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The Philly Cheesesteak Guide: How to make the city’s signature sandwich

The Philly Cheesesteak Guide: How to make the city's signature sandwich

There will never be an end to the debate of who makes the best cheesesteak in Philly, and for that, we’re blessed. Because while those of us in Philadelphia get to argue the merits of one classic joint versus another, the rest of the country seems to have trouble figuring out what a cheesesteak actually is.

There’s really not all that much to it. Three, maybe four ingredients. Minimal cook time. Slap it together. Raise to mouth, hunch over, dig in.

And yet restaurants, fast-food chains and delis around the world manage to mangle cheesesteaks into creations that, while possibly tasty, would bewilder any true Philadelphian. For a chronicle of the most egregious examples, check out This is Not a Cheesesteak, a tumblr set up in 2011 for the specific purpose of shaming unworthy pretenders.

As a public service, we’ve decided to help advance the cause. What makes a cheesesteak a real cheesesteak? Read on.

The Name Good Housekeeping does not make good cheesesteaksGood Housekeeping does not make good cheesesteaks@zamoose on TwitterFirst things first, some lexical ground rules. Cheesesteak is one word. Merriam-Webster says so. Oxford English Dictionary says so. Lots of food-expert Philly natives say so (even if our paper of record sometimes gets it wrong).

If you want two words, the phrase “Philly cheesesteak,” while redundant, is OK. However, calling a sandwich “a Philly” is not — it shows a foolish unawareness of just how many amazing sandwiches we claim as our own (what up, roast pork and Italian hoagie?).

It’s not “cheesesteak sub,” and although “cheesesteak hoagie” is a kind of sandwich, it’s not the same thing (see below). And, sorry Boston, but it is absolutely and most definitely not a “steak and cheese.”

The Meat Sorry, Arby's, but noSorry, Arby's, but noGetting down to the actual thing, the meat is obviously of utmost importance. For the real deal, it must be sliced thin (not cubed or cut into slabs), and cooked on a hot grill or griddle — “frizzled” is the word in vogue to describe the process these days.

Whether or not the meat gets chopped as it fries is a matter of preference (neither Geno’s or Pat’s chops, Dalessandro’s and Chubby’s do), but it definitely must not be pre-cooked. This is not a roast beef sandwich, a French dip or a beef on weck.

The Cheese Most Philadelphians (and most Philly cheesesteak shops) regard American, provolone and Cheez Whiz to be the true trifecta of cheese choices. And while there’s no official “right” cheese for a cheesesteak, there are several cheeses that are just flat-out wrong, including gouda (too smoky), cheddar (too oily) and Swiss, which is too bland and also too foreign-sounding — a lesson 2004 presidential candidate (and  current Secretary of State) John Kerry learned the hard way.

Of note, many seem to think that provolone was the OG option, but that’s not necessarily true. The idea makes sense, since the sandwich was invented in South Philly, where Italian-American heritage is rich and provolone is prevalent. However, at Pat’s King of Steaks, where the cheesesteak was invented, the first cheese offered to customers was Whiz. The reason? Pat Olivieri knew he had lots of Jewish customers who attempted to keep kosher, so he was loath to mix meat and dairy on his grill; Whiz is easily dripped on separately. (According to current owner Frankie Olivieri Jr., the first can of Whiz was actually snuck in and served without his uncle Pat’s knowledge.)

The Roll Why do cheesesteak shops on the West Coast get rolls shipped in from Philadelphia bakeries? Because the texture of the bread is a critical part of true cheesesteak enjoyment. A proper Italian hoagie roll is soft in the middle, so the meat and cheese can melt into it, but also has enough tooth and chew to avoid getting soggy. The crust cannot be too hard, though, because a cheesesteak should be able to be inhaled without worrying about cutting up the roof of your mouth (no baguettes, Food Network, c’mon now).

For the same reason as above, the roll should not be toasted. If anything, it can be lightly warmed, preferably by placing it on top of the meat and cheese so it catches the steam as they cook on the grill. And this shouldn’t really have to be said, but a cheesesteak is definitely not a panini.

The Onions To stay classic, onions are the only optional add-on. Like cheese, there are several variations acceptable to Philadelphians, from those chopped tiny to those in longer strands to those in thick chunks. It all comes down to preference. They must be well-cooked and not raw, though.

