Best of Washington: The Perfect Cheeses For Grilled Burgers

A good cheese can elevate a burger to cookout Nirvana.
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The Perfect Cheeses for Grilled Burgers

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You’ve painstakingly scraped the grill. Patiently waited for the charcoals to scald. Carefully seasoned patties of freshly ground beef. And now you’re going to cover those burgers with slices of any old Swiss or Monterey jack?

Not so fast. A good cheese can elevate your burger to cookout nirvana. What will get you the best cheeseburger? Step away from the Kraft singles.

Although there’s good reason to grab a block of cheddar come grilling season—it melts nicely, its flavor goes well with beef, and it stands up to plenty of condiments—some varieties taste better than others. Jill Erber, owner of Cheesetique (2411 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-706-5300), a cheese shop and wine bar, recommends Grafton’s two-year-extra-aged cheddar, available in most supermarkets: “It’s sharp and has some real oomph to it,” Erber says.

Cabot Creamery cheeses are another reliable grocery-store choice (look for the two-year-aged version). But in-the-know customers at Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St., NW; 202-393-6880) sign up to be notified when a shipment of Cabot’s clothbound cheddar arrives. The store gets only a few wheels of the ultracreamy cheese a year. Store manager Erica Sanford’s favorite burger mixes melted Cabot clothbound with slices of the shop’s cave-aged Gruyère.

Bleu cheese also goes beautifully with beef, especially sharper, smokier varieties that bring out the flavor from the grill. Cabrales from Spain, made from cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk, is equal parts spicy and smoky. (At Cowgirl Creamery, you’ll find Cabrales mixed with butter from Pennsylvania’s Trickling Springs Creamery, a pat of which is terrific tucked inside a burger.) On the creamier side are the Irish Cashel and St. Pete’s Select, a firm, rich bleu made in Minnesota.

Not all goat cheeses work well on the grill—the very soft, fresh versions wind up too runny—but the ones that do are wonderful. Pondhopper, a smooth, nutty goat from Oregon, melts reliably well and is washed in beer, a natural with burgers.

Sanford likes the mildly tangy Garrotxa, an aged Catalonian goat cheese, on a burger with a little barbecue sauce. And Erber says the best cheeseburger she’s ever eaten was topped with fresh tomato, bacon, and a few slices of the flavorful Capri, a hickory-smoked goat cheese from Westfield, Massachusetts.

Many of these cheeses are available at Cowgirl Creamery, Cheesetique, Wegmans (locations in Fairfax, Sterling, and Woodbridge), Balducci’s (in Alexandria, McLean, Bethesda, and DC), and Whole Foods Markets.

When it comes to condiments, use them sparingly if you’ve got a good cheese. A little butter or mayo or a palate-cleansingly acidic slice of tomato will bring out the flavor of the beef and the creaminess of the cheese. But load up on ketchup, mustard, and relish and you risk muddling the mix.

This article appeared in the July, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.  


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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.