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The Best Cheese for Burgers

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It was in 1934 that the term “cheeseburger” was first coined, on the menu at Kaelin’s restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. They topped a patty with American cheese in the hopes of adding a “new tang to the hamburger,” and this now-classic staple would soon appear everywhere from diners to backyards, all across the U.S. Over the years, the cheeseburger has morphed from its humble origins—sometimes so much that the folks at Kaelin’s probably wouldn’t recognize it as the same dish. Restaurants love to experiment with various toppings and condiments, from sautéed mushrooms and crispy onions to aioli and pickle relish, to transform the traditional cheeseburger into something new. At the core, however, the cheeseburger always relies on a ground beef base and gooey cheese topping.

Everyone seems to claim a favorite style of cheeseburger, whether it’s classic American cheese or something more adventurous, like a blue cheese burger. I decided to really put the concept to the test to find out which is the absolute best cheese to use on a burger, considering flavor and meltability.

Photo by Marissa Mullen

I used eight different cheeses for this test, including a plant-based one as a wild card:

  • American
  • Yellow Cheddar
  • Fresh Fior di Latte Mozzarella
  • Brie
  • Blue
  • Provolone
  • Emmental (Swiss)
  • Plant-Based Smoked Gouda

For this trial, I graded the cheese’s ability to melt on a warm beef patty (considering its texture and consistency once melted) and how each cheese tasted with the burger. Each cheese received a melting score and a flavor score.

For each trial, I used:

  • 2-ounce ground beef patty, seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Grill pan with lid
  • Medium-high heat
  • Burger cooked for 3 minutes on each side until browned
  • Cheese placed on the burger and the lid placed on the pan, continuing to cook over medium heat until melted (the exact time varied by type)

American Cheese

Tested: ¼-inch-thick slice of American cheese, covered and cooked for 45 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

First up we have the cheeseburger’s original, American cheese. Although this product isn’t necessarily considered “cheese” by everyone, I had to include it in the running for originality’s sake. American cheese is made by blending a cheese base (usually Colby) along with other ingredients such as cream, water, salt, spices, and an emulsifying agent. Depending on the brand, it can be rubbery, individually plastic-wrapped slices, or a creamier-textured larger slab, which can be sliced at the deli counter or at home. For this test, I used the latter. American cheese was one of the best melting cheeses, taking about 45 seconds to soften in an even layer. The flavor interacted with the juicy burger in a complementary way—not too overpowering, but buttery and decadent.

Melting Score: 10/10

Flavor Score: 8/10

Cheddar

Tested: ¼-inch-thick slice of cheddar cheese, covered and cooked for 1 minute 30 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

Cheddar didn’t melt as quickly as I thought it would, cooking for almost a full minute longer than the American slice. Once fully melted, the cheddar was dispersed evenly across the burger in a consistent texture. Like many cheeses, cheddar’s consistency is based on age. Mature cheddar (aged 1 year or more) contains less moisture, resulting in a more crumbly texture. For burgers, I suggest using a younger cheddar (aged 2 to 3 months) with a higher moisture content for easier melting, such as Cabot or Tillamook. The flavor worked well with the savory burger, adding in a sharp element to the bite. However, I wish it was a bit more creamy rather than earthy in flavor.

Melting Score: 8/10

Flavor Score: 7/10

Fresh Mozzarella

Tested: ½-inch-thick slice of mozzarella cheese, covered and cooked for 1 minute 45 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

Mozzarella was one of my favorite cheeses during this experiment. Fresh and smooth, this fior di latte is an elastic textured cheese, making for excellent melting capabilities. It melted in a way that developed a silky texture, rather than runny, like other cheeses. Cooking for about 1 minute and 45 seconds, the cheese held its own and enveloped the burger in a thick layer. Taste-wise, the mozzarella and burger combination worked wonderfully together. The creamy melted cheese was mild enough to not overpower the burger, but slightly sweet enough to add contrast to the savory meat.

Melting Score: 9/10

Flavor Score: 9/10

Brie

Tested: Two ½-inch-thick slices of Brie cheese side by side, covered and cooked for 1 minute 15 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, but Brie won the melted cheese competition in my book. With the rind still intact, these little slices melted in a gooey, creamy layer over the burger. Brie has notes of crème fraîche, cultured butter, and sometimes earthy notes of mushroom and cabbage. I typically love adding sautéed mushrooms to a burger, and Brie brought out those umami notes my palate was craving. Not to mention the texture feels like a party on your taste buds.

Melting Score: 10/10

Flavor Score: 10/10

Blue

Tested: ½-inch-thick slice of blue cheese, covered and cooked for 1 minute 15 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

In theory, I felt that blue would have been a contender for this contest. I’ve seen blue cheese on burgers across countless restaurant menus. To be honest, I wasn’t completely satisfied. It took about 1 minute and 45 seconds to melt, but the melting consistency was not ultra gooey like other cheeses tested. I usually love blue cheese paired with honey or something sweet and savory, like a bacon jam, but on the burger it was a bit too pungent and overwhelming. The cheese overpowered the details in the meat, making the flavors feel overly busy. However, if you’re a fan of very intense flavors, I’d give this one a shot.

Melting Score: 6/10

Flavor Score: 7/10

Provolone

Tested: ¼-inch-thick slice of provolone cheese, covered and cooked for 45 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

Another great melting cheese, provolone pulled through in this experiment. The texture is less creamy than American, but more buttery than cheddar. I used a younger provolone in this test, which had a smooth and mild flavor. The cheese took only about 45 seconds to melt over the burger in a soft, even layer. However, once paired with the burger, the mellow notes of the cheese were definitely overpowered by the meat.

Melting Score: 9/10

Flavor Score: 7/10

Emmental

Tested: ¼-inch-thick slice of Emmental cheese, covered and cooked for 1 minute 20 seconds

Photo by Marissa Mullen

Emmental is the cheese that’s notably referred to as “Swiss cheese” in America. With its distinctive holes (or as cheese professionals say, “eyes”), this cheese is frequently spotted on burgers during barbecue season. It took a bit longer to melt than the American and provolone cheeses, but managed to melt in a consistent, even layer. I might be biased, but I don’t love the taste of Swiss deli slices in general—I’m more of a Gruyère girl. In fact, a nutty Gruyère (a more complex Swiss cheese) would have been a better choice for this one, as the Emmental was too mild to stand up to the meaty flavors.

Melting Score: 8/10

Flavor Score: 6/10

Plant-Based Smoked Gouda

Tested: ¼-inch-thick plant-based smoked Gouda, covered and cooked for 2 minutes

Photo by Marissa Mullen

This was the wild card in my test, mainly because I wanted to see if a dairy-free cheese (I used the Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda) could actually melt. This one had some trouble. With a base of water, coconut oil, and potato starch, the plant-based cheese did not rise to the occasion. I didn’t want to overcook my burger, so I removed it from the pan after 2 minutes. Although a suitable dairy-free option for snacking, it was not the best for a burger. In addition, the melted taste was bland, only mildly smoky, and lacked creaminess.

Melting Score: 2/10

Flavor Score: 2/10

  • After testing out these various cheese styles, I marked Brie as my favorite cheese to melt on a burger. Spread the word!
  • Second place was mozzarella, followed by American cheese. (I don’t normally see Brie or mozzarella as options for burgers in many restaurants, but maybe that should be reconsidered.)
  • If you don’t eat dairy, I’d recommend doing a few taste tests of some other dairy-free styles at the grocery store for your own experiment.


Do you have a favorite cheese to melt on a burger? Will you try Marissa’s pick next time? Let us know in the comments.

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