Everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to the best way to make a cheeseburger, but the ones that matter most belong to the professional chefs and grillers who make them for a living.
While some chefs will tell you that cheeseburgers are best prepared on an indoor griddle or stovetop skillet, Stephanie De La Paz, a chef instructor of culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, heartily disagrees.
“I have a personal preference for grilling over griddling for several reasons,” she said. “There are many opportunities for increased flavor, color and presentation that grilling provides that griddling does not. When you grill a burger, fat drips through the grates, creating that smoky flavor that you just can’t get with a griddle. And those grill marks, well, they ain’t called ‘griddle marks’ for a reason!”
Cheeseburgers are a staple on cookout menus across the nation, but if you’ve ever struggled with over-melted cheese dripping on your grill grates or found yourself with an overcooked (or undercooked) patty beneath the cheese layer, you’ll agree that top-notch outdoor cheeseburger prep can be trickier than it seems. To help guide you toward summer picnic success, we asked a group of professional chefs for their top grilled cheeseburger tips, and they gladly shared some highly useful advice for first-timers and seasoned grill masters alike.
Bring the cheese to room temperature before adding it to the patty.
To achieve an ideal level of meltiness from your cheese, you’ll want to avoid using it right after you pull it out of the fridge. Instead, our experts recommend that you “temper” the cheese by bringing it up to room temperature before placing it on top of your patties.
“’Tempered’ cheese melts fast and doesn’t chill the burgers, and you won’t overcook the burgers waiting for that cheese to melt,” explained Rick Mace, the executive chef and owner of Tropical Smokehouse in West Palm Beach, Florida. Just make sure you don’t leave the cheese out at room temperature for more than a couple of hours, or you increase your risk of foodborne illness.
‘Doming’ the burger will help the cheese melt.
“Unless you’re using cold, thick slices of cheese, the cheese doesn’t need a ton of heat or time to melt if your patties are the correct temperature,” said Rodney Scott, the owner of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
If you’d like some extra assurance that your cheese will thoroughly melt and turn into a gooey and delicious blanket for your burger, try this trick from Alexis Palacios, executive chef of Esperanza: Auberge Resorts Collection in Los Cabos, Mexico: “If your grill has a lid, place the cheese on the burger and close the lid, and the cheese will be ready in two to three minutes. In the event that the grill does not have a lid, you can use a [heatproof] bowl to cover the meat with the cheese, and it will have the same effect.”
For best results, go with a firm, low-moisture cheese.
Our experts all agreed that home grillers should feel free to use whichever cheese they like best on their cheeseburgers. That said, certain types of cheese melt more easily and smoothly than others. “The higher the moisture content, the lower the melting point,” said De La Paz.
She explained that firm cheeses like “cheddar, Swiss and high-temp mozzarella“ are all good bets for cheeseburgers. She added, “cheese is best added after the flip, about a minute before the burger is done cooking. You don’t want to put it on any sooner; otherwise, you run the risk of the cheese over melting or burning.”
Brian Doyle, culinary director of Smith & Wollensky, said the cheese should go on the patty “when the burger is a temp under your desired end result. If you are looking for a medium burger, then you want to put cheddar or blue cheese on when it is medium rare and American cheese when it is just past medium rare.” Ty Goerke, head chef and culinary innovation director of Smashburger, notes that “cheese slices melt much more quickly than cheese crumbles.”
Speaking of American cheese, it’s a big cheeseburger favorite among professional grill chefs. “I used to be a snob about American cheese, but I’m now a convert. That isn’t to say I’m exclusive to it but the meltability of American is first-rate,” said Norman Van Aken, a celebrated Florida-based chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.
Remember that plant-based cheese takes longer to melt.
Plant-based cheeses offer dairy-free folks a chance to enjoy the classic cheeseburger experience, but this style of cheese “takes a bit longer to melt, so adding it quickly after you flip the burger is key,” said Eric Scheffer, chef/owner of Jettie Rae’s Oyster House, Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian and Cielo Catering in Asheville, North Carolina.
You’ll set yourself up for plant-based cheese success if you opt for a version that’s “more processed, as the less processed varieties have a grainy, almost chalky texture,” said De La Paz.
Set your grill to two different ‘heat zones.’
You can’t make quality cheeseburgers without the right balance of heat levels on your grill, and we’ll cover that in a second. But first, do not forget to preheat your grill. If you don’t, your burgers “will stick [to the grill] and be a mess to work with. Make sure you’re cranking your grill 20 to 30 minutes before you use it,” said Christina Wilson, culinary director of Gordon Ramsay Burger in Chicago and Las Vegas.
A cheeseburger that’s properly seared on the outside, pink and tender on the inside, and topped with a well-melted cheese layer happens when you use two different heat settings on your grill.
“With live fire, you have direct heat and indirect heat. Two zones, in other words,” Van Aken said. The direct heat gives you a well-browned crust, while the indirect heat allows the cheese to melt without overcooking the burger.
When it comes to specific temperatures and heat levels, Alondra Martinez, chef of 1886 Café & Bakery at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, was happy to walk us through it: “When firing up the grill, set one-third of the burners to high heat and the rest to medium-low heat. The goal is to start getting a good sear on the patty and utilizing the hottest part of the grill will help you achieve this. But keep in mind that it’s important to have the ‘cold’ part of the grill set up to transfer the patty if it starts to get too charred.”
After the patty gets the level of char that you prefer, move it over to the indirect heat part of the grill for the cheese-melting portion of the program.
Don’t over-handle or over-flip your burgers.
Tempting though it may be to do several flourishing burger flips, Christopher Arellanes, corporate executive chef of KYU in New York City and Miami, said you should only “flip your burgers once.”
“When you flip a burger too often, you’re ultimately disrupting the searing process,” he continued, as overflipping can cause the patty’s moisture to deplete, which will “prevent the crust from forming properly.”
On a similar note, using a spatula to “smash” the burgers will “eject all of that rendered fat that makes a burger so delicious,” said Jeremy Blutstein, executive chef of Mavericks in Montauk, New York. Also, the fat that comes out of the burger post-smash can “cause flare-ups, which will make your burger bitter.” Resist the urge to “smash,” only flip once, and let your patties do their thing.
Keep a meat thermometer on hand.
Experienced grillers often feel comfortable eyeballing the cook level of their burgers, but if you’re new to the cheeseburger game or if you just prefer precision, it’s worth investing in a meat thermometer.
“The key to balancing a perfectly cooked burger with nicely melted cheese is to first and foremost identify your preferred meat temperature and make sure you have a quality thermometer on hand,” Goerke said.
Goerke said that medium rare corresponds to an internal temperature of 130-135 degrees Fahrenheit, medium is 140-145 F, and well-done is 160 F. “The best time to place the cheese on the patty is when its internal temperature is 10 degrees below where you want the burger to finish,” Goerke said.