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The Science of Cheeseburgers

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In 1924, according to his obit in TIME magazine, 16 year old Lionel Clark Sternberger, “experimentally dropped a slab of American cheese on a sizzling hamburger while helping out at his father’s sandwich shop in Pasadena, thereby inventing the cheeseburger.”

Thank you Mr. Sternberger for a great taste combo and an American icon.

A cheeseburger can be crafted from practically any other hamburger style with the simple addition of cheese, and many cheeses will do. There are only two important guidelines:

1) The cheese must be melted. It cannot be cold or hard.

2) The chosen cheese must enhance the composition of the sandwich, not clash with it. There are two ways to go with adding dairy to your cow: Melting cheese, or spreading cheese.

Let’s discuss the melting method first.

How to add the cheese

Whatever cooking method you use, the cheese is the last thing to go on. Most of the cheeses below melt quickly, within 2 minutes. So you should only apply it after one side is finished cooking, when you are within 2 minutes of finishing the other side.

If you are grilling your burger, lay the cheese on top, and then close the lid so the cheese will melt. Depending on the cheese, 2 to 3 minutes should do it. Be careful not to overcook the meat while melting the cheese. You might even want to move the patty off direct heat while you melt the cheese. Another trick is to cap the burger like they do in some diners. Just add the cheese, put a metal mixing bowl over the burger, and it should melt in as little as 30 seconds. A coffee can or baking pan will work fine.

In a frying pan, put the lid on, but not tight. Leave a good sized crack so steam can escape. If you don’t have a lid, cover the pan with a metal baking pan or cookie sheet.

On a griddle, use a metal bowl or pan to trap the heat and melt the cheese.

Under a broiler, pull the burgers out, lay on the cheese, and slide it back under the broiler, about 2″ below the heat source. Leave the door open and stand there and watch, because it can melt quickly. As soon as it starts to bubble, you’re done.

Here’s another trick. If you are using caramelized onions, sautéd mushrooms, or even raw onion, put them on before the cheese. As the cheese melts it will help anchor the toppings in place so they don’t fall off as easily.

Cheeses for melting

The issues surrounding the selection of a cheese are: Taste, meltability, color, and cooking method.

The prototypical American cheeseburger has a slice of bright yellow American cheese or cheddar. My fave is sharp cheddar for flavor and tradition. Better still, a smoked cheddar.

But there’s no reason why you can’t use another melting cheese. Smoked gouda, Muenster, jack, pepper jack, brie, provolone, cambozola, Swiss, and havarti are good choices. Just don’t mask the meat with too much. Slice it 1/8″ thick (or grate it and pile it on 1/4″ thick because there’s a lot of air in grated cheese). Add more if you wish, but remember, the thicker the cheese, the longer it takes to melt, so factor that into your cooking time.

Gruyere is nice but it doesn’t melt well, so grate it first. Crumbled blue cheese is popular, although it doesn’t melt well either. It is especially good if you can put it under a flame to broil and brown it a bit, and I like it best on top of thin apple slices and caramelized onions.

Cheeses for spreading

Another approach is to use a spreadable cheese that doesn’t need to be melted. It can go on the underside of the bun top, or right on the patty in a blob so it can spread with heat and pressure from the bun.

Pimento cheese spread is very popular in the South, particularly South Carolina and Georgia. My faves are my home-made boursin (laced with garlic), or herbed fresh chèvre (herbaceous and tangy). The Cherry Cricket in Denver is famous for their Cricket Burger with a slab of cream cheese and some minced jalapeño on top.

Other options include cheddar spread with port wine, blue cheese spread, beer cheese, or amp it up by mixing cream cheese with chili sauce or horseradish. Or try the chèvre with a balsamic reduction instead of ketchup.

Toppings and bottomings

On a Steakhouse Steakburger, this burger fan, keeps it simple. But if I’m having a cheeseburger, I go for a sharp cheddar, thick smokey bacon, caramelized onions, and Meathead’s Burger Glop.

For more ideas

Hard core cheeseburger lovers will get a few more laughs and learn a thing or two from Kevin Pang’s The Cheeseburger Show.

The Cheese & Burger Society is a fun site sponsored by Wisconsin Cheese and it has some creative combos and beautiful pictures.

A note about safety and proper cooking of burgers

Undercooked ground meat and sausage can kill. It can happen to you or a loved one. It is primarily a problem in ground meats, not steaks. I urge you to click this link to read more about dangerous pathogens in burgers and other ground meats and how to prevent food-borne illness. If you see pink ground meat on this website, it is meat I have pasteurized as described in the above link.

Cheeseburger in Paradise by Jimmy Buffet

Tried to amend my carnivorous habits.

Made it nearly 70 days.

Losin’ weight without speed, eatin’ sunflower seeds,

Drinkin’ lots of carrot juice and soakin’ up rays.

But at night I’d have these wonderful dreams:

Some kind of sensuous treat.

Not zucchini, fettuccine, bulgur wheat,

But a big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat.

Cheeseburger in paradise!

Heaven on earth with an onion slice.

Not too particular, not too precise.

I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise.

Heard about the old time sailor men,

They eat the same thing again and again:

Warm beer and bread they say could raise the dead.

Well, it reminds me of the menu at a Holiday Inn.

Times have changed for sailors these days.

When I’m in port I get what I need.

Not just Havanas or bananas or daiquiris,

But that American creation on which I feed!

Cheeseburger in paradise!

Medium rare with mustard’d be nice.

Not too particular, not too precise,

I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise.

I like mine with lettuce and tomato,

Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes.

Big kosher pickle and a cold draught beer.

Well, Good God Almighty, which way do I steer

For a cheeseburger in paradise?

Makin’ the best of every virtue and vice,

Worth every damn bit of sacrifice,

To get a cheeseburger in paradise.

To be a cheeseburger in paradise.

I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise!

Video: The Olympia Restaurant

The famous skit was based on the Billy Goat Tavern on the lower level of Michigan Ave. in Chicago, whose fame grew enough after the skit to allow the opening of five other locations. Here’s a video of the counterman.

Cheeseburger in a can

cheeseburger in a can

Trek’n Eat, an “an expedition food specialist” sells a variety of foods for the backpacker including Cheeseburger in a Can. Promotional materials say “Just heat the can in a water bath, open the lid, and enjoy your delicious cheeseburger! The canned burger has a shelf life of 12 months without requiring refrigeration.”

Related articles

Published On: 2/14/2015 Last Modified: 2/13/2024

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  • Meathead, Founder And BBQ Hall of Famer - Founder and publisher of, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", and is a BBQ Hall Of Fame inductee.


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