When to Add Cheese to Your Burger?

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
Cheese melting on burger

It’s an open secret that cheese makes everything better. Especially when it comes to building the perfect burger. Seriously, I dare you: try to name one person who doesn’t like melted cheese on a juicy burger!

Enjoying burgers is one thing; making them is another. When talking to others on the topic, one of the questions I often get asked is, “When should I add the cheese to it?”

Generally speaking, there are two ways to add cheese to a burger. One is slightly before the patty is done cooking; the other is shortly after you’ve placed it on the bun.

Some cooks will lay a slice of cheese on top of their burger 2-3 minutes before it’s fully cooked. This melts it and blends its aroma and flavor with that of the meat, resulting in the gooey burger that many of us love so much.

If you try this technique on the outside grill, it’s a good idea to close the lid as soon as you add the cheese to the burger. That way, it will come out better melted and slightly smoked thanks to the circulating hot air in your grill.

You can achieve a similar effect on your stove by steaming the cheese on the burger. Simply wet your hand under running water, sprinkle a few drops of it around the burger in the hot pan, and close the lid.

Just remember to mind the cooking time. In my experience, you can easily overcook a patty if you focus excessively on getting the perfect melt on the sliced cheese that you’ve laid on top of it.

Melting cheddar as I pan-fry a couple of burgers

While some swear by this technique, others say it’s not as good as everyone makes it out to be. Without a doubt, there are a few problems with it. You can go overboard and melt the cheese too much, in which case you’ll have to scrape it off your grill grates or pan—instead of splurging on it as you eat the burger.

“When you turbo-charge the melting process, all you wind up with is a burger with cheese that is melted too thinly over the top and is all folded up and congealed on the side of the burger,” sports blogger Chris Tompson wrote for Deadspin a few years ago.

“So you get a nice big cheesy bite of burger when you bite into the sides, but the middle of the burger—which should be the most delicious part—is shamefully cheese-less. And your damn grill is now covered in charred cheese scraps.”

If that’s the case, then what’s the alternative?

Bring the cheese to room temperature by taking it out of the fridge while you’re cooking the burgers. Layer the sliced cheese on top of the patties as soon as you’ve taken them off the heat, then rest them for 2-3 minutes before placing them on the buns. The cheese will melt from coming into contact with the residual heat of the meat, and the patties will cook finish cooking on the inside.

When I do this, I rest my burgers on my wooden cutting board:

Melting cheese on freshly-cooked burgers

Of course, you could always wait for the patty to cool down before building the burger and add a cold slice of cheese straight from the fridge. But then the cheese won’t melt all the way—if at all.

Does Cheese Go on the Top of Bottom of a Burger?

Where to place the cheese on a burger depends on what you’re looking to achieve when building it.

If you like your burger rare to medium and want to keep the bun from getting soggy from all of the meat’s juices, put the cheese between the patty and the bottom bun. It will melt in place and act as a gooey coating that keeps the bread from soaking the juices right up.

When you need something sticky to keep the toppings in place, put the cheese on top of the burger patty—and use it as glue for holding the lettuce and sliced vegetables in place.

What’s the Proper Way to Assemble a Burger?

Here’s a burger-building technique that I first found out (and have since adapted) from Randy Garutti’s 2017 cookbook, Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories.

Image courtesy of Christopher Hirsheimer / Random House

To assemble a classic burger, cut the buns in two. Toast the cut sides of the buns till golden brown in a lightly greased frying pan, which you’ve preheated to medium-high for 2-3 minutes in advance.

Spread ketchup on the bottom bun and add the burger patty, with the melted cheese, on top. Put the tomato slices on top of the cheese; it will help to keep them in place. Top with green leaf or iceberg lettuce.

Spread mustard or classic burger sauce on the top bun and carefully place sliced onions or sautéed mushrooms on it.

Flip the bun, close the burger, then plate and serve.

What’s the Best Cheese to Put in a Burger?

The most popular cheese for the purpose, cheddar will give your burger a nice tang and pronounced flavor. Young cheddar is typically aged 6-8 months. It has a mild texture and buttery taste. At 12-18 months, mature cheddar has a firmer texture and an intense, saturated flavor.

A blend of cheddar, Colby, and a few other cheeses, American processed cheese is creamy, salty, and will melt exceptionally well on top of a hot patty. Perhaps this is why, after cheddar, it’s one of the most common burger toppings at restaurants and in home kitchens.

Swiss cheese, Emmental, and Dutch gouda are three popular cheddar substitutes. For a funkier flavor, top your burger with blue cheese (French or Danish), gorgonzola, goat cheese, or brie.

Last but not least on the list—and kudos goes out to the reader who reminded me about it!—is provolone, a melty, mozzarella-like cow’s milk cheese from Italy.

In Conclusion

The best time to add cheese to your burger depends on how you like it the most. Some will layer a slice of cheese right before the patty is done cooking—and have it melt all over the meat. Others will bring it to room temperature and put it on top of the burger as soon as they’ve taken it off the heat.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to your—and your household’s—tastes and preferences. If you want to share how you like your burger with the rest of this post’s readers and me, leave a comment below.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.