by Lynn Kerrigan
In "Aristocracy in America" (published 1839), British author Francis Grund wrote that "Philadelphians ... have more taste and ... are the best cooks in the United States."
While this is highly debatable, Philadelphia is credited with inventing a unique food item—the quick and delicious cheese steak—rarely found in other parts of the country, and if it is, it's not the real deal.
I discovered this myself on recent trips to Massachusetts and Georgia. No cheese steaks appeared on menus of the many restaurants I visited.
Pat's Steaks in South Philly is usually credited with inventing this local sandwich in the early '30s. The corner shop still makes and sells cheese steaks today.
A cheese steak is not really a steak—it's a sandwich and the "steak" part is made of chopped, shredded and/or formed beef. On the East Coast, pre-formed steak sandwiches are available under the Quaker Maid or Philly brand label. But, it's also acceptable (and even in some cases preferable) to use deli-style braciola (rolled beef) or sliced roast beef.
One key to a good cheese steak is the meat—it must be thinly sliced. You may fry or grill the whole beef slices or chop/shred the slices before cooking. Some people swear that chopped beef makes a better cheese steak. I can't tell the difference. (In Philadelphia cheese steak establishments, the beef is mostly chopped.) Two to three slices per sandwich are adequate.
The second requirement for a good cheese steak is the cheese. Choose a cheese you like. Commercial Philadelphia cheese steaks are almost exclusively made with Cheez Whiz, a product of Kraft Foods. I doubt there is much real cheese in Cheez Whiz and I dislike the taste, so I don't recommend it. I prefer Provolone, my son likes Cheddar and my daughter wants only American cheese on her cheese steak.
The last necessity for a good cheese steak is a fresh, well-made, crusty steak roll. These rolls are oblong shaped—much like hoagie rolls. But, I've also used round rolls in a pinch.
In retail establishments the beef is fried on a grill using oil. The home cook may use a stovetop frying pan. I urge you to cook your steaks without the addition of oil—especially if using a commercial product like Quaker Maid Steaks. These products usually contain enough natural beef fat and juices for the right touch of liquid to make a perfect steak.
The thin "steaks" cook quickly and as soon as the color turns from pink to light brown, you should add the cheese to melt. You don't want to overcook the cheese. Keep turning the beef/cheese mixture until the cheese is "just melted." Some cooks pile the cooked beef on the roll and then add the cheese. But, I find that the cheese doesn't melt enough using this method. An alternative is to place the unmelted cheese-topped, steak sandwich under the broiler to melt the cheese.
A pure cheese steak is made up of meat, cheese, a little salt and pepper to taste and the roll. Make and savor one of these first. You may like it so much that you needn't fiddle with the ingredients to make a fancier cheese steak. But if you like adventure and want to try different cheese steak sensations here's a list of popular variations:
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This page created October 1999
Copyright © 1998-2001, Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.
This page modified February 2007
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