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DIY Cheesesteak: When Central PA Just Can't Provide What a Phillies Fan Needs

Love and hate of Central Pennsylvania cheesesteaks drove me to experiment at home.

No, this is not me.
No, this is not me.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Central Pennsylvania cheesesteaks are very much a hit or miss affair, generally missing the mark in most cases.  I take (formerly) secret delight in eating the local "pizza steaks" which are, I now understand, an abomination unto God in places where cheesesteaks are taken much more seriously:

  • Beef
  • Roll
  • Cheese, usually mozzarella
  • Pizza sauce
  • All kinds of vegetable toppings, as though the sandwich is a truck garden
During the last Phillies home game that I watched on TV, I looked at people milling cheerfully around Ashburn Alley and Campo's and I craved the cheesesteak. I craved it.  And I'm 100 miles away in a market where real cheesesteaks are just not commercially available.

I thought to myself, "Damn it, I can do this. I will not be a victim."

Thus began my quest for the homemade, "DIY" cheesesteak. Come with me on my journey, Goodphighters.

The traditional steak for me consists of roll, beef, fried onions, and cheese whiz. "Whiz wit" in other words. An example of what I was trying to create is this as described in this article though I did not try to reverse-engineer "The Heater" (which is pictured). That exercise remains for later. I needed to learn to walk before I could run.

The first ingredient I needed was a bun. My baking is capable, but tends to heavy and dense. This is not the type of roll I wanted, so I outsourced it. My preferred sub roll is from Terranetti's Bakery in Mechanicsburg. It's the right size with the right height to width ratio and the texture works. It's a little puffier and less crusty than the rolls Campo's uses, but it was the tool I had.

Ultimately, I think that after "process" the most important part of a cheesesteak really is the roll. Whiz is whiz. Fried onions are fried onions. Beef (but hold this thought) is largely beef. The true make or break feature (other than the process of cooking and assembly) is the roll. From my many conversations with people about hoagie shops and cheesesteaks, it almost always comes down to whether the place has bread that you like. And when you buy it commercially, you can get the kind that you like, even if you are the kind of person (a monster) who detests Terranetti's rolls and buys another kind.

The next ingredient was the Whiz. I picked up whiz at Weis. They had only two options, Kraft and "not Kraft". I could never hope to recreate this modern marvel on my own, so it had to be boughten. I went with the Kraft, on the theory that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. I honestly have no idea if it is better or not.

Since my steak is whiz wit, I needed onions. I had a variety to choose from. Red seemed completely inappropriate. I've never seen a red onion on a cheesesteak, and I don't want to try it.  That's probably irrational, but...just...yuck. I went with white onions for this, being unsure of whether traditional would be something like a Vidalia or a regular yellow onion.

Ultimately, the onion is a product that gets buried under the fat it is fried in, the beef, the bread, and the whiz. I really don't think it makes much difference, though I like knowing that they are in there. Especially knowing that they'd be fried up in my hoarded bacon fat.

Bacon fat deserves a minor digression.

Bacon fat, folks, is the greatest thing for cooking. The greatest. Not the healthiest, perhaps, but the greatest. It has a high smoke point. It loves my cast iron pans. They love it. The bacon fat reservoir has a lovely aroma when it is opened, providing me with Vaseline-lensed remembrances of fried, cured pig bellies of the past. It is also a "free" byproduct for me which would otherwise go into the trash.

I harvest my own humanely-sourced, organic, free-range bacon fat from the kitchen in my house after... cooking bacon. That is, on its own, a reason for using it. IT REQUIRES YOU TO MAKE BACON BEFORE YOU CAN POSSESS AND USE IT. Try buying bacon fat in a jar in the store. Go ahead...try it.

When done making the bacon, I let the fat cool a bit, and I pour it into a coffee filter over a small steel bowl. After it filters through, I pour the fat into a reused sorbetto container usually (but not always) after it has cooled enough to avoid melting the plastic. My container, pictured below, has a partly-melted "waist" to remind me of the danger of being impatient.

Then, when done filtering and storing the bacon fat, I savor the dregs in the coffee filter by chewing on bits of the filter like a snuff pouch to suck out the delightful, residual salty pig fattiness. Actually, I don't, but I've thought of doing it. Let he who is among us who has not thought of this be the first to cast a stone.

The bottom line here is that if you have not savored the delights of the conserved, repurposed bacon fat, you have not lived. And your onions and cast iron pans secretly plot against you.

Yes, I possess over 1 pint of bacon fat, as I have multiple containers. I consume them, as best I can, on a FIFO basis, as I am not sure, ultimately, how long it will keep in the fridge. It's never smelled "off" to me, or had any ill effect other than on my waistline and probably my cholesterol, but I do not know the "keep time" of bacon fat. The secret is to apparently use it generously so that problem remains perpetually academic.

