Oozy, Cheesy, Glorious Patty Melts Don't Need a Recipe

November  6, 2017

I made it well into my twenties without experiencing the glory (glory!) that is a patty melt sandwich. How I turned out so successfully eating only regular old sandwiches will remain a mystery. I kid, but truly, we’d all be better off with more pleasure in our lives, and the grand old patty melt delivers pleasure in spades. It’s like the love child between a hamburger, a grilled cheese, and a bowl of French onion soup.

As far as a sandwich goes, the patty melt fires on all cylinders, combining griddled rye bread with a perfectly cooked round of savory ground beef, gooey cheese, and a tangle of soft, caramelized onions. You get all sorts of textures in each bite: crisp toasted bread and melt-in-your-mouth ribbons of onion and hot, oozing cheese. The beef is salty and laced with ground pepper and a touch of Worcestershire sauce. The onions are sweet and buttery. It’s the culinary embodiment of “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”—patty melts are simple and straightforward, but the end result is killer. One bite, and you can understand why such a basic diner staple has withstood the test of time.

Photo by Posie Harwood

Best of all, it’s wickedly easy to put together a very good patty melt. You don’t need (and shouldn’t add!) any bells and whistles. You don’t even need a recipe! Just follow the basic template, executing each component well; start with good ingredients; and you’re on your way to dinner bliss.

First, the Onions

Note that caramelizing onions takes a very long time. There’s just no way around this. People will tell you about all sorts of silly hacks and shortcuts but to get maximum flavor and texture, you have to cook them low and slow.

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Add butter or olive oil to a large pan, set over medium heat, and lots of thinly sliced yellow onions. Don’t crowd the pan too much. Cook the onions for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If they’re browning too quickly and sticking, turn the heat down slightly and add a splash of water. The onions are ready when they start to turn a deep golden caramel color. They should be very soft. Add a little salt!

Look for this color. Photo by Posie Harwood

Cook The Patty

The size of the patty depends on your bread: You want to shape the meat into a thin round that’s roughly the shape of your slice of bread, perhaps little larger, since the meat will shrink in cooking.

You can get crazy with flavors if you want (Dijon? Sriracha? herbs galore?), but the simple and classic patty melt only requires ground beef seasoned with salt and pepper. I add a dash of Worcestershire sauce when mixing and shaping the ground beef. It really helps to amplify the savory flavor of the meat.

Don't throw out that fat just yet! Photo by Posie Harwood

Cook the patty in a skillet until your desired doneness—I go for medium rare. Remove the patties but don’t wipe out the pan. You can (and should) cook your sandwiches in the fat that remains, which will give it a nice meaty flavor.


Cut two slices of rye bread. Could you use other types of bread? Sure. But it won’t taste like a true patty melt. (But hey, it's your call.) Place a few slices of sharp Cheddar cheese (or a mix of good melting cheeses like Swiss or American or provolone) on top of one of the slices. Next, add your cooked patty, a generous handful of caramelized onions, then some more cheese. Top it with another slice of bread.

Layer it all at once, or separate and smush, either work. The key is to get it all surrounded by cheese. Photo by Posie Harwood

Back to the Heat You Go!

Spread the outside of each slice of bread liberally with mayonnaise, which will help it brown better than butter. In the same skillet you used for the meat, cook the sandwiches for a few minutes on each side, pressing down with a spatula until the cheese melts and the bread is golden.

I have mayo to thank for this tan. Photo by Posie Harwood


And there you have it: a perfect patty melt, no recipe required. A milkshake for dessert is optional but recommended.

Photo by Posie Harwood

How do you like your patty melt? Let us know in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • AntoniaJames
  • Jen Williams
    Jen Williams
  • ChefJune
  • gandalf
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


Smaug July 17, 2023
Actually looks a lot like a recipe to me, but it's a good one. I've been poking around looking at recipes this morning, and most of them are just too elaborate, should be a simple dish. What I've arrived at is pretty simple, my general tendency with sandwiches; I like to keep to the basic flavors. I won't have mayonnaise in my kitchen, and I don't have much use for beef fat, so butter all the way. I also don't like greasy food; I use very low fat home ground sirloin, and keep the butter level fairly low; the cheese provides plenty of unction. Half an hour is pretty optimistic for caramelizing onions, and they should be salted at the start to help draw out moisture, which is mostly what you're doing. So, beef (seasoned with worcestershire), onions, Swiss cheese, and rye bread (I like sourdough rye). Cook the patty, assemble sandwich, fry in butter and there you go.
It's easy to end up oversalted, which will totally ruin it, so use restraint.
AntoniaJames January 25, 2018
A great, if quite different, alternative to caramelized onions -- and one that's a bit easier, but does require thinking ahead if you don't have them on hand -- is pickled red onion.

Or, take a page out of Nancy Silverton's book and skip the patty to make a terrific grilled cheese sandwich: put paper thin slices of cheese on one slice of bread, then a layer of pickled onions, followed by another layer of thinly sliced cheese. You get not only the crunch, but also a hit of acid - always a good thing in situations like this.. ;o)
Jen W. November 17, 2017
Thank you for the beautiful, classic Patty Melt with no freaky twists or hacks. I like it with Swiss cheese. There is a diner I frequent that makes a good one. Their onions are not caramelized, but they are cooked soft and sweet and succulent- I think maybe they cook them covered for a time over low heat. I slightly prefer that to caramelized onions, but I'll happily eat those too.
ChefJune November 6, 2017
I like your style, Posie Harwood! And we thought the Patty Melts we used to get at Hackney's on Sunday nights (when there was no food served at the sorority house) were delicious! Yours takes them to a whole new level with the top crust, the double cheese AND the grilled onions. Going to have to try this! <3
gandalf November 6, 2017
Oh. My. Gosh.

Hamburger crossed with grilled cheese sandwich -- this is the true ambrosia!