Peppers & Mushrooms herocheesesteak01Twitter / Chubbys CheesesteaksThe most common type of mistake outlanders make is to think that bell peppers are a topping. They are not. That’s partly the fault of the internet — this photo of a green-pepper-studded cheesesteak (originally from Milwaukee’s Chubbys Cheesesteaks) has been shared by hundreds of “food porn” accounts on Twitter — and partly the fault of fast–food chains (maybe they want to make customers feel healthier about their choice?).

Both mushrooms and peppers are optional add-ons at Pat’s, while at Geno’s, founder Joey Vento swore his shop would never offer either one. Chomping on a hot pickled pepper on the side, however, is widely accepted as a great way to cut the sandwich’s richness.

Sauce In general, tomato sauce is not a regular part of a cheesesteak when served in Philadelphia. (A “pizza steak” with mozz and marinara is a popular thing, but it’s not the same.) However, visit a cheesesteak joint in the Lehigh Valley, and chances are every order will be met with the question: “You want sauce on that?” It’s a regional variation, and it’s not half bad — the acid in the tomato cuts the fatty flavor just like the pepper on the side.

That brings up the ketchup question. While some might squeeze it on if it happens to be around because of a side of fries, it’s definitely not part of the regular order. And some feel very strongly about it, like the Florida Subway employee who was fired for getting in a fight after he refused to add it to a customer’s cheesesteak.

Lettuce & Tomato Possibly better than other things you can get in Columbus, OhioPossibly better than other things you can get in Columbus, OhioCharleysRemember the idea of a “cheesesteak hoagie”? If you add fresh lettuce and tomato, that’s exactly what you’ll have. It’s an option available at many delis and pizzerias around Philadelphia. Some people claim to like the combo, but probably they just feel bad about not eating their veggies. (Tip: just get a regular cheesesteak and then chug a V-8, you’ll enjoy it more.)

Former Phillie Ben Revere found out the difference between the two when he tweeted a photo of his “first Philly cheesesteak” at Chickie’s and Pete’s, and proceeded to get made fun of by the entire sports and food communities.

Doubling his hardship, the “cheesesteak” not only had bright green lettuce and thick tomato slices on it, it was made of chicken (he eventually apologized).

Other “Meats” Which brings us to the last question: does a cheesesteak need to contain beef and only beef? Without a doubt, yes. However, some of the variations on the theme can be fantastic, like the chicken cheesesteak at Ishkabibble’s, which makes Questlove’s top five list. As for veggie cheesesteaks, lobster cheesesteak and the like: we’re happy to lend you cheesesteak as an adjective to help you feel better about what you’re eating. Have fun with that; we’ll stick with the original.

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Today I learned Cheez Whiz keeps it kosher,  because not dairy. 

Makes me wonder what's in Cheez Whiz.

Today I learned there are MANY variations on the Philly cheesesteak. 

US Patent 1186524, the “Process of sterilizing cheese and an improved product produced by such process.”

The Cheese in Cheez Whiz

(from an article published Jan 23rd 2016, seems like a few others are asking the same question)

The Cheese in Cheez WhizAs America gets ready for their upcoming Super Bowl parties (or Royal Rumble party, if that’s your thing), Cheez Whiz – the yellowish-orange, gooey, bland tasting “cheese” product – will surely make an appearance at some of them. But what is Cheez Whiz? Why did get it invented? And is there really cheese in Cheez Whiz?

James L. Kraft was born in 1874 in Stevensville, Ontario on a dairy farm. When he was 28 years old, he immigrated to the United States, where he first chose Buffalo, New York to settle in. (Where a little over a half century later another common Super Bowl snack, the Buffalo Wing, was born. See: Who Invented Buffalo Wings)

Why he chose Buffalo (well over two hundred miles from his home in Ontario) over Detroit (under fifty miles away from Stevenson) isn’t known. In fact, there seems to be no real record at all of why Kraft went to Buffalo. But most important to this story, while there, he eventually invested in a small cheese company. He quickly rose up through the company and was invited to move to Chicago to run the cheese company’s branch there. After moving to Chicago, the company either went under or the heads of the company pushed Kraft out (records are conflicting as to what exactly happened there). Either way, Kraft was left stranded in Chicago, reportedly with little money (perhaps lending credence to the “went under” theory) and no job.

