Chopped Cheese

An “if you know you know” kind of sandwich that’s sold at New York City’s bodegas, the chopped cheese consists of broken up burger patties, sliced onions, and melty American cheese that’s loaded into a hero with lettuce and tomatoes.

Chopped cheese sandwich stacked on top of one another.
Serious Eats / Two Bites

New York City has a myriad of heavy hitting sandwiches: We’re home to the legendary bacon, egg, and cheese, we’ve got some mean pastrami on rye, and, of course, there’s the chopped cheese. Though not as well-known as the BEC, the chopped cheese is just as beloved among New Yorkers—an “if you know you know” kind of sandwich that’s sold at bodegas, the city’s iconic corner stores. It generally consists of hamburger patties and sliced onions that are cooked on a griddle; the mixture then gets chopped up and topped with slices of melty American cheese before it’s loaded into a hero or roll with tomato slices, shredded lettuce, and whatever condiments your heart desires. Wrap that baby up, and you’re in for something beautiful.

Before we dive into what makes a great chopped cheese, let’s get a few things straight.

  1. Chopped cheese isn't a Philly cheesesteak nor is it similar. This is New York, not Philly, bro!
  2. It might remind you of a cheeseburger, but it’s not. It’s better. Fight me.
  3. Once we add truffles, blue cheese, and balsamic-glazed red onions we are no longer in chopped cheese territory. Those fancy-pants ingredients may make a tasty sandwich, but it’s certainly not chopped cheese.
  4. Chopped cheese is food for the people. Once it costs more than $12,  it’s for the 1%. That's hella capitalism.

Key Ingredients for Perfect Chopped Cheese

Some of the city’s best sandwiches come from the humble bodega, and the chopped cheese is no exception. It’s a bodega classic, the ideal meal after a late night out when all you want is something greasy and satisfying. But what makes a truly excellent chopped cheese, and how do you make one that’s just as good—if not even better—than the one sold at your local corner store? With chopped cheese readily available just down the block, New Yorkers may not need to make their own. But if you’ve ever lived in the Big Apple and want to recreate the sandwich, here’s everything you need to make a bodega-worthy chopped cheese.

Chopped cheese on foil on top of red and white sandwich paper.
Serious Eats / Two Bites

The Meat

Dry beef? No, thanks. Like a good burger patty, you want to use beef with a higher fat ratio to ensure the meat is tender and juicy after it’s cooked. Using 80/20 ground beef provides just the right amount of fat. Ground chuck, which typically falls in this range, is a good option here; it’s what Kenji recommends for his classic smashed burgers, too. As for the cook on the beef, we’re aiming for well-done. A medium-rare chopped cheese just isn’t something New Yorkers do, nor is it possible—in order for the sandwich and its fillings to really meld together, it’s essential to wrap the sandwich in foil after you assemble it so the residual heat can help glue the chopped cheese together. Even if you manage to leave the beef pink, it’s unlikely it’ll stay that way after it’s been wrapped. There’s a time and place for medium-rare meat, and it’s not here.

The Seasoning

When I think of chopped cheese, sazón or adobo come to mind. The two have similar flavor profiles: With a blend of cumin, coriander, garlic, oregano, annatto, and salt and pepper, sazón lends an earthy and slightly floral note to the ground meat and onions. Adobo, on the other hand, calls for paprika in place of annatto, and brings a sweet, smoky, and savory flavor. If you don’t have sazón or adobo, you can use garlic powder and onion powder for extra flavor, it just won’t taste the same.

The Bread

Hero or roll? It depends on your hunger level. A hero is much heftier; it's about twice the size of a roll, so if you’re ravenous or want leftovers, that’s the move. But if you’re looking for a quick bite or something to eat on-the-go, the roll is the way to go. 

American Cheese Only, Please

There’s only one cheese that’s acceptable here and it’s American. In all my years of eating chopped cheese in New York, this is the only cheese I’ve come across in the sandwich. Its meltability and gooeyness—a texture some might even describe as “plasticky”—is truly unrivaled, and its creaminess complements both the savory beef and the freshness of the tomatoes and lettuce. Is it the best cheese to eat on its own? No. Is it the best cheese for this sandwich? Yes.

Cheese melting on top of ground beef in a cast iron skillet.
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How to Cook It Right

Attempting a New York classic at home might be intimidating, but it’s really quite straightforward—and requires just a single cast iron skillet. After you melt the butter and toast the buns, you’ll cook the thinly sliced onions until they soften, then push them aside to fry the patties. You want to give the patties a chance to develop a nice, dark crust, so it’s essential to let them sit for about 3 minutes before you flip them and cook the other side. Next comes the crucial part: chopping it all up until the meat is in bite-size pieces. Stir in the onions, season it all with sazón, then separate them into two piles. Slap those cheese slices on, and once they’ve melted, you’ll load it all into the toasted bread with tomatoes and lettuce.

The Importance of Wrapping

So you’ve cooked the chopped cheese and you’d like to take a bite. But wait a minute—there’s one step left, and it’s wrapping it all up in foil. Though wrapping may not seem like a big deal, it’s crucial to bundle up your chopped cheese tightly in foil to trap the residual heat and steam. This keeps the sandwich hotter for longer and guarantees that the cheese—the glue holding the sandwich’s contents together—melts properly. It also steams the bread, softening it just enough that it's pillowy and tender, not cold and stale. Some delis use a combination of both parchment and foil, but that isn’t necessary. Parchment gets (and stays) wet easily, and can make it more difficult for you to eat your sandwich. For ease and practicality, foil is the way to go.

If you live in New York City where you can just buy a chopped cheese, you might not be inclined to make this sandwich. But for anyone who doesn't live in the Big Apple and wants to see what the hype is all about, consider giving this recipe a try. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Bread for chopped cheese.
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Chopped cheese on foil.
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Divide meat into 2 even portions, about 4 ounces (115g) each. Form into two 4-inch patties. Season patties liberally with kosher salt and pepper, transfer to a plate, and set aside. 

Two burger patties on a plate,
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In a 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet, heat butter over medium heat until melted. Place buns cut side down and toast, one at a time, until lightly golden, 2 minutes. Set aside.

Buns toasting on a cast iron skillet.
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In the now-empty skillet, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions, season with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.

Onions cooking in a cast iron skillet.
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Using a heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon, push onions to one side of the skillet and add the patties to the empty side of the skillet. Cook without moving, until a dark crust develops, about 3 minutes. Using a spatula, carefully flip patties and cook until dark brown crust develops on second side, about 1 minute. Using the spatula, stir in the onions and sazón while breaking up patties until meat is chopped up into bite-sized pieces no larger than 1/2 inch. Cook until meat is no longer pink, 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Making chopped cheese in a cast iron skillet.
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In the pan, divide ground beef and onion mixture into 2 individual portions the length of the rolls. Shingle 2 slices of American cheese over each portion; allow cheese to melt, 1 to 2 minutes.

Putting cheese on top of ground beef mixture in a black cast iron skillet.
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To Assemble: On a clean work surface, lay out a 16-inch wide piece of aluminum foil or parchment paper. Place toasted roll, cut side up, onto foil at a bias. Dress bread with desired condiments, fill with meat and onion mixture, and top with tomato slices and lettuce. Close sandwich and wrap tightly with foil. Using a serrated knife, halve the sandwich crosswise, and serve immediately. 

Assembling and slicing chopped cheese.
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Special Equipment

Rimmed baking sheet, cast iron skillet, heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon, aluminum foil or parchment paper, serrated knife

Notes

The recipe can be doubled to serve 4.