The onions and the fat enjoyed their play date on my cast iron pan:

As these cooked down, I was more or less simultaneously dealing with my remaining ingredient, the beef.

Other than the roll, the beef is probably the next most important ingredient. The quality of the raw material, the texture, and the cooking all need to be right, or the product will be disappointing. I like texture to my steaks, so supremely thin slices chopped to an undifferentiated protein mass just will not work for me. Nor do I want thick hunks of steak. There's a balance here. And pressed patty-like steak things? Fuck. That. Shit.

Some of you may suspect that I would go outside, punch a steer in the head, and use my pocket knife to shave off what I need. That is not a fair or accurate picture, though I appreciate your romanticized version of life to the west of the Susquehanna River and I do not discourage that view, if only because it keeps most people east of the river. That's honestly better for everyone anyway.

In fact, I get part of a steer each year from the local farmer which is processed by the local butcher which is then eaten by the local me. With a friend, I split a "half of a half" (people sometimes say "quarter" but technically that is incorrect). This ends up being dressed out at about 185 pounds of edible beef products, though not trimmed in as fancified a way as you would see at a grocery store.

The farmer got $2.45 a pound this year and the butcher got about $0.75, though there was some extra for the cost of making burger patties. The butcher fee includes 1/4 of the "kill" fee for the steer. In York County, mammalian life is evidently cheap, as it costs about $50.00 a head for someone to kill the steer, dress it, and deal with the hide and inedible bits. I have no idea, I don't ask. I'm sure the hides are sold and the rest is used somehow. I live in the part of the country that delights in things like "puddin" and "scrapple."

Something you may not know is that each steer tastes slightly different.  I view this as kind of a yearly "vintage." It isn't a huge difference, but you notice it. Bovine muscle tissue is not a completely uniform, homogeneous product. My favorite steer in recent memory, for what it is worth, is the one slaughtered and processed in February 2015. I was very sad to see him disappear from my chest freezer. I've never had a "bad" beef, but there are definitely differences. Beefy nuances. I find this is  particularly noticeable in the cuts like arm roasts that require longer cooking.

The processor makes something of a difference, too, though not flavor-wise. The processor I use now makes the chipped steaks just...a little...too thick. We'll talk about that this winter. As a result, when I open a package of chipped steaks, I have to chop them up so that I don't end up pulling the sandwich apart by biting on a piece that just keeps coming and coming. The folks from three years ago and before (they got out of the biz) had it down to a science. I miss them.

In any case, if you have a local farmer and butcher, I strongly suggest making use of them, especially if you have a chest freezer and a family. My beef costs out at about $3.20 per pound for a local product that is raised humanely with a pasture and everything. Local people get all the money, and large chain stores get nothing. I also get amazing soup bones, the heart, and beef tongue. I was grossed out at first by the heart and tongue and gave them away until I learned how to use them and found out that I actually like them.

Out of the "nice white package" my beef looked like this:

Following some chopping, it was tossed into another cast iron pan heated to a fair temperature and with a sheen of bacon fat, and it looked like this:

I'm always kind of a wuss with the temperature of my pan, and I think it was a little low. Next time, I'll crank it up more aggressively to sear the meat more. It cooked off a bunch of moisture and the effect was almost like boiling it little. I drained it and turned it up. It didn't turn out badly, but I'll be more aggressive with the heat in the future. I might also try to let the meat dry a bit before cooking it.

While the beef cooking was going on, I decided to pre-cheese the roll. I toasted it under the broiler a bit to warm the bread to take the whiz and to crisp the roll a bit. The toasted bread also deals with moisture a little better.  Campo's wipes the whiz on the roll with a spatula before putting anything else in it. That makes a lot of sense, so I copied the practice.  Once again, I was a little tentative. I had a bit of a light hand with the whiz, and I'll be more aggressive next time. You can't be tentative when making a cheesesteak, apparently.

Here's what it looked like:

You can see that the broiler scorched the roll a bit. Too many irons in the fire, but everything came together at about the same time, and I did final assembly:

Look at that. I made that.

It was not better than Campo's, but it was my first effort at making one like them. I needed a bit more heat on the beef from the start and more whiz, but it was more than passable. It was damn good, in fact.

This is not rocket science, but it isn't easy to replicate a commercial process at home. Businesses make everything "fit together" and train their employees in a certain way of doing things. I had none of that benefit, and it was a bit herky-jerky. The end product though? Whiz wit.

And I did it. And maybe central Pennsylvania needs a cheesesteak joint.