Using his meager remaining funds, he bought a horse (named Paddy) and a carriage. For the next few months before dawn every day, he would take Paddy and the carriage down to the wholesale market on Chicago’s Water Street and buy blocks of cheese in bulk. He would then sell it to the shop owners around town at marked up prices. His reasoning was that he was doing the hard part for them- finding and buying the cheese and then bringing it directly to the shop owners- and that was worth the markup. He was right. Within five years, Kraft’s business was successful enough that four of his brothers from Canada were able to come to Chicago and help James build his new cheese company. By 1914, they had incorporated as J.L. Kraft & Bros Company. That same year, they opened their first cheese factory in Stockton, Illinois. The next year, in 1915, they changed the cheese game.

While Kraft was the first to receive a US patent for processed cheese, he wasn’t the first to invent it. Walter Gerber and Fritz Stettler of Switzerland in 1911 experimented with their native Emmentaler cheese to see if they could increase the shelf life of cheese for export purposes. Their experiments included shredding, heating the cheese up to various temperatures, and mixing it with sodium citrate (still used as a food additive today) to produce a “homogenous product which firmed upon cooling.”

It is unclear if Kraft knew of these Swiss gentlemen, but, in 1916, he submitted for US Patent 1186524, which was titled “Process of sterilizing cheese and an improved product produced by such process.” In it, it describes a way, “to convert cheese of the Cheddar genus into such condition that it may be kept indefinitely without spoiling, under conditions which would ordinarily cause it to spoil, and to accomplish this result without substantially impairing the taste of the cheese.”

It goes on to explain the process of slicing, heating, and stirring cheddar cheese in great detail, how it needed to be heated to 175 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes while being whisked continuously. The patent never mentions the addition of a sodium additive or “emulsifiers” (be it sodium citrate like the Swiss or a more general sodium phosphate). This likely is due to the fact that patents are, of course, public and whatever Kraft added to the mix, he probably wanted to keep it a secret from the competition, a fairly common practice in the food industry. This was the birth of commercialized processed cheese.

Kraft’s revolutionary new cheese product couldn’t have come at a better time for him, at least business-wise. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, there was a need for food products that would last and could be shipped long distances. By packing his cheese into 3-1/2 and 7-3/4 ounce tins, Kraft was able to become the cheese supplier to the US Army, earning himself a huge payday and a whole generation of soldiers trying out his cheese.

Flash forward about twenty five years, to 1952. Kraft Cheese, besides now having changed the name, was also now the number one cheese seller in the United States. (At the time, they were also selling other dairy products and even candy.) America was in the middle of the post-war economic boom and at the beginning of the “convenience culture,” when products that made life easier were highly sought after, which also gave rise to the TV Dinner. Towards this end, just two years before this, in 1950, Kraft developed a revolutionary convenience-oriented product, pre-sliced, pre-packaged cheese – the famous “Kraft Single.”

It was around this time that Kraft Cheese was doing great business in Britain, thanks to having sent processed cheese off to World War II with the allied soldiers. This bring us to a popular English dish called Welsh rarebit, which is basically a hot, melted cheddar cheese sauce poured over toasted bread – think an open-faced grilled cheese. While delicious, the cheese sauce is actually rather labor-intensive to make, requiring much time and careful stirring. Kraft, trying to appease their British customers, asked their team of food scientists led by Edwin Traisman (who would later help McDonald’s flash fry their french fries) to come up with a faster alternative for this cheese sauce. After a year and half of experimentation, they did. Cheez Whiz was introduced in Britain in 1952, and soon after across the United States.

Given its reputation, it might surprise you to learn that Cheez Wiz was, in fact, originally made with quite a bit of real cheese. However, very recently, this changed.

In 2013, Michael Moss, a writer for the National Post (a Canadian national newspaper), spoke with Dean Southworth, a member of Traisman’s team at Kraft in the 1950s that helped develop Cheez Whiz. Southworth, a huge fan of the original Cheez Whiz, said that the original was, “a nice spreadable, with a nice flavor. And it went well at night with crackers and a little martini. It went down very, very nicely, if you wanted to be civilized.”

However, in 2001, he settled down for a “civilized” evening of one of his favorite snacks- crackers, martini, and Cheez Whiz that he had purchased from the store that day.  Upon spreading the Whiz onto a cracker and taking a bite, he said he exclaimed to his wife, “My God, this tastes like axle grease!” Something had radically changed in this jar of Cheez Whiz from the last he had purchased.

