Celebrate Super Bowl with homemade umami-rich cheesesteaks

By Evan Kleiman

A traditional Philly Cheesesteak sandwich is topped with onions, mushrooms and provolone. Photo by Shutterstock.

I apologize to Chiefs fans but my entire family, except for me, are from Philadelphia. My parents were from South Philly to be exact, so every time we traveled there to visit from LA, even when I was tiny, cheesesteaks were involved. I was born in the 1950s in the same year as Cheez Whiz, so I remember when actual cheese was the default choice. I won’t get into an argument with anyone about which stand I patronize when I go back because when it comes down to it, I think nothing is better than a homemade cheesesteak. But making the umami-rich sandwiches takes forethought and organization. And to be honest, after I would disappoint my parents and order a hoagie. These days my order would be “provolone wit,” “wit” being the Philly “with.” Given a choice, I will also add fried peppers. 

As for origin stories, that one goes to Pat Olivieri, who was a South Philly hot dog vendor. One day in 1930, as the story goes, he couldn’t face another hot dog for lunch, so he bought (maybe traded) some sliced beef, cooked it on the griddle, and threw it in the roll. Clearly a genius move.

Cheesesteaks, as they are called in Philly since the name of the town would be redundant, are a creation with layered flavors coming from four major components. There is a bun, which is soft so the filling doesn’t shoot out when you bite into it. Personally I love them on bolillos, but I’ll keep that opinion to myself. Then there is the star: The beef which should be quickly seared to a deep color. I like to use rib eye for its richness, but you can use sirloin if you’re trying to be lean. Most importantly, the meat needs to be cut thinly but not so thin that it looks razored. We’re lucky to have all the Korean markets around where it’s easy to find thinly sliced beef. I’ve also asked my butcher to slice it for me, letting them know what it’s for so they can freeze it for a while to allow for thin slices. Next up is the cheese, which may be provolone or whiz. In our family, onions are as important as the meat and the cheese, and like the meat, should be deeply colored. I like my onions to still have some body and not be totally softened. The cheese is where I deviate from the norm. If I’m not making cheesesteaks with provolone, then I make my own version of a non-spicy queso instead of purchasing the Whiz. What can I say, I just can’t bring myself to buy that can. Troll me as you will. Once you know the secret of making queso, it’s incredibly easy to throw together, and as a bonus, you may choose the type(s) of cheese to turn into the velvety pour-over. 

The griddle is your friend for building cheesesteaks. You need to sear the bread, the meat, and the onions. I use my carbon steel wok, but any good griddle over a good heat source will work. It helps to have a good fan over the stove. 

My mom always buttered hamburger buns and sprinkled a bit of garlic powder on them, so that’s what I do with the rolls, then griddle them before filling. There are two recipes online that are pretty close to what I do. They are from Natasha’s Kitchen and from Bobby Flay. Natasha uses mild provolone, which is a good choice. Bobby makes his own provolone parmigiano reggiano-based Whiz using the milk-flour-cheese method. I prefer the evaporated milk-cornstarch-cheese method. If you want to know why, here's J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s famed Ultra Gooey Stovetop Mac and Cheese recipe, where he explains how it works. I’ve become accustomed to riffing on the sauce depending on the quantity of melty cheese I want. Here is a recipe for queso using this method from Recipe Tin Eats. For cheesesteak usage, I would substitute aged cheddar and forgo the onion, tomato, chile, and spices. But, as always, do as you wish. And have a great game day!