What makes a good cheesesteak great? To answer this, I looked to two of Philadelpia’s most respected cheesesteak establishments: Pat’s King of Steaks and John’s Roast Pork. Their sandwiches taught me how a cheesesteak is all about the components—after all, there are so few: savory beef, gooey cheese, vegetables if you want them (I want them), and a crusty-fluffy hoagie. This month, our test kitchen rolled up its sleeves and tested extensively to create our ultimate version of this classic.
The first question we asked ourselves: Which cut of meat to use? Most cooks decide between sirloin and ribeye. Sirloin is slightly leaner, and a touch more cost-effective. Meanwhile, ribeye has more fat-marbling, resulting in a richer (and, if you ask me, better) flavor. With taste leading the way, we landed on ribeye, but sirloin or even thinly sliced flank steak would be perfectly acceptable.
Next, we turned to slicing. For a cheesesteak, thin is preferable to thick. In order to cut the meat as thinly as possible, freeze it for an hour or two—this makes it much easier to work with.
Now we had to sort out the cheese. The classic choices are provolone, American cheese, and Cheez Whiz. Some might argue that only one of those is “real” cheese, which is true. But rather than explore an esoteric choice like Gruyere, we wanted to honor the classics. The winners? Both provolone and Whiz. The provolone melts over the meat like a blanket, while the Whiz coats the bread (Whiz is to a cheesesteak as mayo is to a BLT). If you’re dubious about using Cheez Whiz, you can skip it, but it truly does add an extra level of savoriness.
Another piece of the puzzle was deciding which veggies to include. Our options: caramelized onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, or hot peppers. It was tempting to include all of these on our cheesesteak, but we found that too many veggies overshadowed the meat. We wanted this component to enhance the savory goodness of meat and cheese, without overstepping. In the end, we decided that caramelized onions are essential, plus a surprise ingredient that transformed our sandwich from good to great: Italian long hot peppers, also known as Jimmy Nardello peppers. These long, slightly crinkly peppers are a touch spicy, with a deep, earthy flavor that perfectly complements the meat.
Finally, in terms of bread, it’s essential that you find the freshest-possible crusty Italian roll. Near our office in New York, we call this a hero roll, but in deference to Philly, we call it a hoagie roll in this recipe. The hoagies at John’s Roast Pork in Philadelphia are firm and crusty, with sesame seeds on top, while the ones at Pat’s King of Steaks are softer and squishier. Both versions are excellent—it’s simply a matter of personal preference whether you want softer or crunchier bread. —Josh Cohen
- Prep time 25 minutes
- Cook time 25 minutes
- Makes 2 sandwiches
1 1/2 pounds
boneless ribeye steak, 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, trimmed of any excess fat
Jimmy Nardello Pepper (aka Italian long hot pepper)
3 1/2 tablespoons
canola oil, divided (or any neutral-flavor, high-heat oil)
1 1/4 teaspoons
kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste
red wine vinegar
medium yellow onion, sliced into ¼-inch thick half moons
freshly ground black pepper
Cheez Whiz (optional but highly recommended)
slices provolone cheese (about 8 ounces)
(10-inch) Italian hoagie rolls, halved almost all the way, keeping a hinge intact
- 1 to 2 hours before you’re ready to make the cheesesteaks, place the ribeye in the freezer. (Partially freezing the ribeye will help you slice it as thinly as possible.)
- When you are ready to cook, remove the ribeye from the freezer and use a sharp chef’s knife to slice it as thinly as possible (between 1/8 and 1/16-inch thick). Put the sliced meat on a plate in the refrigerator.
- Prepare the Jimmy Nardello pepper: Removing the stem, slice it lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Next, slice the pepper into pieces that are about 2 inches long and ¼-inch wide. Set a medium skillet over high heat and add 1 tablespoon of canola oil. When the oil just begins to smoke, add the pepper slices along with 1/8 teaspoon salt, and sear the peppers while stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the peppers look charred. Now reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, until the peppers are soft and pliable. Add the vinegar and cook, stirring constantly, until the vinegar has almost fully evaporated. Transfer the peppers to a small bowl for later.
- Add 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil to a large skillet, then add the onions to the room temperature skillet, with 1/8 teaspoon salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Set the skillet over high heat. Once the onions start to sizzle, begin stirring constantly, and cook the onions for 2 to 3 minutes, until they begin to brown. Reduce the heat to medium-high and continue cooking, stirring regularly, for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions turn a deeper brown and the bottom of the skillet begins to develop a dark layer of “fond” (this is flavor!). Add 1/4 cup of water to the skillet and use a wooden spoon to deglaze the fond (aka, bits stuck to the bottom). Continue cooking the onions for another 5 to 7 minutes, until they appear soft, sweet, and deeply caramelized. Remove the skillet from the heat, transfer the onions to a small bowl, and set them aside at room temperature.
- In a very small pot or skillet, gently warm the Cheese Whiz (if you’re using it). While that’s gently warming, add 1 tablespoon of canola oil to the skillet you just used to cook the onions and set it skillet over high heat. When the oil is very hot and just beginning to smoke, add the steak. You may need to cook the steak in two batches to avoid overcrowding (which would lead to steaming instead of browning). Season the steak with 1 teaspoon of salt and sear for 1 to 2 minutes, gently stirring, until the steak is cooked though and beginning to caramelize. Turn off the heat and lay the slices of provolone directly on the steak. Cover the skillet with a lid and wait for about 1 minute while the provolone melts.
- While the provolone is melting, you can begin to assemble the sandwich. Spread Cheez Whiz on both halves of each hoagie. Evenly divide the caramelized onions and seared peppers between the hoagies. Uncover the steak and use tongs to transfer the cheesy steak to the hoagies, evenly dividing between each. Serve immediately.