Indeed, when he looked at the ingredients list, he saw as you’ll still see today- Cheez Whiz sold in the United States does not explicitly list cheese in the ingredients anymore. Rather, if you look, you’ll see 27 other ingredients, including whey (a protein byproduct of milk, the liquid left after the milk has been curdled and strained), corn syrup, and milk protein concentrate (a cheaper alternative to higher-priced powdered milk). When Moss and Southworth approached a Kraft spokeswoman about this in 2013, she told them there was actually still cheese in the Whiz, though much less than there was before. When asked just how much real cheese was still included in the product, she declined to comment.

She claimed the reason cheese wasn’t listed on the ingredients anymore was because the label already listed the necessary parts of processed cheese (i.e. milk, sodium phosphate, cheese cultures), therefore no need for “cheese” to be explicitly stated. At the end of the conversation, she explained, “We made adjustments in dairy sourcing that resulted in less cheese being used. However, with any reformulation, we work hard to ensure that the product continues to deliver the taste that our consumers expect.”

Mr. Southworth, of course, didn’t care for the new taste. In the end, the use of some of the ingredients of cheese, rather than cheese itself, has some business benefits. As Southworth said, “I imagine it’s a marketing and profit thing. If you don’t have to use cheese, which has to be kept in storage for a certain length of time in order to become usable… then you’ve eliminated the cost of storage, and there is more to the profit center.”

But apparently according to the Kraft website (

KraftProcessCheese Cheezwiz

And from the site (

Ingredients: Modified Milk Ingredients, Cheese (Milk, Modified Milk Ingredients, Bacterial Culture, Salt, Calcium Chloride, Colour, Microbial Enzyme, Lipase) Water, Sodium Phosphates, Corn Maltodextrin, Salt, Lactic Acid, Algin, Seasoning, Colour, Sorbic Acid, Ground Mustard. (A030S)

CHEESE MAKING ILLUSTRATED©David B. Fankhauser, Ph.D., Professor of Biology and Chemistry University of Cincinnati Clermont College, Batavia OH 45103How to make cheese at home. This recipe for a basic hard cheese works for any kind of milk. I primarily use my own fresh goats' milk, but have made it quite successfully with cow's milk purchased from the grocery as well as raw cow's milk from a local farmer. I always use rennet tablets becauseof their dependability and availability from many supermarkets .  I usually make 5 gallons of milk into cheese at a time in a 5 gallon Volrath stainless steel pot.  Its thick aluminum bottom pad prevents scorching.  Five gallons of milk produces a 5-6 pound wheel of cheese . I suggest you try several other simplier cheese related projects before you try making a hard cheese.  I have written a page on Beginning Cheese Making for this purpose.  It might also be wise to master the process for one gallon of milk before making cheese from 5 gallons.  

The following images will show the critical steps in practically any cheese making endeavor.


five gallons fresh milk            (Be sure that it has no off flavors due to bacteria)

1 cup (250 mL) live cultured yogurt     (I prefer Dannon Plain (minimal additives).  Get the freshest available from the store.)

1 tablet rennet "Junket Rennet Tablets" come in a package of 8 tablets (6.5 g) ,

1/4 cup salt

APPARATUS: thermometer, reading  -10 to 110°C (0 to 225°F) (I prefer centigrade, but include Fahrenheit numbers as well) wooden mixing spoon or whisk Stainless steel pot (with a heavy thick bottom is best) or enameled pot, 5 gallons, with lid, sterilized. 1 8" strainer (You may use a colander, though the whey does not flow through as fast as a strainer.) PRESSING FRAME:   (Here is a page on how to assemble a cheese press at home .) pressing frame (6" x 9" piece of PVC pipe or tin can, with ends removed) a 'follower': circular block of wood, 5.5 inches diameter 5 gallon canner large white dinner plate white dish cloth (non-terry), very clean rubber band cut from an inner tube two chop sticks quart mason jarYou'll find the rest of the recipe here:

Gammy, thank you for the explanation of Cheese Whiz, a product that built Kraft Inc. 

Kind of amazing that they no longer list the ingredients on the package. 

PS. Kraft drove a Paddy wagon. 

He did?!

"Using his meager remaining funds, he bought a horse (named Paddy) and a carriage. For the next few months before dawn every day, he would take Paddy and the carriage down to the wholesale market on Chicago’s Water Street and buy blocks of cheese in bulk. He would then sell it to the shop owners around town at marked up prices."

Ha! I didn't make the connection with that story and "Paddy wagon".

Makes me wonder where that phrase came from.

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