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