For the Best Philly Cheesesteak, Go Hard on Provolone (2024)

Why It Works

  • Two options make perfectly thinly sliced beef possible: par freeze a steak to make hand-slicing much easier, or buy very thinly sliced meat from a butcher or Asian market.
  • Cooking the sliced beef with the onions saves time while guaranteeing the onions come out well browned while retaining a bit of bite.
  • Folding and melting a portion of the provolone cheese directly into the cooked steak adds flavor and acts as a binder to hold the thinly sliced meat together in the sandwich while eating.

I come from a long line of Philadelphians with a shared love for cheesesteaks. Sincere sandwich debate is common when my family is all together. I have a fond memory from one of the first time’s my now-husband was meeting my family. He innocently asked the question of where to get a good cheesesteak in Philly. “Pat’s or Geno’s?” he asked my father, brother, and brother-in-law, in an effort to make light conversation. He was met with a passionate, almost hour long response as to why “those spots are just for tourists” and a lengthy description of what defines a great cheesesteak. My husband learned quickly that my family takes our sandwiches seriously. Growing up, Fridays were take-out night. After a long week of school and endless activities and practices that my siblings and I endured, our family's Friday night go-to dinner was almost always cheesesteaks and hoagies. I grew up literally down the street from Dalessandro’s Steaks and Chubby’s Steaks, two iconic cheesesteak and hoagie shops, which means I’ve enjoyed more cheesesteaks than anyone probably should in a lifetime, and therefore have an opinion or two about how a cheesesteak should be made.

For the Best Philly Cheesesteak, Go Hard on Provolone (1)

At its core, the sandwich has just three elements: beef, cheese, and bread. No fancy sauces, no vibrant complimentary veggies, not even a crunchy topping. So what’s all the fuss about? Sure, you could argue that there are better Philly-based sandwiches (a lot of locals would order a roast pork with broccoli rabe before a cheesesteak), but when the simple and humble cheesesteak is done well, you can see why it’s the city's most famous sandwich: Thinly shaved, super beefy rib eye is finely chopped on a well-loved flat-top, and then slowly browned in its own fat and juices. Cheese is folded in and melted into the meat to add even more richness and a bit of sharpness for contrast, while also serving as a delicious edible glue to hold all of the delicate pieces of rib eye together. A hearty portion of the cheese-laced rib eye is then flipped into a hoagie roll that’s sturdy enough to hold up to all that wonderful fattiness, but supple and soft enough to sink your teeth into with little resistance.

From here, you can personalize the sandwich as you like with griddled onions, mushrooms, pickled hot or roasted peppers, or any basic sandwich condiments. I feel griddled onions are a must on a cheesesteak (I’ve included them in my basic recipe here), and I’ll often opt for sautéed mushrooms and a light zig-zag of ketchup on top. But I am not a believer in tomato, lettuce, or mayo as cheesesteak toppings. That said, I'll do my best to keep this a judgment-free zone—If you’re going to enjoy a nearly footlong rib eye– and cheese-laden sandwich, you should savor it how you choose (just know all of Philadelphia is judging you…sorry, I know I just said I wouldn't do that).

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Translating a cheesesteak to a from-scratch home recipe, though, isn't an easy thing. Putting aside the potential challenge of finding the right bread, the biggest hurdle is the beef itself. Philly cheesesteaks are defined by their thinly shaved beef, and thinly shaved raw beef is not an easy thing to get one's hands on, unless you happen to own a deli slicer. I'm happy to say that I've worked out two excellent methods of overcoming this hurdle. One is arguably easier on the shopping front but a little more challenging technically, the other may require a tad more shopping effort but requires no skill on the cook's part. Read on to learn more and decide which path is better for you.

How to Get Cheesesteak Beef Right

There’s very little argument over the cut of beef used in a cheesesteak. It’s almost always rib eye that is sliced just short of paper thin on a deli slicer. Rib eye has assertive beefy flavor and is well marbled with delicious fat, which, when cut thin and cooked until browned, will still remain tender bite after bite. (While rib eye rings true for a Philly cheesesteak, a quick-cooking home version of this sandwich can be made quite well with skirt steak, which usually runs about half the cost of rib eye. Its thin profile and open-grained texture make for easy slicing, and its flavor is near to rib eye.)

