Build a Better Burger: Choosing CheeseBy Todd • Feb 3rd, 2011 • Category: How To Cook Burgers
How important to the burger is cheese? So important that when you put the two together, it becomes its own menu item. Can’t say that about any other topping, really. (No one ever orders a pickleburger.) So when you’re shopping for fixings for a cheeseburger fix, the cheese you’ll use may make or break those burgers, no matter how perfectly you cook them, or how intricately you top them. There are literally thousands of cheese varieties, and I’d wager that any one of them is worthy of at least trying on a grilled beef patty… but for this installment of our Build a Better Burger series, here’s a little fromage FYI on a few popular types.
For many die-hards, the cheese discussion starts and ends with American. Funny, since American cheese is not even technically “cheese” in the traditional sense. It’s processed cheese, and that’s way different from milking a cow, separating the curds from the whey, and then packing the curds into a wheel or block of awesomeness. Once upon a time, “American cheese” simply meant cheddar cheese that was produced in the fledgling colonies and shipped back home to jolly old England. Nowadays, it’s an amalgamation of bits and scraps of other “true” cheeses- usually cheddar and Colby- along with additives, preservatives, and emulsifiers that extend shelf life. It is a very mild (some would argue tasteless) cheese that’s- by design- cheap to make and cheap to buy. But it also melts like no other cheese; thanks to those emulsifiers, it doesn’t separate when heated. American cheese is more about a smooth, uniform texture than a discernible taste, providing a warm, velvety-gooey “mouth feel” that is the perfect complement to a hot beef patty.
The kind with the holes, right? Not necessarily. There are over 450 kinds of Swiss cheese, and not all of them have holes. What we consider Swiss cheese is a variation of either European Emmental or Gruyere. More properly called “eyes,” the holes are created when bacteria used in the cheesemaking process consume lactic acids and release bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. Generally speaking, the larger the eyes, the more pronounced the cheese’s flavor (that’s why small-holed Baby Swiss tastes milder than other types), but the harder it is to run through a mechanical slicer. In fact, there are government regulations mandating the acceptable eye size of many Swiss cheeses. Swiss cheese melts very well and brings a slightly nutty flavor to your burger; sauteed mushrooms are the perfect accompaniment.
The most popular cheese in the UK and #2 in the US (behind mozzarella), cheddar originates from the village of the same name in England and was first aged (still is, actually) in local caves that provide the perfect temperature and humidity for the cheese’s maturation. Classic cheddar tends to have a pungent flavor and is readily available with varying degrees of sharpness (mild, medium, sharp, extra-sharp, etc.) determined by how long it ages. It’s most often pictured as being deep orange in color, although white cheddar is popular, too. (Different coloring additives were added in times past to indicate the cheese’s place of origin.) It’s a relatively firm cheese and will often “sweat” (the separation of the fats) when it’s melted. It makes for a burger with bite, even if it’s often not the prettiest-looking cheeseburger you’ll find. Cheddar tends to work better when it’s loaded up with other toppings: lettuce, tomato, onions, etc., since it can sometimes be overpowering as the only flavor on a burger.
If these are the Fab Four of cheese, then pepper jack is Ringo: a little wacky, a little out there, not for everybody. But if you like him, you love him. This derivative of Monterey Jack has spicy bits of peppers (usually jalapeno, serrano, or habanero) embedded in the cheese for added flavor. As the cheese ages, the pepper flavor intensifies. It melts fairly well and can add quite a bit of kick to a cheeseburger, so go all-out spicy with your other toppings: jalapenos, red onions, chipotle mayo, etc.
For a head-to-head melt-off, I whipped up 6 burgers last weekend and used all 4 of these cheeses. The burgers were grilled, then placed on a baking sheet to rest. The cheeses were added, and an aluminum pan was used to cover them all, trapping the residual heat to gently melt the cheese over all of the burgers for the same 5-6 minutes. This is what I was rewarded with when I lifted the lid:
Swiss: top left, Pepper jack: bottom left, American: top middle and bottom middle, Cheddar: top right and bottom right.
These are just four easy-cheesy choices. There’s something to be said for Provolone, Blue, Havarti, Gouda… heck, even notoriously stinky varieties like Limburger can make a damn tasty burg. Check out the Cheese & Burger Society website for more crazy cheeseburger concoctions that go way beyond the stuff wrapped up in individual plastic sheets. In the immortal words of Monty Python, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” Without them, our burgers would be naked… and a lot less tasty.