I like the Traveling Wilburys. Composed of an all-star cast of characters hailing from much-beloved and well-known acts, nobody would argue that together they form something that's better than any of the bands they started with. But that doesn't mean they aren't worth a good listening-to now and again.
So it is with patty melts. Take the meat from a good burger, the caramelized onions off a slider, the buttery toast from a grilled cheese made with the rye bread from a good deli sandwich, and top it all with the melted Swiss from a Reuben, and you've got yourself one hell of a sandwich.
I know that without a bun, it's tough to claim that the patty melt even qualifies as a hamburger, but The Burger Lab's never been one to value nomenclature before good taste. A great patty melt should have all of its part in a state of psychedelic trance, each one subjugating its sense of self to become part of the cosmic whole. Unlike a burger, with its distinct patty and bun, a patty melt has no boundaries. The transition from buttery crust to melted onions to gooey cheese to juicy beef should be organic and inseparable, both in texture and in flavor.
So how does one build the ultimate patty melt?
Rye bread is the classic choice, and I saw no reason to stray from it. It may just be the New Yorker in me talking, but the combination of good rye bread and Swiss cheese is amongst the greatest flavors known to man.
Dark ryes like Pumpernickel or black bread are both too robust tasting and don't have the necessary structure to hold in a sandwich of such magnitude. I went with standard delicatessen white rye, a bread made from white flour flavored with rye, and the standard choice for grilled deli sandwiches, offering both flavor, and good chewy structure.
Since the bread and cheese element of the sandwich are essentially the same as a grilled cheese, why not use the standard grilled cheese method? Well there's a problem with it. It lies in the fact that because of the massive amount of air space in a slice of bread, it makes a really good insulator. That means that it takes a long time for the cheese to melt; if you're not careful, you can burn the outside of the sandwich before the center's even had the chill taken off of it. How do you solve this problem?
I learned a little trick from Adam: toast the inner-facing side of each slice of bread in butter before you construct the sandwich. Not only does this warm the bread, giving the cheese a jumpstart on melting and ensuring that the two fuse firmly, but it also gives you an opportunity to incorporate more butter to the melt (ain't it great that writing about bread and butter is my, well, bread and butter?)
I've got three beefs with patty melts, and only one of them is with the beef. The first is with the cheese. The problem is, it just ain't gooey enough for me. A young Swiss cheese like they serve at the deli counter has decent flavor and relatively good meltability, but it doesn't compare to the oozy quality of a good American.
Obviously, I had to up my game. For my first attempt, I tried two slices, one Swiss, one American. Better, but the general consensus was that it still wasn't quite oozy enough. Upping it to two full slices of each torn into pieces and arranged on the bread slices for maximum coverage brought the melt up to Take My Breath Away on prom night levels of cheesiness. Wir fahren nach Berlin!*
Might I suggest a permanent alliance between the Americans and the Swiss in the name of good taste?
*extra points if you call out that obscure reference in the comments.
Normally, I'm a fresh-ground beef kinda guy. But in this case, I was willing to reconsider my stance. As Ed rightfully pointed out, "even in a place that serves a bad burger, you're safe ordering a patty melt." And he's right. A burger is all about the beef. But a patty melt? It's about the integration of all the parts. The beef is there, and it offers some flavor, but honestly, if all the other elements are in place, even regular old ground chuck should serve the purpose nicely. Only tasting could tell the truth.
Store-ground chuck it would be. Rather than going for the standard round patty, I found that by forming the meat into the exact shape of the bread before cooking, it shrunk just enough that when placed on the sandwich, it left a 1/4-inch space all around the edges—the perfect size to ensure that the every bite had meat in it, without the patty hanging out over the sides, creating a neater, tastier package.
Noticing the tasty looking browned bits left behind by the patty (the fond), I started thinking: in a regular griddled burger, you press the patty down onto the skillet to maximize charring, then you lift it and place it on the bun. Signed, sealed, delivered, and push those browned bits out of your mind.
A patty melt, on the other hand, involves several different cooked elements. Is there a way that I could incorporate the tasty browned bits into the sandwich to maximize flavor? Indeed, there is—which takes me to...
Just as the sweet, meltingly soft caramelized onions form the backbone of a good slider, a patty melt relies on them to balance out the richness of the butter, meat, and cheese. By adding thinly sliced onions directly to the skillet I just cooked my burger in, the onions released enough moisture to deglaze all those browned bits, instantly upping their flavor. Normally, it takes a good 10 minutes of slow cooking to even start browning. With the help of the fond, the onions were well on their way within 30 seconds.
To further speed up the process, I used a technique I often employ when making French Onion Soup under pressure: adding water.
After a few minutes of cooking, after the juice from the onions has almost evaporated over a relatively high heat, a thin film of caramelized juices forms a patina on the bottom of the skillet. By adding a bit of water, scraping that patina up, then repeating the process—fry, brown, deglaze—several times, you can develop deep color and flavor in about a quarter of the time that it takes if you were to slow-cook them the traditional way.
Looking over at the plate where my burger was resting and seeing the small pool of exuded juices it was sitting in, I thought to myself, why use just water when I have all this flavorful liquid sitting right here?
Onions, you're not alone any more. Deglazing the pan with the meat juices ensured that every ounce of flavor went straight back into the sandwich instead of down the drain.
Assembling the patty melt was easy. I divided the deeply caramelized onions evenly on top of both halves (after cooking, I could fit a full cup of raw onions onto each sandwich!), placed the patty on top, closed the sandwich, and got ready to fry it in more butter.
Through a long personal history with grilled cheeses, I've come to realize that—just like with bacon—sandwiches should be grilled slowly. Get impatient and turn the heat up too high, and your butter starts to burn long before your bread can develop the even, golden-brown that's the hallmark of a good patty melt. Don't believe me? Take a look at the photo above.
But even after the bread was crisp and golden brown and the cheese was as gooey as one could hope for, there was still something missing—a certain childhood grilled-cheese-like taste memory that it lacked. I realized what it was.
When I was a kid, salted butter ruled the household fridge. We used it for everything from toast to frying. As I grew older and let my professional training soften me, I gradually switched over to unsalted butter, the choice of cooks, since it allows you more control over the final salt level of the dish.
This is a dish that should be decidedly salty. By sprinkling a bit of kosher salt over the melted butter in the skillet before adding the sandwich, it developed a crust that popped in my mouth with a delicious, salty kick.
And there I had it: about as good an expression of a classic burger-derived sandwich as I could hope for.
Congratulations, I finally did succeed.
For a full photo-documented breakdown of the process, check out the slideshow and recipe above.