For the Best Philly Cheesesteak, Go Hard on Provolone (3)

Bringing cheesesteaks into the home kitchen requires coming up with a simple way to mimic the thinly shaved slivers of rib eye usually obtained with a professional kitchen tool. There are a couple ways to solve this. The first is to slice it yourself with the following technique: Take a boneless rib eye and slice it into roughly three-inch-wide pieces. Then, partially freeze the beef for about one hour to firm it up, which will make slicing it thinly much easier. You want the steak to be fully firm when slicing, but you also want your knife to be able to slice through it without damaging the blade, so make sure it isn't frozen solid. Next, slice the beef as thinly as possible against the grain to make the thin slices.

For the Best Philly Cheesesteak, Go Hard on Provolone (4)

This last part is critical to success: It will only work if your knife is truly sharp and you have enough control over the knife to keep the slices thin. Ifyour knives haven't seen a whetstone in more than a year and/or your idea of adequate slicing is to just hack away at something until you have a pile of randomly-sized bits, this isn't the method for you and will produce suboptimal results.

For those who aren't so sure their knives and skills are sharp enough, another great option is buying thin pre-sliced rib eye, which can be found at some supermarkets like Wegmans, and many Asian food markets such as H-Mart; you may also be able to find a butcher who will do it for you. The raw pre-sliced steak might not always be labeled as rib eye, but any thin pre-sliced beef that has some well marbled fat in it will work well in this recipe, and requires only a little more shopping effort to track it down.

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With professionally made cheesesteaks, once the sliced steak hits the flattop, how the meat is treated varies shop to shop. The harmonious “clang clang clang” of big metal spatulas chopping up beef on the flattop resonates through all great cheesesteak shops. But some places will bang the hell out of the steak until it’s nothing more than a fine crumble, while other shops will be a bit more delicate in their handling of the beef as it cooks.

When making just a couple of sandwiches at home in a skillet, this chopping technique is less ideal. Not only is it more difficult to chop effectively inside a pan with raised sides, but you'll also possibly damage the surface of your skillet. To recreate this chopped effect at home without ruining my gear, I simply run my knife a few times through the sliced beef to break it up before it hits the hot skillet.

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The Great Cheese Debate

Cheese type is a major topic of debate in the world of cheesesteaks. As most know, the two major contenders are provolone cheese and Cheese Whiz, but I’ll even let American cheese enter the debate. I am team provolone all the way, and thus have written this recipe with provolone cheese. Provolone is sharp and salty, which holds up well to the mound of rich fatty beef. (Side note: Serious Eats' other native Philadelphian, Amanda, is on team American cheese, we'll have to battle it out later.) If you're misguided enough to disagree with me (kidding! kidding!), feel free to substitute an equal weight of your preferred cheese. I also recognize that provolone cheese can range from mild to very sharp, so you should also feel free to adjust quantities to get your cheesesteak as cheese-flavored as you want. Just remember that the cheese should be sliced thin and melt easily.

For the Best Philly Cheesesteak, Go Hard on Provolone (7)

In my recipe, half of the provolone is stirred into the cooked steak until fully melted. I also add a small amount of freshly grated nutty and bold Parmesan cheese at this step as well—my personal "chef's kiss" touch that I enjoy when making a home version. I recognize this is an outlier ingredient, so I’ve left Parmesan cheese as optional for the cheesesteak purists out there. Ultimately, the melted cheese should coat the steak to form a cohesive meat mixture, without being gloppy. This adds mechanical value to the sandwich, keeping the thin pieces of meat together so the mixture holds once flipped into the roll.

The remaining sliced cheese then gets melted on top of the beef for a more distinct melted-cheese element that creates the necessary cheese goo and pulls as you eat it.

Finding the Right Bread

The first bread choice that comes to mind with a true Philly cheesesteak is a footlong Amoroso's roll. But it is important to recognize that there are some great cheesesteak shops in Philly that rely on other amazing locally baked hoagie rolls from bakeries like Liscio’s or Sarcone’s. The common characteristics with these hoagie roll options are that the roll is fresh (never toasted), with a soft and slightly chewy interior and a very thin crispy and lightly browned crust. The exterior of the roll should not be hard, your teeth should sink through easily without the filling sliding out the back.

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If you don’t live in the Philly area and are without access to any of these noted hoagie roll brands, I recommend seeking out a local bakery that for rolls meet this description. Supermarket sub rolls are fine in a pinch, but they tend to be a little too soft and squishy, and the bottoms might “melt” away from the hot meat filling. While most store-bought cheesesteaks will weigh in at a foot long or even longer, I’ve developed this recipe around a standard 7 to 8-inch long roll that is more widely available for homecooks and will also fit more easily in a skillet.

