Food & Drink

How to Choose the Best Cheese for Any Burger

Yesterday, I read an article that claimed brie was the “best” cheese to put on your burger. I was, frankly, a little stunned. I’m a big fan of brie, and a big fan of a big pan of brie, but the “best” burger cheese it is not.

“Best” is a weird word to begin with. A lot of food writers will claim that their favorite thing is the “best,” because it is our job to generate clicks, and nothing gets clicks like low-stakes disagreements. (I’m sure I’m guilty of this!) But favorites are a matter of preference and context, and taste is hard to prove.

The writer of the article had tried a wide variety of cheeses, including brie, cheddar, blue, American, mozzarella, provolone, Swiss, and a plant-based “gouda,” giving each a “melting score” and “flavor score.” Setting aside the fact that there are variations within each of these cheeses—cheddar alone has a ton of variation from block to block—that’s just not enough cheese to call this a complete study. No pepperjack, no gouda (save for the plant-based, which is not gouda), no havarti, no low-moisture mozz—it’s just not a big enough sample size to be complete. But that’s beside the point: The “best” burger cheese depends on the burger you’re making. The cheese on a cheeseburger should complement, not compete, with the meat.

The cheeseburger vs. the burgercheese

Before you choose a cheese for your burger, you as yourself a question: “Do I care about this meat or am I just in it for the cheese?” or “Are we making a cheeseburger or are we making a burgercheese?” The focus of a cheeseburger is still the burger; in a burgercheese, the meat is there for substance and structure, but it fades into a supporting role, playing second fiddle to a flavorful cheese.

Both are fine, let’s just be honest about our goal. If you’re going to take the time to grind your own beef (or bison, or anything), or spend big bucks on something grass-fed and ethically raised, then form it into a thick steakhouse-style patty and cook it medium rare or smash it to get a glorious crust, it would be a shame to cover all that work up with a bloomy, mushroomy, or otherwise strongly flavored cheese. But if the meat is factory-farmed chuck that comes out of a tube, or something bland like turkey? Well then going with a more flavorful cheese makes sense, as the meat isn’t going to provide much on its own.

Meat matters

Over 90% of the time, I am going to cheese my (beef) burger with American cheese of some kind, most often white American from the deli. It melts beautifully and tastes creamy and lightly salty—not overly impressive on its own, but a perfect complement to a beefy smash burger with a golden-brown crust.

But let’s say you’re making lamb burgers. Lamb has a much stronger flavor than beef, and some people like it more than others. If you like the taste of lamb, but want to temper it a little, this might be a good time for a stronger-tasting cheese, like blue, or a funky Swiss, or an earthy, mushroomy brie. If you love lamb, and want to highlight it, you might want to reach for something milder like havarti, or omit (gasp) the cheese altogether.

Turkey burgers are almost the inverse of lamb burgers. Though you can coax some flavor out of them by smashing and browning the heck out of them, they’re one of the blander burgers. Brie would be incredible on turkey burger, as would a super sharp cheddar (bonus if you blend it into mayo to give it a creamier texture). American would also be good, provided you added extra flavor with a tangy mustard, and maybe some grilled onions to get a little more Maillard browning in there. It’s all about balance and context.

Think holistically

When I first read the offending article, I did what I always do when I have even a mild emotional reaction to something and tweeted about it. Several people replied, telling me they had had brie on a burger, and that it was delicious. I do not doubt this, but that does not make brie the “best” cheese for every single cheeseburger. A burger is a meal between two buns, and the best meals are balanced.

To me, the “best” cheese for a burger is one that knows its place, and acts as a strong supporting character without pulling focus. It should also be fairly cheap (burgers are supposed to be a cheap thrill), easy to find, and usable on a wide-variety of meats and styles. It should melt well, and be equally at home on a thick steakhouse burger, or two thin and crispy smashed patties. To me, this cheese is American, which is engineered to melt well, and tastes like what you expect a cheeseburger to taste like. (A medium cheddar that melts well is also acceptable, as is havarti if you want something “fancy.”)

But if brie or some other funky cheese is part of your plan for a high-concept burger, then by all means use it. The best cheese for a burger is the one that’s best suited to the burger you want to eat, and knowing what you want to eat will help you make that decision.

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