grilled beef and onions piled on a roll.
Some say it wasn’t until about a decade later, in the ’40s, that cheese became part of the equation. They also say that Pat Olivieri’s employee, “Cocky Joe Lorenzo,” came up with the idea. It seems he got tired of the plain steak sandwich and, thus, added cheese to it because, why not?
What Are the Qualities of a Good Philly Cheesesteak?
First, it boasts thin slices of rib-eye steak, one of the best prime cuts of beef. Second, it uses a high-quality roll, which has a firm-enough crust. Last but not least, it has good-quality melted cheese.
Rib-eye steak is a top-of-the-shelf cut, also known as a beauty steak. For a good reason: It has enough fat to keep it juicy, tender, moist, and flavorful.
Those qualities are even more crucial to cheesesteaks, as their meat is always well done. Do the same to lower-quality beef cuts, and they’ll come out gummy.
Also, rib-eye is easier to chew from a diner’s standpoint, which has to do with its fat or marbling. Marbling refers to the white flecks of fat between muscle strands. It tenderizes faster than muscle, making it even easier to break apart the strands.
Another reason the best Philly cheesesteak uses rib-eye is it’s perfect for grilling. Grilling uses high heat, which, on other beef cuts, can lead to uneven cooking.
There’s also the fact that cheesesteak is fast food. Sliced rib-eye cooks in about 2 to 3 minutes, so it’s a perfect ingredient.
Finally, because rib-eye is already full of flavor, it only needs some salt and pepper for extra umami. The beef in cheesesteak never has and never will rely on marinades.
If you plan to make cheesesteak at home, go for super thin rib-eye slices. You can make this easier by covering the beef and popping it in the freezer for 30 to 40 minutes. Then, use a sharp knife to slice the meat against the grain.
Alternatively, go to your local butcher and ask them to slice your beef for a cheesesteak.
Hoagie rolls or long Italian rolls are the primary choices for traditional cheesesteaks. One reason is that they’re firm enough to hold up to the grease and folding. They’re also crusty on the outside but have the right amount of softness on the inside.
The quality of the roll is especially crucial if you place an order online for a Philly cheesesteak. If it’s not firm enough, it would likely turn into a mushy mess before you can even get your first bite.
If you’re making cheesesteak at home, you can toast the bread outside and inside with some butter. Do this at the same time as when you’re grilling the beef. If you toast the roll too early, it can become too crusty or hard.
The original cheesesteak used provolone cheese. It’s an aged cheese made from cow’s milk and originates from southern Italy. There’s also an American version known as American provolone.
Sliced provolone cheese melts even with only the cooked beef’s residual heat. However, some restaurants also melt it on top of rib-eye slices. From there, they transfer everything into the roll.
Cheez Whiz is another classic favorite; it’s creamy and doesn’t require melting time. Other restaurants also use melted American cheese.
Depending on where you get Philly cheesesteaks, they may have a list of cheeses you can choose from. However, most only have the three mentioned above.
You may be able to get more than one (e.g., provolone and Cheez Whiz or provolone and American cheese). However, expect to pay more.
Pro tip: Avoid asking a restaurant for another type of cheese they don’t have listed on the menu. If it’s not in there, it’s not an option.
What About the Toppings?
Die-hard lovers of the original cheesesteak will likely tell you to go “wit.” This stands for “with onions,” so your sandwich comes with grilled or fried onions.
The other option is “witout.” This stands for a cheesesteak without grilled or fried onions.
Remember, though, that the term “best” when it comes to food is subjective. If you don’t like onions, and you’re buying cheesesteak for yourself, then go without. Don’t let others tell you what and what not to order; otherwise, you might hate the outcome.
Many good cheesesteak restaurants offer other toppings, such as peppers. Some even let you add mushrooms!
A good cheesesteak is already full of flavor, but if you like your food with a kick, you can add chili peppers. Alternatively, you can go for a dollop or two of Sriracha.
Satisfy Your Philly Cheesesteak Cravings Now
Now you know that the core of a good Philly cheesesteak is rib-eye steak. Then, all those grilled, delectable slices go inside a quality roll firm enough to hold up to the grease. Finally, it should feature cheese that’s creamy enough yet isn’t overpowering.
Everything else, from the onions to the other toppings, is optional. You can add as many as you want, even peppers and mushrooms, as long as they’re available.
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