Bringing It All Together

As I mentioned earlier, onions are a must with my cheesesteaks. When you order a cheesesteak out, the onions are usually chopped and cooked separately until glossy and browned, then scooped on top of the meat to order. It's important to note that these are not sweet buttery caramelized onions, but instead griddled onions that retain some of their texture and allium bite, and can hold up to the rich meat.

For my home version, I wanted to retain this “griddled” onion texture and flavor, but I found there was no need to cook the chopped onions separately. The onions reached proper doneness when tossed in and cooked through with the sliced steak. The onions, rib eye, and cheese end up well combined for one harmonious bite.

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If you’ve ever been lucky enough to peek at a professional flat top in action during cheesesteak assembly, you have witnessed sandwich artistry at its finest. Mounds of the cheesy meat are perfectly lined up to match the length of each hoagie roll before even more cheese is shingled over top, melted, then effortlessly flipped into the bread. This sandwich construction method has a very real purpose. The melted layer of cheese that started on top of the steak serves as a protective barrier once flipped, to become the bottom of the sandwich (which also means it can be somewhat obscured by the beef on top—don't think the cheese isn't there just because you don't see all of it). This layer of cheese prevents the bread from immediately turning soggy from the drippy beef filling. With admiration for how the pros build a cheesesteak, I’ve written this flattop assembly technique into my recipe here. It’s fun to replicate at home, plus it is practical. Now that I no longer live in the Philly area, this is my go-to recipe to satisfy my homesick cheesesteak cravings.

Recipe Details

Philly Cheesesteaks

Prep25 mins

Cook15 mins

Freezing60 mins

Total100 mins

Serves2

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (454g) boneless rib eye steak or skirt steak or store-bought pre-sliced rib eye (see notes)1 tablespoon (15ml) vegetable or other neutral oil

  • 1/2 medium yellow onion (4 ounces; 114g), cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 8 thin slices provolone cheese (about 6 ounces; 160g), 4 slices torn into 1-inch pieces and 4 slices left whole

  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume

  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • Two 7- to 8-inch-long Italian hoagie/sub rolls, split lengthwise, but left attached on 1 side to create a hinge

Directions

  1. If using a whole steak, trim and cut steak crosswise with grain into roughly 3-inch wide sections, then set on large plate and freeze until firm but not frozen solid, about 1 hour. If using pre-sliced steak, skip to chopping instructions in Step 2.

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  2. Using a sharp knife, shave steak as thin as possible on a biased angle against the grain. Mound shaved meat on cutting board and chop coarse with knife, about 5 times for store-bought sliced meat or 10 times for hand-sliced.

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  3. Heat an empty 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add oil to skillet and heat until just smoking. Add meat and onion in an even layer and cook, without stirring, until well browned on one side, 4 to 6 minutes. Continue to cook, stirring frequently to move and pull apart the meat slices until meat and onions are browned and meat is no longer pink, 2 to 4 minutes.

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  4. Stir in torn provolone cheese, Parmesan cheese (if using), salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until cheese is melted and well combined, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off heat. Divide mixture into 2 individual portions the length of the rolls. Shingle 2 slices of Provolone cheese over each portion. Cover and let cheese melt, about 1 minute.

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  5. Center rolls, cut sides down, over each portion of meat. Working with one at a time, use a large spatula to scoop under each portion of meat and flip meat into roll to create a filled sandwich. Serve immediately.

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Make-Ahead and Storage

Absolutely not.

Special Equipment

12-inch cast-iron skillet with lid or large cast-iron flat griddle pan or plancha

Notes

While I prefer rib eye steak in this recipe, skirt steak will work just as well. You may also use store-bought pre-sliced well marbled steak found at some supermarkets like Wegmans and many Asian market chains like H-Mart. If using pre-sliced steak, still run a knife through mound of meat about 5 times at the end of Step 2.

If you have a cast-iron flat griddle pan or plancha, this is the time to use it. Position and center (over two burners if needed) for even heating of the pan.

While written for an indoor stovetop, this recipe works great in a cast-iron skillet cooked outside on a grill, which is a great way to avoid grease splatter in your kitchen. Preheat the grill as usual, then preheat the empty cast-iron skillet on a preheated grill on high heat, with lid closed, for 5 minutes. Proceed with the recipe.

Provolone cheese can range from mild to very sharp. Go with your personal preference, but the cheese should be sliced thin and melt easily. You may also substitute with equal weight Cheese Whiz or American cheese in this recipe.

This recipe can easily be cut in half to make 1 serving. Alternatively, it may also be doubled and cooked through in 2 separate batches to serve 4.

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For the Best Philly Cheesesteak, Go Hard on Provolone (2024)
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